Infrastructure needs bipartisan cooperation

In announcing the 2.75 trillion baht infrastructure spending plan, the largest in the history of the country, to facilitate the launch of the Asean Economic Community and the economic expansion of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was certain to command the attention of the nation. Being associated in the minds of voters with dramatic initiatives is usually a good strategy for a political leader, but now comes the hard part: Ms Yingluck must convince the public that the country stands to gain from spending the massive amount, most of which will come from loans, and fill in the picture with considerably more detail. She must explain to the country the value of specific projects to be funded. Above all, it should be laid out from the first what safeguards will be in place to ensure transparency.

But while the plan is sure to draw criticism from the other side of the political fence, it is likely that a similar regional infrastructure scheme would likewise be on the agenda if they were in power.

In her speech before the Thailand Investment Conference on Friday, Ms Yingluck stressed the importance of promoting connectivity by creating supply chain and logistics systems within the GMS, which comprises Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam as well as Yunnan and Guangxi provinces in China.

The importance of connectivity is being stressed not only in Thailand but throughout the GMS _ which altogether covers 2.6 million square kilometres with a combined population of 326 million _ and Ms Yingluck is merely reading the writing on the wall. Thailand really has little choice but to embrace cross-border infrastructure projects that are already well into the planning stages, such as the Thai-Lao high-speed train scheme, which will also link with Yunnan. This promises to be a great boon for Thailand if it is properly implemented.

As Ms Yingluck stated, Asean and the GMS are well positioned geographically, and Thailand is also well situated in the region. We are currently in the early stages of a race to develop the region into an economic superpower. It would be a great shame if the current partisan political atmosphere was allowed to waylay this country, which by all rights should have the pole position, so that it falls behind and comes out a loser.

That doesn't mean, of course, that all proposed projects should be endorsed. What is needed now is very careful, bipartisan cooperation and planning to ensure that money is spent wisely, so that it creates opportunities for all Thais and not just those on the receiving end of fat government contracts.

Tyranny wins in the South

Despite government officials' urgings and guarantees of safety to shop owners in the South, in many districts in Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani provinces most chose to close their doors rather than risk being targeted by insurgents for doing business on the Muslim day of prayer. In Yala municipality, more than 70% of shops kept their doors shut. More than 300 minivans at Narathiwat bus station also ceased operations, causing great inconvenience to people who depend on them for transport.

It is a national tragedy that the shop owners are being deprived of their right to make a living, that ordinary citizens are afraid to conduct their business and enjoy outings with friends and family, and most of all that ordinary Muslims are taking heat for the actions of a few radicals who can only be described as terrorists.

Muslim clerics have come out to assure the public that the Koran has no prohibition against conducting business on a Friday, but these self-appointed experts don't listen to those who have spent a lifetime in the peaceful practice of their religious beliefs.

One really can't blame shop owners and consumers for giving in to the threats. The government cannot station troops around every shop, and even if it could that would hardly be conducive to commerce or entertainment. The biggest tragedy is that it invites the continuation of the quasi-police state in the South, and feeds an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

This is an instance where the actions of a few ruin things for everyone. Those who terrorise shop owners in the South should be regarded with contempt in all segments of the society they victimise and exposed whenever possible.