Murky mega-projects are shaping new govt’s formation

opinion April 19, 2019 01:00

By The Nation

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Political power is shifting unseen under pressure from three multibillion-baht schemes



At least three mega-spending projects are facing in-depth scrutiny following the March 24 general election, whose official results have yet to be announced by the Election Commission.

Using special powers under Article 44 of the charter, the Prayut government has pushed ahead with the multibillion-baht schemes during this transition period.

The ongoing bidding for the right to invest more than Bt200 billion in a high-speed train system linking Suvarnabhumi, Don Mueang and U-Tapao airports is one of the most closely watched of the schemes, largely due to its sheer size and relatively high investment risk.

Secondly, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) issued another controversial order on April 11 to help players in the telecom and digital TV industries who are facing financial difficulties.

All three telecom giants – AIS, True and Dtac – have been offered a lengthy postponement of the deadline for 4G spectrum payments totalling more than Bt100 billion, while digital TV broadcasters are now permitted to return their licences after suffering years of heavy losses.

Thirdly, the bidding to renew the duty-free shopping concessions at Suvarnabhumi and other international airports has been fast-tracked ahead of the new government taking office.

Under this scheme, a highly lucrative 10-year concession worth tens of billion baht in potential income is up for grabs.

The risks associated with fast-tracking these mega-investment schemes are significant.

For example, the Bt200-billion rail link for the three airports is a complex undertaking, meaning the government must conduct thorough negotiations with private investors so as to secure the project against any negative and costly consequences.

Private-sector players mulling the scheme are already pushing terms and conditions beyond those specified by the government. For example, the government has been asked for a guarantee that businesses would not lose money during the initial years of their investment. It has also been pressured to provide a low-cost loan package to private investors. The requests lie outside of the original terms of reference for the scheme.

The worry now is that the outgoing government will tie the hands of its successor in its desire to cut a deal with the private sector.

Regarding relief measures for the telecom and digital TV broadcasting sectors, it is also obvious that big business and corporate interests are the clear winner whereas public and consumer interests are taking a back seat.

The relief measures, which are worth tens of billion baht in taxpayers’ money, have been offered to address mistakes previously committed by policymakers as well as to solve the private sector’s financial problems resulting from business decisions.

On the bidding for the extension of the duty-free concessions at Suvarnabhumi and other airports, transparency and anti-corruption advocates have voiced concern over the procedures and urged the government to revamp the process.

Unsurprisingly, big businesses and corporate interest groups are all behind these multibillion-baht schemes, which are linked to political backing and other vested interests. The mega-schemes are playing a crucial role in shaping the political landscape following the March 24 general election as Thailand attempts to return to democracy.

Unfortunately, the new government is being formed under immense 

pressures from a wide range of political and business interests, at the expense of transparency and other long-term public interest.