Conference urges feasibility study on Kra Canal

Engineers, retired politicians and bureaucrats urged the Thai government to conduct a feasibility study on building the Kra Canal, a waterway to link the Indian and Pacific Oceans, at a conference in Bangkok last week, claiming it would help drive growth throughout the entire Southeast Asian region.

The “International Conference on the Thai Canal” was the first major public gathering on the project in nearly two decades, and the opening speech was delivered by Minister of Commerce Apiradi Tanatraporn. A group pushing for the project called the Thai Canal Association was behind rebranding the waterway as the Thai Canal as opposed to the Kra Canal, the name it has borne for centuries. They are pitching it as the “New Gateway to Maritime Silk Road.”

Among those in attendance were engineers from the King Mongkut Institute of Technology along with experts from China, Japan, Egypt and representatives from the European Association for Business and Commerce.

Proponents of the canal said it would speed shipping by creating a quicker route for vessels than navigating around Singapore, allowing ships to avoid the pirate-infested waters of the Malacca Straits, and spurring higher economic growth not just in Thailand but in the entire Southeast Asian region. Detractors, however, question whether those results can be achieved to the degree claimed by the canal advocates.

Advocates claimed that the United States supported the idea of building the canal half a century ago and was considering helping Thailand to undertake the project until a change in the Thai government of that time led to the project being shelved indefinitely.

Named after the Isthmus of Kra, a narrow region on the southern peninsula of Thailand, the idea for the canal was first proposed during the reign of King Narai of Ayutthaya in the mid-1600s. The dream of building the canal has cropped up periodically ever since, leading some to refer to it as ‘world’s longest delayed infrastructure project’. Those who favor the canal say that kind of delay does not mean the idea is not sound.

Pakdee Tanapura, an advisor to several past Thai governments and an author of a book on the canal, pointed out that the idea for the Panama Canal originated nearly 100 years before it was built, and Napoleon Bonaparte originally floated the idea of building a tunnel to connect the European mainland to Great Britain, which now exists. Those ideas took so long to come to fruition because neither the finances nor the engineering expertise were available when they were first proposed.

“Even if the current government considers itself a caretaker government that is disinclined to commit to such a mega-project, we should still push for the feasibility study now because it is long overdue,”said Gen. Pongthep Tesprateep, chair of the Association and once an advisor to former Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont.  “I want to build momentum from the ground up.”

While the technology clearly does exist at this point to build the canal, finances are still questionable. The government has already committed tens of billions of dollars to developing the Eastern Economic Corridor in conjunction with the private sector. The estimated price tag for the canal is roughly $55 billion. The feasibility study alone would cost an estimated $2 billion, according to some experts.

But with Thai economic planners committed to finding new sources of growth and means of stimulating the economy, the canal may be an idea whose time, if not imminent, is finally on the horizon.