Opposition to an airport in Koh Phangan, a mountainous, beach-fringed island in the Gulf of Thailand, can be traced back to May 2004. At this time, three years after rumours surfaced that an airport was planned on the island, reporters for Koh Phangan Island News spotted three protest signs on trees along the west coast between the villages of and Srithanu and Wok Yum. One of the signs read“Rau Mai Au Sa-Naam Bin Thi Nii” which means “We don’t want an airport here!” Another sign read “Thi Choo Ruea – Mai Chai Thi Choo Ruea Bin”, meaning “This is a port for boats and not for airplanes!”
By 2015 it was reported that the noew airport could be complete by 2016. Koh Phangan is already a popular tourist destination with many resorts along its coastline and is particularly renowned for its regular full moon parties attracting thousands of revellers. In July 2015 it was reported that Kannithi Aviation Company Limited, also known as Kan Air, a small airline owned by businessman Somphong Sooksanguan, was planning to spend USD28.1 million on the new airport, envisaging that the new facility would handle approximately 600,000 passengers annually. The rationale for the new airport was that direct flights to the island would make it more accessible to visitors than the established routes: flying to Surat Thani Airport on the mainland then taking a ferry, or flying to the neighbouring island of Samui, just 5 kilometers south of Koh Phangan then taking a short boat ride.
The site of the planned airport is on the east coast of the island. Forested land was cleared for the project. InSeptember 2015 Surat Thani deputy governor Ouaychai Innak stated that an inspection by forestry officials had discovered that preparation of land for construction of Koh Phangan Airport had encroached on about 20 rai (3.2 hectares) of forested land in Than Sadet-Koh Phangan National Park. Mr. Ouaychai instructed Kan Air to suspend construction of the airport, saying that three working panels would be established to investigate the matter and that officials were examining the origins and issuance of two land documents held by Kan Air. In May 2017 environmental officials halted construction of the airport after finding that part of the land that had been cleared for the project is within a designated forest reserve. The total land area being prepared for airport construction was 150 rai (24 hectares).
Officials were doubtful of approval for construction in spite of the land caretaker presenting a Sor Khor 1 document informing officials of land occupation and a Nor Sor 3 Khor document which is granted to certify land use. According to an inspection it was suspected that the Nor Sor 3 Khor document had been unlawfully issued for 81 rai (13 hectares) of land while another 40 rai (6.4 hectares) of land was allegedly occupied by the project without permission. The irregularities prompted the Royal Forest Department to prepare to withdraw approval for the project operator and ask the Department of Special Investigations to look into the issue. Forestry authorities lodged a complaint against Kannithi Aviation Company Ltd in June 2017, for allegedly clearing 42 rai (6.7 hectares) of forest reserve land, cutting down trees, to build Koh Phangan Airport, causing damage estimated to cost the state about USD85,000. Somkid Jiewkok, head of the Surat Thani Forest Protection Unit 6 which has responsibility for Koh Phangan and the neighbouring island of Koh Samui, said: “Land title deeds for some land could be unlawfully issued to the company operator. Those documents will be thoroughly examined by the Lands Department.” He added that land documents that had been acquired unlawfully would be revoked.
In October 2017 a website about Koh Phangan airport, kohphanganairport.com, while noting that no work on the airport had taken place for over two years since officials discovered the encroachment on forest, speculated that illegality and Kan Air’s lack of funds might not constitute insurmountable barriers to resumption of construction work. An opinion piece stated that:
‘The law is not an insuperable obstacle in Thailand…National Park land has been encroached upon before. The authorities are often slow to clear the land, and sometimes have a de facto rather than de jure approach to public land management…It is unwise to speculate but it is also perhaps premature to completely dismiss the possibility of an airport being built on Koh Phangan.’