Engineers put brakes on Chinese-Thai rail plan

Thai side demanding technology transfers from China as part of the deal, which junta in Bangkok has vowed to push through via its special powers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 1:27pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 11:52pm

Thai engineers have demanded technology transfers from China as part of a joint deal to build a high-speed rail line between the two countries, raising uncertainty over the massive project despite the Thai military government pledging to clear away obstacles.

The demand by Thanet Veerasiri, president of the Engineering Institute of Thailand, came after Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, said he would use “special powers” to push the project ahead.

The Thai authorities are having discussions with the engineering institute to speed up implementation of the 250km Thai-Chinese project connecting Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima.

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Thanet said on Sunday that the institute had reservations over some aspects of the deal, Thailand PBS reported.

No Thai engineers are involved in the project, suggesting that there would be no technological transfers from the Chinese engineers to their Thai counterparts, who would be responsible for maintaining the line.

The project has been called off and resumed several times because of disagreements over issues such as cost, investment-sharing and development rights.

Prayuth lead the 2014 military coup in Thailand.

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Last week, he said he would invoke Section 44 of the country’s interim charter – a controversial law that allows him to execute any administrative order in the name of national security – to clear away legal restrictions that have delayed the project, the Bangkok Post reported.

Zhou Fangye of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said that by pledging to use such powers, the junta was sending a message to Beijing that it took the rail project seriously, even though it might not be appropriate for Thailand to resort to such an extraordinary measure.

“In the long run, it is not very appropriate, but this has shown the government’s determination and a political position [motivating it] to push its transport minister to take a broader approach,” Zhou said.

But Zhou said that unless real progress was made to address the hurdles to the rail project, Prayuth’s pledge was only symbolic.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said Thailand hoped the rail line could give it a bigger role in China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.

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A Section 44 order to address five issues that are holding the project back is under draft and will be reviewed by the Thai cabinet.

The five issues include the employment of Chinese architects and engineers, who, under local regulations, would not be allowed to work in Thailand unless they passed an examination to obtain a licence.

Thailand’s procurement law also requires that any projects costing more than 5 billion baht (HK$1.15 billion) must be scrutinised by a procurement committee before construction starts.

The biggest challenge, however, is building on designated farmland that cannot legally be used for any other purpose.

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Some analysts believe invoking special powers could cost the junta government its credibility.

“Many Thais think imposing Section 44, which is tantamount to [using] absolute power without accountability, to please the Chinese, could end up undermining Thailand’s national interest,” Thitinan said.

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang