A New Airport Has Villagers Raging...And Businessmen Learning Patience

They thought it was the deal of a lifetime. Thirty years ago, most villagers in the Nong Ngu Hao area of Samut Prakan on the outskirts of Bangkok were happy to take the few hundred dollars the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) offered for their land, along with the promise of jobs in the Second Bangkok International Airport.

Three decades later, the villagers are still waiting to be relocated, because the airport has been bogged down in a bureaucratic and political morass. It is now scheduled to be finished in 2000, relieving crowding at the existing airport, Don Muang. The canal-laced land of rice paddies and orchards is worth millions of dollars.

VIOLENT PROTESTS. Now the villagers want a new deal. "I expect there will be some trouble when it is time to move," says Serm Khesorn, a grizzled 65-year-old, the elected kamnan (headman) of three villages.

Such troubles are all too familiar in Thailand as it turns into the assembly plant of Southeast Asia. Even farmers and fishermen are becoming politicized as the construction of power plants, roads, and other projects rends the fabric of rural society. Government dam projects have sparked violent protests, such as one at the Pak Mool Dam on the Mool River in late 1994 and early '95.

As iamnan, Khesorn is in a delicate position. He is a government official who acknowledges the need for the airport, but he must also listen to the locals. The 2,000 families now live in an area totaling around 3,200 hectares. They will be relocated to a dense, urban-style housing project on a 117-hectare plot near the airport.

Some villagers are demanding either one hectare of land upcountry or $40,000 per household. "That amounts to a few million dollars in a $2 billion [airport] project," Khesorn says. He sold his 10 hectares of land 30 years ago for about $40 per hectare. According to a report by the project's planners, land in the airport area in 1993 ranged from $40,500 to $1 million per hectare.

Khesorn's consolation is that the CAA has pledged his family jobs in the new airport. He is not so sure about other families: "The government promised there would be 300,000 jobs created by the airport, and that they would go to people in this area." Not all villagers, however, are interested in those jobs. "What could I do?" asks a shopkeeper in Nong Phuea, a dusty, palm-tree-lined village. "I'm 39 years old. I can't do construction work."

"We've offered to hire villagers as janitors or to do upkeep in the new terminals, but they're not interested," says Sopha Rojnuckrin, deputy managing director of the Airports Authority of Thailand (AAT). "They say the $6-a-day salary isn't enough, but maybe by 2000 it will seem more attractive."

Despite the displays of people power in Thailand, Khesorn remains pessimistic. "It's impossible for villagers to go against the government," he says. "Some people will demonstrate. The police will come and clear away the land. Then it will be over."

Murphy/Jahn-Tams-ACT thought it had a deal. The U.S.-based architectural consortium was named last January as the winner of a commission to design the passenger terminal of the new airport. Then it watched the deal slowly unravel.

The firm won the job with a bid of nearly $40 million. Soon afterwards, however, the AAT announced the budget was only $25.6 million. Murphy/Jahn said it couldn't do the job for that amount, so new bids were called. That opened the door for France's Aeroports de Paris, which had lost in the first round.

ACT Consultants, a Thai member of the U.S. consortium, dispatched its managing director, Wanchai Vimuktanon, to persuade the Americans to try again. The Thai firm agreed to take a smaller share of the profits. Meanwhile, the government upped the project's budget to $34 million.

On Apr. 18, the AAT once again awarded the job to Murphy/Jahn. Its bid was $31.6 million, while Aeroports de Paris came in at about $33.4 million. Now the consortium plans to bid on similar projects in Vietnam and Cambodia, according to Songhkram Somboon of ACT Consultants. The vagaries of doing business in Thailand will be a good primer for navigating Indochina's other murky commercial byways.

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