By Khin Maung Myint
The ancient dreams of constructing a canal across the Kra Isthmus had been rekindled. A few weeks ago, there was a news item in the local media in Thailand related to the revival of the idea of building a canal across the narrow strip of land, geographically known as the Malay Peninsula, in Southern Thailand. The idea is to link the Andaman Sea on the west and and the Gulf of Thailand on the east. Only a few landlubbers or the non-seafarers, will be familiar with this matter.
The idea of digging a canal to connect the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Siam, as it was known in the old days, was first envisioned by King Narai of Siam as early as 1677. He approached a French engineer, one de Lamar, to survey the feasibility of building a waterway across the isthmus, but it turned out to be not practical with the technology of those days. It is very interesting that such an idea conceived by the Siamese King, preceded the building of the Suez Canal (1859-1869) by nearly two centuries. Then again in 1793, the younger brother of King Chakri (Rama I) revived that idea with the aim of gaining quick and easy access to the western shores of the country for military ships. That too never materialized.
In the 1863, during the British colonial rule in Burma (Myanmar), an exploration party conducted a survey to study the feasibility of building a canal across the narrowest part along the Malay Peninsula at a place known as the Kra Isthmus. It was close to the Victoria Point (Bayint Naung Ah Ngu), with the present day Kawthaung at the entrance on the shores of the Andaman Sea. In fact it was the British East India Company’s idea to have a canal cutting through the Malay Peninsular to save time and distance for their ships traveling to the Far East. Again it wasn’t realized. In 1897, the Kingdom of Siam and the British Empire agreed to drop the idea of building a canal in favour of maintaining the regional dominance of the harbour at Singapore, which was part of the British colony.
The alignment of the canal chosen by the British straddled the Siamese and the Burmese territories, measuring about 27 miles across and the elevation of the Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) Range that it would have to cut through was 246 feet above the sea level. Though that ambitious plan wasn’t implemented, the name Kra Canal still exists in the minds of most seafarers and seafaring nations until today. Since this idea of a canal was first envisaged, many later day plans were formulated by interested nations and individuals. Japan and China that stood to benefit from it were at the forefront of the interested parties.
This time around it was the residents of Trang, a province in Southern Thailand, who initiated the move. They must have thought it would benefit them economically if that scheme should become a reality. I wonder whether those people take into considerations that the times and situations have changed and that such an ambitious project will not be economically viable anymore.
Today, in my opinion, the chances of implementing that ambition is becoming more and more remote. The reason is quite apparent, because if that canal should come into existence some countries in the region stand to be affected. The hardest hit will be Singapore, which is the shipping hub of the world, as its dominance in that field would be undermined. Malaysia will be affected to a certain extent and it will also have adverse impacts on the Dawei Deep Seaport. Thus it will definitely be faced with strong oppositions.
Also, given the restive situations in Southern Thailand, the Thai government may not want to divide the country with a canal that will separate those restive provinces in the deep south from the rest of the country. It will be quite convincing to the rational-minded observers that the cons outweigh the pros of building a canal there. The expenses to implement such an ambitious project will be very exorbitant and Thailand alone will not be capable, but will need to seek foreign investments. In the past, as far as I can remember, Japan was interested to undertake the construction of the canal to by-pass Singapore and the notorious Malacca Straits, where the pirates frequently terrorize the ships navigating through those confined waters. The canal would also shorten the routes for their ships bound to and from Europe and the Middle East by about 648 nautical miles, which is quite a significant distance. For the same reasons China too was at one time interested to invest in the canal. However, their interests seemed to have waned due to various reasons and recent developments.
In support of my above analysis, I will endeavour to explain it. Lately Japan had committed to establish an economic corridor through Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar to India, which will form part of the Asian Highway. At first glance this move can be viewed as a direct response to compete with the New Silk Road or the One Belt, One Road initiative of the Chinese. However, on closer observation it can be deduced as an indication of Japan’s loss of interest in a Thai canal. Also, Japan’s interest to invest in the Dawei Deep Seaport project is another important point to take into consideration. Based on these facts it’s quite evident that Japan is more interested in an overland corridor rather than a shorter shipping route that will cost too much to invest in.
As recently as 2015, China had an interest to finance the building of that canal, which they might have intended to include it in their ambitious New Silk Road route. However, the fact that they do not include Bangkok or any other Thai sea port in their planned New Silk Road route and also the fact that they didn’t even invite the Thai head of state to their One Belt, One Road forum held in Beijing, can be viewed as a loss of interest in the idea of building the Thai Canal. Apart from that, the fact that China is now enjoying the benefits of the Kyaukpyu Deep Seaport, the fuel pipeline, the fuel storage facilities and the terminal there, which had started to deliver the much needed fuel right to their doorsteps is another reason to divert their interests away from the Thai Canal. If Thailand should go ahead with their dreams on their own, they are bound to be faced with much difficulties. The reasons? Firstly, the expenses will be exorbitant. Secondly, it will certainly be met with opposition at home and from some fellow member countries of the ASEAN. Thirdly, due to the presence of the mountain range running athwart the canal alignment, it cannot be a sea-level canal like the Suez Canal that was dug through flat and level terrain.
It must be constructed like the Panama Canal, which requires locks to lift the ships and move them through the canal from a certain elevation above the sea level. Such a construction will be very complicated. Last but not least, a canal cutting across the land bridge will divide the country in two and with the unrest in the deep south it will not be advisable from the security point of view.
Thus for these reasons my belief is that the idea of a Thai canal is not viable and hope that the Thai authorities concerned will view it from the same perspective as mine and should abandon it. To sum up, I doubt that the Thai Canal, as it is referred to because the latest proposed location had been shifted farther south and doesn’t pass through the Kra Isthmus anymore, will ever become a reality.
Reference: Dates, data and maps obtained from Wikipedia.
(This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as an endorsement by the Global New Light of Myanmar.)
By Khin Maung Myint