Too risky to use S44 for everything
The government seems not to be paying attention to this danger and is moving the country close to becoming comfortably addicted to the most powerful clause in the interim constitution -- Section 44. Cabinet ministers look to it as a cure-all which can fix every malady, from illegal trawlers to train construction.
Building a new network of train lines, including high-speed tracks, and improving the existing ones are high on the wish list of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha who wants to end the country's logistics bottleneck and bolster its position as a transport centre for Southeast Asia.
The plan to revamp the ageing rail system deserves priority as it was long ignored by past governments -- until former premier Yingluck Shinawatra's cabinet initiated the high-speed train project.
All train projects -- from building dual tracks for the State Railway of Thailand, to new ventures with China and Japan -- are handled by the Transport Ministry. Improvements include six double-track lines covering about 900 kilometres for the first step, with another eight steps to come later. Thailand plans to build two lines with China and at least one with Japan to accommodate medium or high-speed trains.
With all projects creaking slowly along, Deputy Transport Minister Ormsin Chivapruck last week mooted an idea to speed things up by asking the prime minister to use the powers under Section 44. The section could be used to speed up three dual-track projects of the SRT which have passed their environmental impact assessments, he said on Thursday. He hinted that the medium or high-speed schemes could similarly benefit from Section 44.
This approach falls into step with Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak who wants to speed up megaprojects. How far will Mr Ormsin's idea go? That will be clearer this week when he consults Transport Minister Arkom Termpittayapaisith after he returns from train talks with China in Beijing.
Hopefully, Mr Arkom will kill the idea, even if Gen Prayut might be ready to wave his magic wand.
Section 44 was born into a world of controversy and concern as it gives bottomless authority to Gen Prayut, as head of the National Council for Peace and Order, to put everything in order if deemed necessary -- and that includes anything that could undermine the economy. The clause worries human rights advocates as it can be used to suppress political activists, although the prime minister has promised to carefully exercise the special powers in that respect.
So far he has invoked the section to clamp down on illegal fishing to avoid the industry being sanctioned by the European Union. He has also used the special powers to tackle aviation flaws to remove the red flag slapped on the country's aviation sector by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
Still, injecting Section 44 into the myriad train projects might not be such a great idea, and the general in fact should stay as far away from it as he can. The problems of illegal fishing and aviation need structural change to bring them into line with international standards, and time is not on Thailand's side to correct them.
But the train projects are a different matter. They must be kept from being decided by one man's call as each has to go to tender where rules and regulations are in place at each step to allow for full scrutiny.
The current efforts to improve the sorry train system cannot be postponed any longer, but that does not mean plans to revive it should be given a shortcut through the powers given to Gen Prayut by the interim constitution. The Transport Ministry is duty-bound to make all train projects progress further, and fix all flaws which obstruct procedures, but not to the stage of thinking about Gen Prayut and Section 44.
Laws which are stumbling blocks can be amended by the National Legislative Assembly -- delays are a human folly and can be corrected by those in charge.
Invoking Section 44 should be done only selectively and any calls for the prime minister to use it must be carefully considered, lest the country overdose on this sedative.
Saritdet Marukatat is digital media news editor, Bangkok Post.
Digital Media News Editor
He is Bangkok Post's Online Editor and is in charge of all online content.