A 341-year-old idea of digging a canal across lower Thailand’s Kra Peninsula is seeing its latest resurrection. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has ordered the National Security Council and the country’s top economic planning body—the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB)—to look into the feasibility of the idea. The military government has taken the decision four years after a coup d’état and months before Thailand is due to hold elections in 2019.
SNI visited both entry-exit points in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, travelling along the so-called 9A route. Detailed video reports and interviews of the top supporters, detractors, fisher-folk, villagers along the route, analysts and Naval experts are coming soon on SNI.
Among many potential routes for the Thai-Kra Canal, ‘9A’ has become the most likely one if a green signal is given. The route is from Koh Lanta and Klong Thom districts of Krabi province on the Andaman Sea coast to the eastern seaboard in Songkhla province along the Gulf of Thailand.
The Thai Canal Association (TCA), a group of top retired military officials, supporters and businessmen, has been pushing for the canal since the 1980s and Route 9A is its brainchild. Retired General Pongthep Thesprateep, TCA Chairman and Secretary General of top royal advisor Prem Tinsulanonda’s Statesman Foundation, spoke extensively to SNI in Bangkok. “This is the right time for the canal. It’s time for (Thailand to be) a powerful nation. The canal will open the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. It may belong to Thailand by geography, but many countries, the world will benefit,” he insisted.
The logic being put forward is an alternate, shorter and cheaper route to the already congested Straits of Malacca. The canal, its supporters say, will save approximately 1,200 kilometres for ships that currently must travel through the Straits of Malacca—the world’s busiest maritime area where an estimated 84,000 ships, accounting for around 30 per cent of global trade, pass each year. The World Bank has projected that the volume could increase to over 140,000 per year in the next decade though the narrow strait currently has the capacity to handle 122,000 ships. The idea is also to allow Very Large Crude Containers (VLCC) and Ultra Large Crude Containers (ULCC) to navigate the canal. The TCA argues tankers with a maximum weight including cargo of 300,000 tonnes (Dead Weight Tonnes—DWT), a maximum length of 333 metres and a draught of 20.5 metres (depth of water needed for a vessel to float) can pass through the Straits of Malacca. The Thai-Kra Canal, they say, will allow ships with a maximum weight of 570,000 DWT, length of 460 metres and a draught of 27 metres, to make the journey much shorter and cheaper. This, supporters say, is enough for the largest ever ULCC built. These larger ships currently can’t pass through Malacca and have to go further south through the Sunda or Lombok straits. According to the TCA, the Thai-Kra canal will be 1,200 kilometres shorter than the route from the Straits of Malacca, saving two to three days of sailing time. It will save 2,800 kilometres and four to five days in comparison to the Sunda Strait. And ships will be five to six days faster travelling 3,500 kilometres less than vessels that go through the Lombok Strait.
Master Mariner Captain Bundit Sripa told SNI: “The Malacca has shallow water—the draught is 20.5 metres. The Thai-Kra Canal will be dredged deeper than that. We’ll dredge about 30 metres. So we can accommodate the biggest vessels in the world. If you can’t pass through the Malacca, then you have to go through Lombok. That will take you about three days more. It will cost too much. One of the biggest benefitters will be Indian exports of ore to China.”
One worry that has been raised though is that the canal will also allow naval ships a faster route, enabling Chinese military vessels a ramp up in projecting or using its might in the Indian Ocean.
Another supporter of the canal, Admiral Soopakorn Booranadiloak, who has served as Admiral of the Royal Thai Navy Fleet, dismissed any potential threat. “This canal will belong to Thailand. It will be its internal waters. If the Thai government stands up to all powers in the region, it won’t be a big problem. One will have to show passage with innocent intentions. It will be used for navigation only. It cannot be used as a military threat to any country,” he told SNI in Bangkok.
SNI also spoke to Former Indian Naval C-in-C of the Eastern and Southern Commands, Admiral Satish Soni who said, “India has a Navy which will be able to dominate these approaches very easily. Geography is in our favour and Chinese logistic lines will remain long. It would be in Thailand’s interest to have a multilateral approach in any development of the canal. Given the pushback against China and scaling down of infrastructure projects by Malaysia and Myanmar, Bangkok may find it politically difficult to accept Chinese dominance over this strategic waterway. Adding, “This development and indeed earlier initiatives by the PLA Navy call for bigger investment in a strong Indian Navy.”
With reports that China has been pushing for the canal and private investors are promising $30 billion in investment, there are concerns about Thailand falling into debt traps like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have. The ex-editor of the Bangkok Post, Umesh Pandey, admitted to SNI, “It’s a big concern. Everyone in the country talks about Chinese money with strings attached. It’s best if a consortium of countries invests so as not to give a particular country the upper hand. I have talked to many ambassadors. Everybody says they’re willing to participate.”
Even if external partners participate, one of the constant hurdles has been internal participation. Three provinces in the south have been seeing insurgency movements since 2004, and security concerns of the canal literally cutting the country in half have been paramount in royal and government circles. When asked if employment can affect the insurgency in the South, Pandey said, “The South accounts for barely 5 per cent of the GDP. That can totally change if the canal is built. The people in the south can benefit tremendously. A big chunk of the economy is growing rubber or producing palm oil. If this (Thai-Kra canal) materialises, it will give the south what it’s looking for—to move to a new era. Issues about insurgency are one of the biggest reasons for the delay. If and when the insurgency is tackled, the canal is only a decade away”.
On environmental concerns of dredging, port development and construction along the coast and through interior wetlands, Pandey, a Thai national of Indian origin, said, “China didn’t stop polluting the air or using coal for its growth. Progress will bring about a better environmental era for us”.
That’s an opinion that is echoed by retired General Pongthep Thesprateep, head of the TCA that is in the forefront of promoting the canal. “We can create a lot of industry and Special Economic Zones. We will have more islands from the land dredged, we will have smart cities. We will have big, deep sea ports for big ships also.” He added, quoting the current King’s father—Bhumibhol Adulyadej (Rama IX)—the world’s then longest reigning monarch who died in 2016: “Ÿou have to lose something to gain something.”
Although he is still to be coronated, whether the new monarch King Rama X, Maha Vajiralongkorn, chooses the Thai-Kra Canal to be his legacy project is what will be answered in the days, weeks and months to come. It’s an answer that can change not only global maritime routes but also world history.