Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has a particular fixation on “innovation”. His government has placed a high priority on upgrading infrastructure in all dimensions – air, land and sea – to support the country’s long-term economic growth. This year alone, despite huge budget pressure exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Prayut government has allocated a budget of 1.4 trillion baht for 13 existing and 24 new transport infrastructure projects. This includes parts of the much-delayed high-speed rail project linking Thailand to China via Laos.
As part of air infrastructure development, the government has invested 1.9 billion baht to build a brand new international airport in Betong district of Yala province in the predominantly Malay-Muslim southern border region of Thailand. Construction of the airport on approximately 360 acres of land began in 2017. After several delays, the facility was officially opened on March 14 this year.
Betong Airport, as Prayut’s official Facebook page points out, is intended to be “more than just an airport”. It is meant to open a door of opportunity for the three southernmost impoverished provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, which have been locked in economic stagnation since the escalation of the more than a century-old ethno-religious conflict in 2004. There is already an existing airport for commercial use in Narathiwat. However, given the mountainous terrain and winding roads of the region, it takes a long time to travel from Narathiwat to the other two provinces. Having another airport in the Thai border district of Betong would thus improve the connectivity of the Deep South with the rest of Thailand and neighboring ASEAN countries.
Betong is arguably the most ideal tourist destination in the Deep South, thanks to its unique cuisine, long history of multiculturalism, natural wonders and iconic landmarks, including the longest footbridge in Southeast Asia. The Prayut government has branded Betong a “tourist model town” as part of the national development plan to revitalize the insurgency-stricken region. If peace talks between the Thai government and the strongest insurgent group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), continue uninterrupted, more Thai and Southeast Asian travelers are expected to come to Betong. . The war in Europe and rising travel costs in the post-pandemic world (including COVID testing and insurance costs as well as expensive airfares) will further discourage people from traveling to long-distance destinations, but Thailand hopes to attract visitors from its neighboring countries.
Along with increased tourist arrivals, cross-border trade in accordance with the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT) cooperation is expected to expand. Ultimately, Betong’s economic growth will benefit the Deep South region as a whole. This, in the long run, will help alleviate local grievances and create a sense of belonging among the marginalized Malay-Muslim population, thereby reducing local support for the insurgents.
This all sounds very promising, until the practicalities are discussed. The disturbing reality is that Betong Airport has a short (1,800m) and narrow (30m) runway, making it only accessible to ATR-72 or Q400 turboprop aircraft. To make matters worse, Betong Airport does not have a fuel station, which means turboprop planes from Bangkok will either have to stop at another airport to refuel, or bring their own fuel tanks on board, which will reduce the number of places available. In any case, the airlines have no choice but to significantly increase their plane tickets to maintain their profitability, which obviously will not sell well. This explains why low-cost carrier Nok Air abruptly canceled its Bangkok-Betong flights indefinitely just two days after the airport officially opened. Without government subsidies, it will be extremely difficult to get airlines to add Betong to their route network.
The foreseeable problems above, along with reports from several Thai media – Bangkokbiznews, Nation Online and Thansettakij – that Betong Airport lacks sufficient funds to cover operating costs, stand in stark contrast to the sophisticated bamboo design. of the airport. This imbalance has exposed the Thai government’s overemphasis on appearance and raised issues of corruption.
And, fundamentally, peace is a prerequisite for economic development. As long as the Deep South is perceived as dangerous, most people will be reluctant to travel there, regardless of accessibility. Just last week, in the context of the Thai government and the BRN ceasefire agreement for Ramadan, bomb attacks killed a fisherman and injured three Explosive Ordnance Disposal officers in Pattani. An armed unit from the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), which was excluded from the peace talks, was behind the attack. This latest violence reveals the fragility of the peace process in the Deep South. Unless there is a major narrative shift to be more inclusive, build more trust, and show more willingness to compromise on all sides, a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Deep South is not an option.
At this point, it is still too early to discount the significance of Betong Airport. Significant activities will have to wait for the full removal of border restrictions related to COVID-19. That said, it’s clear that the fortunes of the airport will hinge on the Thai government’s ability to address lingering operational challenges and the direction of the peace talks.