The Nation

NO-CONFIDENCE DEBATE

PM Abhisit blasted for massive borrowing, soaring prices, corruption

The opposition Pheu Thai Party claimed during yesterday's censure debate that Thailand's 27th prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, had been the biggest borrower ever, borrowing Bt1.49 trillion to boost the economy during his two-year regime.

The Cabinet has no answers to charges it has allowed the cost of living to soar amid corruption over palm oil, the party claimed. Pheu Thai MP Mingkwan Sangsuwan opened the first session of the censure debate, accusing the government of mismanagement of the Kingdom's economic problems, particularly the rising price of goods such as palm oil and of energy. The government's irresponsible fiscal policies have caused public debt to soar, he added. Abhisit countered that several countries had experienced debt crises - but not Thailand.Mingkwan pointed to corruption over a number of issues, including alleged low import tariffs paid on cigarettes by Philip Morris (Thailand) and the import of olein palm oil from Singapore instead of from Malaysia, the world's biggest palm-oil producer with 13 qualities of the commodity.In addition, Thai farm goods are falling in price while global prices are increasing in response to lower supply after natural disasters, he said."Abhisit alone borrowed Bt1.49 trillion, compared with the past 26 prime ministers who had combined borrowings of only Bt870 billion," said Mingkwan, who is leading the opposition in grilling the government in the censure debate. Mingkwan accused the government of leading the country towards economy disaster. He said the government wasted the annual budget by running large fiscal deficits. Expenditure for the current fiscal year is Bt2.07 trillion, with a planned deficit of Bt420 billion, the largest-ever deficit and expenditure, he said. Mandatory spending accounts for 80 per cent of the expenditure, while capital investment is too small at 16 per cent. He accused the government of widespread corruption over its stimulus package, labelled Thai Khemkhang, which saw the government borrow Bt400 billion in 2009 to finance investment projects. "Because of his lack of experience, Abhisit borrowed heavily but did not know how to earn revenue," Mingkwan said. Abhisit countered that his government took office in 2008 amid a global financial crisis and faced many difficulties, so borrowing money was unavoidable. He pointed out that Thailand achieved a fast economic recovery, while several countries faced public-debt crises.Abhisit also pointed to the public-debt-to-GDP ratio in September 2006 when Thaksin Shinawatra was last prime minister. While Thaksin was in office the ratio stood at 42.75 per cent, while in January this year public debts were down to 41.94 per cent of gross domestic product. The figures are not very different, Abhisit said. He said that last year the government earned the highest-ever export income and the largest-ever number of tourists visited the country. Mingkwan also charged Abhisit with mishandling the Oil Fund. The government is expected to deplete the fund by the end of this month, he said. Mingkwan predicted that the prices of diesel fuel and cooking gas would jump when the government ran out of funds for continued subsidies. He said funds available were just Bt4.8 billion, while the government spent an average of Bt300 million a day to cap diesel retail prices at Bt30 per litre. Abhisit countered with an assurance that energy prices would not jump. Prices of cooking gas would be maintained until the end of June. He challenged Mingkwan to base an election campaign on floating the price of liquefied petroleum gas. He said the price-subsidy scheme on diesel aimed to support the poor and farmers. Abhisit also pointed to a Bt90-billion loss to the Oil Fund during the Thaksin government.Another alleged failure in management is the palm-oil crisis. Mingkwan demanded that the government explain why it had imported palm oil from Singapore while Malaysia offered 13 qualities of the commodity."We are curious why the government has to arrange for '14th-quality palm oil' to support its imports from Malaysia," Mingkwan said, adding that the shortage had also led to energy problems, particularly the production of B3 and B5 bio-diesel.The opposition also claimed unidentified parties had hoarded palm oil and there was not a real shortage. Oil companies that produce bio-diesel can secure crude palm oil, though they have to spend Bt70 per litre.Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who has direct responsibility for the palm-oil crisis, has not provided clear answers on either his inability to solve the problem or the corruption question, Mingkwan said.Suthep said the government learned of the falling stock of palm oil due to drought and closely monitored production to judge whether the shortage was caused by the unusual environmental factors. The government had tried to manage imports since December but had to be careful about the impact on farmers. Suthep admitted that his two sons managed both palm-oil and rubber plants but said their production was damaged by drought, like other producers."If I gain a single baht from palm-oil imports, I'll phase myself out of politics forever," Suthep told the opposition.Mingkwan also remarked on the import-tariff payment by US-based tobacco giant Philip Morris, pointing out that tariffs declared to the Customs Department were very low at Bt7.76 per carton of cigarettes. Three other importers paid much more: Bangkok Airways at Bt30.39, King Power at Bt27.46 and Elise at Bt22.13. However, Philip Morris declared tariffs on the same cigarettes in the Philippines at Bt13.90 per carton, which was double what it claimed in Thailand. The company imports cigarettes from the Philippines.


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