Story by Teeranai Charuvastra and Pravit Rojanaphruk
BANGKOK — Lawmakers said they will ask the government to consider fining a prominent construction contractor 12 million baht per day for its failure to complete the new parliament building on time – nearly six years after the deadline.
The project was initially budgeted at 14 billion baht but has since ballooned to nearly 22 billion baht amid a series of delays. The fate of the contractor, the Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction, will be decided by the Comptroller General’s Department, a government agency that manages the national treasury, Parliament sec-gen Satit Prasertsak said on Wednesday.
The lawmakers, whose current office building remains under construction, proposed slapping a daily fine of 12 million baht on Sino-Thai Engineering, starting from Jan. 1, until work is fully completed, Satit said, though he stressed that the government will have the final say on the matter.
Other options that the Comptroller General’s Department may take include forcing the contractor – who has close ties to the government – to give the government a discount, or even exempt it from any penalties altogether, Satit said.
But a senior member of the Democrat Party urged the government to drop any chance of leniency for Sino-Thai Engineering, as the company has repeatedly missed its promised deadlines for years, and there is little evidence that its latest pledge to finish the project by April is credible.
“I must ask them, are we talking about April in what year?” said former Democrat Party MP Vilas Chanpitaksa, a staunch critic of the construction project that began during his tenure in 2012.
Speaking in a phone interview, Vilas said over 100 rooms were installed with a substandard material, which needed to be replaced at an extra cost. He also said 45 of the 46 types of lighting equipment in the exterior of the building turned out to be a wrong specification, and workers are removing them so the correct ones can be installed.
“The landscape is still a mess,” the six-time Bangkok MP said. “It’s dark now around the Parliament at night. It will be a time-consuming task to inspect all aspects of the construction [before April].”
Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction declined to comment on the looming possibility of a fine.
“The executives said they cannot answer any queries because there is no finality on the matter,” Sino-Thai’s public relations officer Banthita Songkram said by phone. “ The company is informed about the latest development but it’s not clear when we might make an announcement on the matter.”
Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction was founded in 1962 by Chaowarat tycoon Charnvirakul, the father of current public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul. Anutin himself sat on the executive board from 1995 to 2004. He also owned shares in the company until his appointment to the Cabinet in 2019.
A report in 2018 said the firm amassed at least 105 billion baht worth of construction contracts, most of them in government projects, including the new parliament building, new finance ministry headquarters, railways, and highways.
A Harmonous Assembly?
Construction of the new parliament building – known formally as Sappaya Sapasathan, or “A Place of Harmonious Assembly” – was first approved in 2008 when government officials argued that the 30-year-old parliament next to the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall was getting too crowded and shabby.
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who now reigns as king, placed the foundation stone at the chosen site in 2010, but construction could only begin in 2012. By that point, Thailand has seen four successive governments since the project was first greenlit.
Officials at the time estimated that the project would take about 900 days to complete. Nearly a decade and four deadline extensions later, construction is still underway, with an ever growing expense sheet.
Lawmakers elected in the 2019 poll were also forced to rent an auditorium in northern Bangkok to meet and debate on legislations for months, since the Sappaya Sapasathan complex wasn’t yet ready, and the old parliament venue was already returned to the Crown Property Bureau in late 2018.
Move Forward Party MP Surachet Pravinvongvuth said he’s been keeping a close eye on the repeated delays in the project, which was supposed to be completed by 2015. He said the riverside promenade remains unfinished, many utility wires uninstalled, and underground parking lots largely bare of any decorations.
“They keep on asking for an extension,” Surachet said of Sino-Thai Engineering. “There is no more justification.”
Although the company did ask the Parliament for yet another extension, the lawmakers shot down the request on Dec. 30.
House of Representatives sec-gen Satit, who is also chief inspector of the construction project, said Sino-Thai Engineering has informed the Stock Exchanges of Thailand that the parliament will be fully built by April 30.
Satit said the construction is now over “95 percent completed” – areas that still need more work include the main lobby, offices for MPs, interior works, and some furnitures. The statue of King Rama VII, which has been moved from the old parliament building, has yet to be installed at Sappaya Sapasathan.
It’s the Virus, Boss
Sino-Thai cited the lockdown measures brought about by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 as the reasons for the delays, Satit said.
The company reportedly told the regulators at the Stock Exchanges of Thailand that travel restrictions severely affected the movement of 700 construction workers from Nonthaburi province to Bangkok, as well as the import of some materials from overseas.
Sino-Thai said these extenuating circumstances should qualify for waiving of any penalties over the delays.
In 2020, the company also pursued a lawsuit at the Administrative Court demanding 1.5 billion baht from the Parliament in compensation for delays in handing over the plot of land for construction.
Surachet, the Move Forward MP, said he accepts that some factors were beyond Sino-Thai’s control, such as the legal dispute over the land transfer, but he maintained that the company has been working at a very low pace, and they should bear some legal responsibility.
Vilas, the former Democrat lawmaker, urged the Parliament to study construction details and logbooks to see if the number of workers was truly affected by the coronavirus outbreak in 2020 as claimed by Sino-Thai Engineering.
The politician also said he finds the firm’s promise of completing Sappaya Sapasathan by April to be very unrealistic.
“Let’s say if it’s already 90 percent done,” Vilas said. “At this rate, they will definitely need another 4 months.”