The military regime's relentless efforts to promote economic development have merit. But it is not always a case of the ends justifying the means as it may claim.
This is why the invocation of the draconian Section 44 to accelerate the implementation of the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) -- a grand plan to promote the economy of the eastern region -- has triggered public opposition.
The regime announced its order 47/2560 on Oct 25, which enabled the Department of Public Works and Town & Country Planning to complete new city plans for land use, infrastructure and public utilities development for the three EEC provinces, namely Chon Buri, Rayong and Chachoengsao.
The much-touted EEC features five infrastructure projects -- worth more than 400 billion baht -- that the government aims to accelerate: the U-tapao expansion project, the high-speed train linking three major airports, the expansion of Laem Chabang seaport, the expansion of Map Ta Phut seaport, and the aviation maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) hub.
There are also 10 targeted industries: next-generation cars; smart electronics; affluent, medical and wellness tourism; agriculture and biotechnology; food; robotics for industry; logistics and aviation; biofuels and biochemicals; digital; and medical services.
Now the EEC has bought itself a fight. Civic groups, spearheaded by EEC Watch, have vowed to resist the scheme for fear of adverse impacts on health and the environment.
Of the five targeted infrastructure projects, the expansion of the Map Ta Phut seaport appears to be the most sensitive as locals still remember the pollution from industries there that over past decades have substantially compromised their health and the environment.
Earlier this week, EEC Office secretary-general Kanit Sangsubhan came out to defend the regime's decision, claiming the change would not affect the present requirement for environmental impact and health assessments (EHIA).
"Section 44 was imposed this time to shorten the city planning process by at least three months from the normal process, which could take up to 18 months," he said, referring to the full process of surveying and receiving approval from provincial administrations in the three EEC provinces.
That is, however, the main public concern that the top EEC man fails to recognise. The activists and academics are right in pointing out that the use of such a controversial law in scrapping the town planning process for the three provinces means the state is able to bypass public participation -- a principle that is guaranteed by the new constitution -- in the town planning process.
It is of utmost importance that locals have a say if the town plan is to be changed to accommodate certain economic activities, as they are the ones who will be affected.
Public anger is understandable given that Section 44's invocation came at the wrong time, in the same week that Thais were occupied with the royal cremation ceremonies. This prompted environmentalists to cry foul as they wondered if this was an underhand tactic by the state to quietly push for the process without the public realising. This is a bad omen for the scheme.
It is true the provisional clause in the new constitution which has now taken effect allows the military regime to maintain its draconian power, and the use of Section 44 is not entirely illegal. Yet that does not mean that such a dictatorial law is legitimate. When it comes to the question of legitimacy, the military regime should be aware of a domino effect.
Back to the ECC, those involved with the scheme must do whatever they can to ensure they pay heed to locals' concerns, or they will have to contend with strong opposition that may stall the scheme.