NGV buses pawns in deepening customs row
I wonder whether Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and some of his cabinet ministers will have the privilege of being the first passengers to ride the new air-conditioned NGV buses on Dec 21.
The Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA), the operator of the city's bus services, has marked this day for a trial run of one of the buses for VIPs from Government House, travelling to Hua Lampong railway station, before launching the full service the following day between Victory Monument and Sanam Luang.
The prime minister reportedly wants some of the new buses to serve mourners who are travelling to the Grand Palace to pay tribute to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The new buses are meant to be a New Year's gift for Bangkok's commuters so they can ride in comfort in modern vehicles equipped with free Wi-Fi, allowing them to tap away on their laptops while travelling to and from work.
Veera Prateepchaikul is a former editor, Bangkok Post.
Government spokesman Lt-Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the expectation was that more people -- especially middle class or white-collar workers -- would ditch their private cars for the gleaming chariots as more of them come into service on wider routes.
But the plans for the trial run for VIPS on Dec 21, the service for mourners, and, more importantly, the launch of the entire 489-unit bus fleet as a New Year's gift from the government to Bangkok's bus commuters may fall flat.
The buses at the moment cannot leave Laem Chabang deep-sea port.
There is a high possibility the entire bus fleet will be held up at the port well past New Year despite the fact that all buses must be delivered to the BMTA by supplier, Bestlin Group, by Dec 29.
The worst case scenario is the bus deal may collapse altogether.
Why has the Customs Department refused to let the buses leave the port, spoiling the mood of so many people, among them the prime minister and bus commuters?
Here is what Bestlin Group chairman Kanist Srivatchiraprapa has said about the problem with the Customs Department.
Mr Kanist said the first two lots of 100 buses arrived at Laem Chabang port from Malaysia on Dec 1, and that his company had paid a 7% VAT for the buses.
But the buses could not leave the port as customs formalities were not yet complete.
Mr Kanist, a Chinese businessman whose Chinese name is Ker New-lin, warned the BMTA's Dec 21 trial run of a bus from Government House to Hua Lampong railway station for VIPs might not come about if a bus is not released from the port before that date.
He claims the buses were assembled in Malaysia with 40% local content. Hence, the buses were to be exempt from import taxes under AFTA. That sounds reasonable enough.
But the questions being asked are: Were the buses really assembled in Malaysia with 40% local content, with the rest from China as claimed by Bestlin Group?
Or did they originate from China in fully-assembled form, only to be diverted to Malaysia before arriving in Thailand as suggested by the Customs Department?
The department has produced one piece of evidence which shows a container holding a bus was shipped from China and bears the same number as a container which came from Malaysia and docked at Laem Chabang port.
The Form D documents show the second lot of 99 NGV buses left China on Nov 13, arrived in Malaysia on Nov 19, left Malaysia on Nov 23 and arrived at Laem Chabang on Dec 1.
Was the car plant in Malaysia able to assemble 99 buses with 40% local content in four days?
To find the truth of the origins of the buses and whether they were actually assembled in Malaysia, customs officials were sent to Malaysia to talk to their Malaysian counterparts.
However, the department has indicated Bestlin Group can have the buses and deliver them to the BMTA if they put up a guarantee amounting to a 40% tax plus a fine four times the amount of the tax for each bus.
It is unlikely that Bestlin can come up with the guarantee money as required.
And this explains why Mr Kanist suggested the Finance Ministry put up the guarantee for the company by using the money it has to pay for the bus procurement, amounting to 3.3 billion baht.
But this was rejected outright by the ministry as ridiculous as the ministry is not a party in the bus deal which is between Bestlin Group and the BMTA.
How this messy affair will be sorted out remains to be seen.
But the Customs Department appears to be doing a good job even if that means bus commuters will be deprived of their New Year's gift from the government.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.