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The Prayut Chan-o-cha government is set to use Section 44 to speed up the Thai-Sino railway project.
The project is behind schedule due to legal and technical reasons.
Plans for high-speed rail travel remain in the form of models only. (File photo)
WITH SECTION 44 WILL START THIRD QUARTER OF THIS YEAR
With the use of the special power (section 44), Gen Prayut hopes the construction of railway linking Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima will start no later than the third quarter of this year.
That will be ahead of the time when he attends the Bso-called Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Xiamen, China, in September.
WHAT EXACTLY IS AGAINST THE LAW?
Section 44 consists of so-called "special powers" to break or go around existing laws.
So what exactly is the law that the military regime wishes to break or go around?
One major factor that has stalled the project is a law regarding licences of engineers.
This law requires contractors who are to work on the project to pass an exam which is in the Thai language.
In addition, projects with budgets exceeding 5 billion baht need approval from the so-called superboard in a time-consuming process.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks is the fact that the rail route will pass through areas designated as farmland, or Sor Por Kor land.
Under the land reform law, this land cannot be used for activities other than farming.
Some areas are also in national forest reserves.
Since 2014, the military regime has led a continual campaign against forest encroachers breaking very similar laws.
Now, the military regime wants to break the law itself, so it wants the law changed, but just this one time.
SECTION 44 ALLOWS MILITARY TO BREAK THE LAW WITH IMPUNITY
The prime minister hopes Section 44 will circumvent all these rules and regulationsand laws and clear the way for the project to take off.
But there are questions about this special once-off law that allows the military to break the law.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida met with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha before announcing the Mekong initiative at a speech at Chulalongkorn University on Monday. (Government House photo)
WHY NOT USE THAI ENGINEERS? WHY MAKE AN EXCEPTION FOR ONLY THE CHINESE?
To begin with, some may ask why the government needs to use Section 44 to allow Chinese engineers to be able to work on the project.
Are Thais not smart enough?
Why make an exception for Chinese engineers when there has never been an exception for other countries?
To favour one country sounds like unfair international trade practices that may actually be illegal according to international law (as well as Thai law).
Some of the other countries potentially participating in Thai rail projects include Japan (see here, here, here & here), and even Korea and France (see here).
Moreover, some may wonder about the processes involving the so-called "superboard" since this was a body set upby the military regime to make sure laws were followed and things run smoothly.
So why should there be an exception?
Why would someone turn around and break the very law that they themselves made and enforced?
MADE IN JAPAN: A 500 series Shinkansen high-speed train at Tokyo Station.
ELECTIONS COMING SOON: MILITARY GOVT ONLY A CARETAKER GOVT
Apart from this is the big question regarding checks and balances.
This administration is a caretaker government and the countdown has begun as elections are now planned in accordance with the political roadmap.
Different versions of Japan's high speed Shinkasen train. Japan was intending to build a Chiang Mai to Bangkok railway similar to the Shinkansen in Japan. (Source: Wikipedia)
IF THERE IS RED TAPE, THEN GET RID OF THE RED TAPE FOR ALL PROJECTS, NOT JUST THE CHINESE PROJECTS
If the government thinks the use of Section 44 is a solution to clear bureaucratic red tape and delays, why doesn't it try to slash red tape for good, not just for this project?
The government may have the best intentions in pushing for this project, but as we have waited for some time, it will not hurt if we delay it a bit further, so the red tapecan be tackled systematically and legally for all projects.
Of course, Thailand wants to get a slice of cake from China's big money One Belt One Road project, but a delay to this scheme should not be a problem.
NO BENEFIT FOR MANY PAST CHINESE PROJECTS
There are real worries that new rail projects will even break even.
In the more financially cautious Japanese rail plans, suggestions have been made for business along the rail lines that could make the whole rail project financially feasible (see here).
On top of this, the government should be aware of the fact that the bulk of the projects that Chinese have undertaken in other countries, including Myanmar, Laos or Sri Lanka, seem not to have yielded the best of results.
Some of these projects have been criticised for not benefiting those countries in terms of their economies.
Therefore, it is necessary for civil servants to consider all the minute details before the government presses the take-off button for a project that would involve a lot of resources and commit the country to long-term spending.
NO SPECIAL OFFERS OR INTEREST RATES: BE CAREFUL
It should be noted that the Chinese government has not made any special offers for this deal.
The construction is going to be undertaken by Chinese engineers, with Chinese technology, and the funding is coming from Chinese banks, without any special interest rates.
It is therefore necessary for the government to look at every issue before it makes a call on the use of Section 44 to expedite the process.
Thailand could stand to lose out in the long run if a decision is made in haste.
To summarize, slowness and caution in starting big rail projects may actually be a good thing. Rail projects are very expensive and the interest rates China has offeredhave not been particularly good (see here & here).
Chinese final cost estimates were over initial estimates (see here) and would likely increase even further in the future with the cost overruns that big projects typically suffer from.
Would the middle class and poorer people, who cannot afford a car and now use the railway, even be able to afford this new expensive railway? Would richer people simply fly? Air tickets have fallen in price continually recently.
The Japanese have suggested that only with real estate development alongside the rail line would the rail projects be feasible.
So why the rush to push forward with the China-Thai railway deal when there are so many uncertainties that have not been cleared up yet?
This article first appeared on www.bangkokpost.com
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