Environment under Section 44 attack
Ever since the military took power, the environment has come under constant assault on the pretext of protecting national security and accelerating national economic development.
In the latest attack, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha resorted to the use of the all-powerful Section 44 to trash some very important environmental safeguards.
The junta leader last month issued two orders as head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to suspend certain restrictions under general town and country plans.
Order 3/2559 allows the construction of industrial plants in areas declared as Special Economic Zones. Ten provinces have been designated as SEZs -- Chiang Rai, Kanchanaburi, Mukdahan, Nakhon Phanom, Narathiwat, Nong Khai, Sa Kaeo, Songkhla, Tak and Trat.
Most or all of these SEZs will be established in areas that include communities or forest reserves.
Order 4/2559 covers town and country plans throughout the country. It effectively allows the construction of power plants and related facilities, oil depots, waste treatment, processing and recycling plants, and waste-to-energy facilities, among others, in areas that were previously off-limits, such as community and green areas.
The most immediate threat of this order focuses on the planned power plants in Krabi and Songkhla's Thepha districts, where local resistance is proving to be formidable.
Earlier, civic activists from Krabi accused environmental officials of proposing to supplant an announcement designating the Krabi estuary an environmentally protected area. The attempt would have made it possible to build coal transport facilities to feed the planned coal-fired power plant.
There are also several waste-to-energy and biomass power plant projects in the pipelines. Officials fear strong public opposition to these projects will surface without special laws to suppress it.
The two NCPO orders will have far-ranging impacts on the environment as well as on people's rights to participate in the management of natural resources and the environment. Such rights have long been established in earlier constitutions, including the one promulgated by the coup-installed government in 2006. It has since been taken for granted that they would remain a part of Thais' inalienable rights.
But it may sound silly now to speak of people's rights. These and other rights were effectively stripped from us the moment the junta took control of the country by force in May 2014.
The military determines who can or cannot speak in public, who can or cannot play a role in the development of the country, and who can or cannot benefit from such development.
So far, those who can are limited to a small minority of industrialists, business leaders, the top brass and bureaucrats, and generally those who toe the government's line.
Supporters can't be blamed if they feel elated at the government's determination to knock down all obstacles in the path of industrialisation. They can now look forward to deriving great benefits from what promises to be a bright future.
On the other side of the aisle, environmentalists and civic activists have so far kept their frustration with the junta in check.
The top brass who now command several key government agencies have been seen as being ignorant of environmental issues and oblivious to the suffering that their actions inflict on large numbers at the grassroots level.
But with each assault, their frustration is being pushed to the limits and starting to boil over.
At the risk of being slapped with charges for illegal political gatherings, a number of them and their sympathisers congregated yesterday at a Government House gate.
They were there to air their disagreement with the two NCPO orders. It was also to serve notice that their patience is running out. However, even if they come by the busloads, they present no obvious threat to the junta, which is backed by all of the armed forces. If they carry any threat at all, it is at best implicit and not immediate.
But remember this, all the projects that are in line to be implemented on the merits of the NCPO orders will take years to complete.
Once an elected government is installed -- one would be if we take at face value Gen Prayut's word that the election process will begin next July -- then, opportunities exist for project opponents to return in force.
They may not be able to halt the ongoing development right away. But history tells us they could become formidable at putting obstacles in their way. If Gen Prayut thinks that S44 is a magic wand that will take him and his beneficiaries to where no man has gone before, he is setting himself up to be disappointed.
All he will be doing is leaving a huge mess for future governments to clean up … unless he intends to hold on to power for life.
Wasant Techawongtham is former News Editor, Bangkok Post.
Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.