Enforce land zoning laws

Following fierce criticism from civic and grassroots groups, the Charter Drafting Committee (CDC) has finally promised to include community rights clauses in the draft charter. Violent conflicts over the exploitation of natural resources still loom large, however, when the military government insists on bypassing land zoning laws to back environmentally destructive industries.

The CDC has done the right thing by listening to people on the ground. The military government and the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) should do the same to protect the environment and public health.

Earlier this week, the CDC succumbed to public pressure by announcing it would return local communities their constitutional rights to have a say over the use of natural resources in their vicinity. Last week, the CDC also made a similar U-turn on the human dignity clause.

Both community rights and respect for human dignity were enshrined in the two previous charters, but left out in the present draft. According to the CDC, these rights have not been deleted. Instead, they have been moved to the section on the government's duty. Citizens and communities can still take the government to task for negligence if it allows state projects to violate people's human dignity and community rights. Civil society is not convinced.

Although the drafters' retreat should be welcome, it is made a mockery of by NCPO orders to revoke strict land zoning laws in order to allow power plants and other industries to be located in green areas and to bypass local opposition.

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, in his capacity as NCPO chairman, issued two orders under Section 44 to revoke city planning and land zoning laws. The first order aims to speed up the construction of coal-fired power plants and other controversial power and waste management projects. The second one was to fast-track industrial projects in 10 special economic zones.

Coal-fired power plants and special economic zones face not only fierce opposition from locals, but also many legal hurdles from strict city planning laws and regulations.

The government cited power security and better waste management to invoke the draconian Section 44 to bypass zoning laws. The orders may have succeeded in clearing legal obstacles against the construction of controversial coal-fired and waste-to-energy power plants, but the regime has apparently underestimated local opposition.

More than 100 civic and grassroots groups across the country have joined forces to stage protests and call on the prime minister to review the revocation of land zoning laws.

Environmentalists and residents are already facing uphill battles to stop the construction of coal-fired power plants in pristine natural environments and agricultural zones. The Krabi power plant, for example, is facing opposition because it will affect the world-famous Andaman Sea, destroy the livelihoods of local fishermen, and affect the tourism industry in the coastal provinces. Some special economic zones also infringe on forest reserves. To fight for their causes, they had zoning laws on their side. Not anymore.

This is a travesty. Section 44 orders show the government's gross policy bias toward the industrial sector despite clear negative impacts on the environment and public health. It bypasses people's participation and local government's city master plans. It also exposes the futility of the charter writing exercise when supposedly the highest law of the land is secondary to the military regime's orders.

Instead of threatening to arrest protesters, the government should let good sense prevail, not short-term economic gains. Protect the environment and public health, not industry's vested interests. Revoke Section 44 orders and enforce zoning laws.

Source URL: Bangkok Post