The flying visit to Myanmar by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Monday had more of a look of desperation about it than confidence. It revealed deep trouble for the plan to build a deep-sea port at Dawei. The Dawei deal is short of money, backers, business confidence and popular support. Ms Yingluck deserves some credit for revealing these problems, although that was probably not her intention. She should put this undertaking on hold to allow a reset and rethink of the Dawei project.
Dawei is one of those programmes that seemed like a good idea in very tight and rarefied business-government circles. The more it has been exposed to public scrutiny, the less attractive it appears. On the one hand, it sounds like a good idea to send Thai goods on a short trip overland for shipment from Dawei, instead of routing ships for two or three days through the crowded Malacca Straits. But so does the 50-year-old plan to build the Isthmus of Kra canal.
The Dawei project has gone from enthusiasm to realism in the past year. The would-be source of funds is Japan, and it has dropped out. The would-be builder is Italian-Thai Development Plc, whose spirit has sagged in direct relation to its chances of getting reliable funding. Groups in Myanmar, Thailand and outside the region are concerned about the predictable damage that will be done. The Myanmar people have shown no enthusiasm for the claimed business prosperity, and Myanmar business circles have switched their attention to Thilawa, a planned and probably feasible economic zone near Yangon.
No one has bothered to ask the 140,000 people of Dawei how much they like the idea of a deep-sea port, planned much like the Thai eastern seaboard models of Laem Chabang and Map Ta Phut. The biggest difference is that few Thais resided in those areas in the 1980s when construction began. The second biggest difference is that there is much more attention given to the environment in 2012. If plans to build the port go ahead, so will strong opposition from Myanmar and foreign environmentalists.
Then there is the money. At first, the $8 billion seed money was to have been borrowed in Japan. But on Monday, Ms Yingluck made official what many have suspected for months. Thai taxpayers will pick up enormous guarantees to build the Dawei port. It is clear they also will finance actual construction if outside funds are not found, and so far they have not been.
To recap, business will not (or cannot) fund the construction, and neither can Myanmar. Foreign and local builders both favour the Thilawa project over Dawei. Ms Yingluck remains enthusiastic, to the point where she has decided to spend Thailand's national coffers, when Myanmar cannot or will not spend on it. The environmental damage will include tens of thousands of displaced people, harm the ecology of the marine environment for hundreds of kilometres, and cause known and unknown damage to the sea.
Clearly, as shown by the prime minister's trip to Dawei on Monday, evidence and facts are rapidly building against the Dawei deep-sea port. Ms Yingluck would help the people of Dawei, Myanmar and the reputation of Thailand by calling "time" on the project for a while. That would allow a proper study and public input on whether to build or abandon the Dawei port.