BANGKOK — After the junta chief exempted the 179 billion baht, high-speed railway project from 10 laws and orders last week, questions have flown over who will be held accountable if something goes wrong.
A Chulalongkorn University law lecturer on Thursday gave a simple answer: “It depends on the boldness of the courts.”
“If we use the same standard as in the rice subsidy case, then when there are losses, those who approved it will have to take responsibility,” Narongdech Srukhosit said, comparing the project to the subsidy former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been ordered to pay billions of baht to cover its losses.
Narongdech’s comments came Thursday at a panel discussion on the campus of Chulalongkorn University which touched on all aspects of the controversial project, from its legal issues and economic viability to China’s sharing of knowledge and technology.
One point of discussion was the order issued last week under Article 44, the absolute junta’s power clause preserved in the newly ratified constitution. The order gave legal cover to violating laws and regulations that had prevented the project, a high-speed rail line connecting Bangkok and Korat, from moving forward.
Narongdech said the legal protection granted by the junta order closed all means of review, as the courts deemed it legitimate and constitutional – and refused to review numerous complaints filed challenging it.
Though the military government said it was just a procedural means to expedite the process by exempting the project from obligatory bidding and procurement processes, the law expert said its vague language has broader implications.
“They should have written specifically which articles they would like [the project] exempted from,” he said during a Thursday panel discussion. “What they wrote will exempt it from the whole inspection process.”
One of the rationales provided by the military government is that extralegal authority is needed to indemnify Thai officials from the legal consequences so they can take necessary actions to get the stalled project moving.
But, Narongdech contended, it had more to do with protecting the regime’s Chinese partners from legal accountability and only shielded Thai authorities from prosecution in matters of bidding and procurement.
“If the Thai staff is found to be corrupt in other steps, they can still face charges,” he said.
The government has argued that despite exempting the project from 10 laws and regs – including some junta orders – it also ordered that the project comply with the “Integrity Pact,” a set of principles from Transparency International.
Narongdech said that was an empty gesture, given that all the laws that would make punishment possible were voided by Prayuth’s use of Article 44.
Beyond the legal issues, Thursday’s panel included an array of experts dissecting the deal.
A university economics professor raised concerns about the transfer of technology and expertise, as well as the rail line’s actual financial benefits.
Economist Nuannoi Treerat said if the government does not think about the bigger picture of the national transport system and invests solely in one piece, it is unlikely to succeed.
For example, Nuannoi said she had yet to see real estimates of what fares would be and how they could compete with those of low-cost airlines.
She also asked: Why stop at Korat?
“Korat is just the gateway. How do people commute after they get there?” she said. “If they have to continue on another transportation system, they would probably just have taken the highway from the start.”
Engineering lecturer Sompong Sirisoponsilp said the government should have a specific plan for transferring the expertise needed to maintain this system and future ones.
A Chinese studies lecturer with a skeptical view of Thailand’s partner in the deal warned that the government must assure its contracts are well-written and include transfer of know-how.
“We have come this far,” Vorasak Mahatdhanobol said. “So I only wish the government see through China.”