Updated: Trains, land and all that money

18 06 2017

PPT likes trains. We like public transport generally. We acknowledge that Thailand’s public infrastructure has been neglected and that many of the public transport developments that have taken place have been for the middle class in Bangkok. When it comes to rail other than the subway and skytrain, the infrastructure is a crumbling mess.

In short, rail links to the region and across Thailand can have considerable benefits. That was illustrated, in part, by the Abhisit Vejjajiva regime wanted a rail link to China. It is why the Yingluck Shinawatra government established a high-powered team investigating and seeking to move the project forward.

So what is the military dictatorship up to?

As we know, after years of failing negotiations with the Chinese, The Dictator has used Article 44 “to expedite the Thai-Chinese high-speed railway line between Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima and enable work to begin this year.”

Only between Bangkok and Korat and high-speed. That means, so far, no links regionally and suggests a passenger service. It also doesn’t say what “high speed” means. But because the military junta is doing it, precious few details are available.

The junta’s decree “aims to clear technical and legal problems for the delayed 252-kilometre railway.”

It is a remarkable decree in that it “instructs the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) to hire a Chinese state enterprise to supervise the construction of the Thai-Chinese railway.”

That Chinese company “will oversee the design of the railway infrastructure as well as rail and electrical systems. It will serve as an adviser for the project’s construction and provide training in system-related knowledge for the project staff.”

In other words, the junta is establishing a kind of Chinese monopoly for Thailand on this huge project. It is not just rail because all such projects are also about land. (Yes, we know other contracts for other lines have been considered with the Japanese.)

The contract “must be ready within 120 days,” suggesting that there’s already a preferred contractor. After that, “Thailand and China would then be able to sign an agreement for the design contract…”.

As Khaosod says, using Article 44 will “remove all legal obstacles preventing China from taking charge of every step in the construction of the high-speed railway project.” It says ten “relevant laws and junta orders involving government procurement…”. It also said that “Chinese engineers and architects are also exempted from professional licensing requirements.”

Interestingly, the use of Article 44 “shielded the project from going out to international bidders and exempted it from a mandatory process to estimate costs.” The order states that an “unspecified amount of funds [is] to be approved by the interim cabinet.”

The order would also “allow construction to take place on protected lands…”.

What isn’t stated is that the line will involve the compulsory acquisition of land from landholders and will gobble up land that was previously allocated with limited title, exactly the kind of land the junta has been so agitated about in other areas such as national parks.

That Dictator Prayuth Chan-ocha is “due to visit China to attend the ninth BRICS Summit in September,” might add something to the use of Article 44, recalling that he wasn’t invited to a recent meeting in China, seen as a snub.

Another Bangkok Post report has the World Bank urging “the Thai government to hold an open bidding for the long-delayed Thai-Chinese high-speed railway project linking Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima to ensure transparency.”

Transparency may be important but it won’t happen in this project, just as it hasn’t in all major projects and purchases by the junta. Most infrastructure projects involve 30-40% “commission” payments. Junta-related interests are salivating.

And the land! So much land! It will be appropriated and then rented or sold to the tycoons for all kinds of projects that will further enrich them.

Bangkok Post’s Umesh Pandey grumbles that the use of Article 44 by a “caretaker” regime is wrong: “In any given scenario the job of the caretaker government is to look at maintaining the status quo and not undertake major policies that involve committing the country’s resources for years if not decades to come…”.

He keeps forgetting that this is a military dictatorship and that it has no intention of fading away.

He asks: “who is going to be responsible for the transparency of the multi-billion-dollar project.” The idea is that wealth generation for the few is built on monopolies and opaque arrangements. That’s Thailand’s history, and not just under juntas.

And Umesh notes that The Dictator’s order also “silences opposition to any project, overriding the system of checks and balances that would make sure Thailand gets the best deal.”

Thailand is a loose concept. We know from wealth data and from details about the unusually rich who gets the best deal. And they define themselves as “Thailand.”

Umesh continues: “People like myself are all for the project but I wonder how clean the process is going to be, especially as rumours swirl of kickbacks to contractors.”

He isn’t wondering, he knows. Then he raises another point:

Then there is the issue of a possible election late next year. As any economist would tell you, the time between green-lighting a project and seeing the money flow in can be anywhere from nine to 12 months — around the time the election is expected.

Is that a coincidence? Certainly, signs of economic growth right before the polls could be an advantage to some.

We remain unconvinced about an “election,” but we see his point. But what of the land? All that land.

Update: Prachatai has two stories on the train line, one that is about middle-class concerns regarding safety where professionals raise this issue. The other is interesting in that in a review of the week, it raises the issue of the use of Article 44 to create “extraterritoriality,” but only in the title. It is an interesting issue and harks back to the decades it took to roll back the extraterritoriality enshrined in the Bowring Treaty.





Secret meetings at the junta’s processing terminal

17 06 2017

Readers may recall that four months ago it was reported that an iLaw study pointed to the apparently unconstitutionality of some members of the military junta’s puppet National Legislative Assembly who were being paid large amounts of money for seldom appearing at the NLA. Immediately, the details of “leaves” taken were considered “secret.”

Clean hands?

At the time, the limelight was on The Dictator’s brother, General Preecha Chan-ocha, who had a record of nepotism and other allegations of corruption, all of which seem to have faded away or that he’s wriggled out of. It helps to have your sibling lording it over the country. It can make you rich and gets you off all kinds of potential charges.

Preecha hardly ever attended the NLA, but pocketed the salary, which was on top of numerous other salaries he collected because he has multiple positions, all state sinecures.

PPT guessed that Preecha would get off this one and continue to receive money for nothing because can “leaves” are secret. We predicted an announcement will be made that the non-attendees were “on leave.”

Sure enough, almost immediately, that statement was made by none other than Deputy Dictator and Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan has declared that “it is not a problem that General Preecha Chan-o-cha, the former Defence permanent secretary and brother of the prime minister, takes frequent leave from legislative meetings…”. But he did say that “a committee is being set up to examine the case.”

Less than a week later, the vice president of the military’s NLA said “an internal review” found the seven members in question had in fact met the minimum participation requirements and would not be dismissed. No details were provided so we can assume this was all fudged and fabricated.

As might be expected under the military dictatorship, things went quiet and it was all forgotten. Preecha and his fellow non-attendees still pocketed the money.

The story returned yesterday, and readers will not be amazed to know that Preecha and his buddies have been officially cleared.

The NLA told the media that “the seven members, including former Army Chief General Preecha Chan-o-cha, did not breach the regulation.”

The reason for this was that “they sometimes had to perform their normal duty as state officials…”.

Of course, this is a nonsensical response that, on the face of it, ignores the NLA’s own rules.

However, we will never know what actually happened or get any further detail because “the meeting was held in secret for one hour today [Friday].”

Yes, that’s how the military dictatorship works.

Just to confirm suspicions that this was a concocted result, the “NLA also voted in favour of amending its work procedure rule, removing clauses which set out the number of times a member fails to vote that would cause membership to be nullified.”

That is clear. Loud and clear. The NLA is a rubber stamp for the junta almost always voting unanimously for laws handed down by its paymasters.

This decision acknowledges that the NLA is irrelevant; it doesn’t even need members present to do the junta’s bidding. In fact, calling it a “rubber stamp” assembly is giving it too much credit. It is an expensive processing terminal.





Bored witless

15 06 2017

Forgive us, we are bored by the military dictatorship. It is so, so predictable and so pathetic that we are considering banning it using Article 44.

How predictable? Its like putting a sexy dancer in front of a sexy young dancer. You know how he will behave. (Sorry, we couldn’t resist.)

How about the things that are hidden under nothing happening here-ness?

What about that poor kid shot by soldiers in the north. Nothing. Keep quiet and it won’t go anywhere.

How about the Rolls Royce and related corruption? Ignore it and the media will forget it.

What about police generals being paid by the richest guys in the country to smooth things for them. That isn’t even illegal!

And what about all those unusually wealthy members of the puppet assembly? Not even worth mentioning. That’s just normal corruption and the great and good harvesting their due.

We could go on and on. This regime is corrupt, like many of those regimes before it. But because they are rightist royalists, they are just fine for Thailand’s elite and middle classes.

Well, let’s go on a bit more.

Lese majeste? Hundreds of cases to both shut the activists up and to launder the king’s dirty underwear.

The junta reckons most Thais are stupid, and treats them as such, assessing that they haven’t a clue about democracy and are easily pushed around. A few threats can easily shut them up.

How about those pesky politicians? You know, the bad ones (because they are associated with that devil Thaksin Shinawatra). How many ways can they be repressed. Like all murderous, torturing military regime, the possibilities are many. How about charging them with corruption? That should gag that Watana guy from the Puea Thai Party who keeps saying nasty things about the middle-class cuddly dictatorship.

It irks The Dictator that Puea Thai types are still popping up. Ban them, ban their books, silence them. No debate with these guys.

While the junta is in power, its is almost genetically programmed to buy military toys from Chinese submarines to Chinese armored personal carriers (with the white sidewalls option, they should look stunning running over civilian protesters).

And while talking of Chinese, why not use Article 44 so that all of the land near the proposed railway tracks to link Thailand with China can be taken off poor farmers and become the accumulated wealth of Sino-Thai tycoons and their military allies. Money will fall line rain in the wet season into the already overflowing coffers of the rich and powerful.

It is so predictable it is now boring. What next? The Dictator campaigning for “election”? Yes, that’s already happening.

What about fixing the “election”? That’s a check. Even that anti-election Election Commission can’t be trusted, probably because they are all so thick and need ordering around, so replace them with people who can work out what needs to be corrupted without having to be ordered.

How many more years of this boring nothingness? We reckon the record is about 16 years. The current junta is aiming for 20. Only 16 and a few months to go.

And, an “election” won’t change all of this. It is embedded deeply into the fabric of administration.

It will take a lot of careful undoing when the people get a chance or take a chance.





Farming digital politics

15 06 2017

Many readers will have seen reports that a group described as Chinese were arrested with 474 mobile phones and 347,200 SIM cards.

The police grabbed the team in Sa Kaew and stated that this was a social media farm. The initial reports stated that the “three suspects confessed that they earned Bt100,000 [per month, presumably] for using the WeChat app to generate Internet traffic that could have misled vendors of Chinese products…”.

This scam was said to have not been used in Thailand. In any case, as one digital business “leader” explained, why would Thai businesses or other use these Chinese when “many Thais were also hired to click likes on certain posts in huge quantities but they got much lower fees than their Chinese counterparts.”

There were some oddities. One was that the photos showed most of the SIMs unused. Then it was said police found another farm with more than 100,000 SIM cards, although the “two Chinese men [who] had rented the place … left suddenly on Sunday night.”

Enter The Dictator. He “ordered police to extend their investigation … to determine if there was a hidden political or business agenda behind such crimes.” General Prayuth Chan-ocha “wanted police to find out whether people were using similar methods for political purposes, such as inciting the public or insulting the monarchy, in addition to commercial or other illegal activity…”.

One reason for this turned out to be that The Dictator is irked that all those people he hates – politicians – have millions of “likes” and “followers.” He particularly complained about Yingluck Shinawatra. But he was also thinking of those “nasties” he thinks are behind all the lese majeste he sees in every nook and cranny of the web.

Perhaps he should have asked how it was that some of these farmers were tipped off about the raid.

Perhaps he should have asked how these “illegal foreigners” could by up to half a million SIM cards from Thailand’s mobile network operators and other firms.

Perhaps he could have asked why it is claimed there “no Thai laws [that] can be used to prosecute them for manipulating social media, as they reportedly targeted only Chinese products.”

Perhaps he could have asked which officials are protecting the farmers and raking in the baht.





When the military is on top VII

12 06 2017

Prachatai’s opening paragraph says a lot about the military dictatorship when it comments on budget:

Despite a growing deficit, Thailand’s junta-appointed parliament has voted unanimously in favour of a draft government budget that allocates an extra 8.8 billion baht to the Defence Ministry in 2018.

That’s what happens when the military is on top. The report adds:

The draft budget allocates 220 billion baht to the Ministry of Defence, an increase in 8.8 billion baht from last year. This continues a trend where, ever since the 2014 coup, the Defence Ministry’s budget has expanded yearly. The Ministry was allocated 190 billion baht in 2015, and 200 billion baht in 2016.

That’s a 30 billion baht increase since 2015.

If one looks at SIPRI data, in current baht, the military budget has doubled since the 2006 military coup. That followed only marginal increases under the Thaksin Shinawatra regime.

Other areas of the draft budget, especially social sectors, see declines.

Budget increases for the military mean that the commanders can become wealthier than ever before as they drain money to their accounts through commissions and other forms of corruption essentially approved by the junta.





Updated: Guns and grenades II

5 06 2017

The military’s response to the guns and grenades arms trading events of recent days is interesting.

For a start, as The Nation reports, the “National Council for Peace and Order has instructed regional Army officers to investigate recent cases of weapon trafficking.”

Yes, that’s the military junta telling its minions to “investigate” itself. Military “investigating” military is the basis of these events. The military has long demanded this privilege, but in the current circumstances, where the military controls government, all ministries, and so much more, accusations of conflict of interest seem too limited. The military state suffocates everything. It is a military dictatorship.

Statements that Army chief General Chalermchai Sitthisart, who is the junta’s “secretary,” “telling officers to get tough on criminals who tried to avoid detection by new methods such as using social media and couriers to transport drugs and weapons” misses the issue completely.

But that’s the point. Deflect criticism by focusing on methods, not the culture of impunity that has allowed virtually every senior military officer to become wealthy beyond their salaries. The military is built on the corruption that comes with its political interventions.

General Chalermchai is said to have “also expressed concern that the recent case suggested weapons trafficking in border areas was occurring and urged officers at border checkpoints to screen vehicles for illegal items without exception, including state-issued cars and civilian automobiles that display government stickers…”.

What he is saying is that he’s disappointed that this trafficking has hit the headlines. Such headlines have occurred regularly over the decades – back to the 1940s – and they go away and the trading goes back to “normal,” largely controlled by the military and police.

The point elsewhere response has also come from the jewel and gold encrusted Deputy Dictator, General Prawit Wongsuwan. He “ordered officers to pay special attention to the southern border provinces especially during the fasting month of Ramadan…”. No one has mentioned southerners in these cases, but the General seems to want false leads.

The response of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) to the arrest of one of its officers with multiple war weapons is telling. Among other largely secret roles, ISOC is a specialist anti-democrat organization that arranges “third-hand” political interventions. It seems to want to create the impression that the soldier involved with the weapons was carrying a false ISOC ID card. They know that this excuse has worked previously.

And, there’s no more news about Vice Adm Rattana Wongsaroj’s role. He’s the marine commander for Trat and Chanthaburi provinces who reportedly rushed to the navy site where the officer found smuggling weapons was being held.

While on such matters, a footnote: what happened to all those corruption cases around Rolls Royce? No news? Is that really surprising to anyone?

Update: The military brass, keen to throw all and sundry off the scent, have made claims that weapons trafficking is by implicitly claiming their own innocence: “Military top brass on Tuesday vowed to suppress illicit arms trade by some low-ranking soldiers who have been involved in stealing and selling state weaponry online and across the border.” When one of those involved in recent cases is an ISOC intelligence officer, the scent should be leading to the top brass.





Guns and grenades I

5 06 2017

Over the past several years, we have had several posts on military involvement in weapons trafficking. Often this trafficking is one of the money-making ventures used by senior commanders  to produce illicit loot and unusual wealth. In short, arms trafficking is a perquisite of rank, using underlings to move and sell the weapons.

Of course, such actions can involve rogue soldiers but it is the impunity they get from their uniforms and the political dominance of their bosses that allows them to engage in illicit money-making.

There are two recent reports worthy of note about military gun-running and weapons trading.

The first is of a mail-order weapons scam. Military grenades were being sent via couriers. This came to light when “eight M67 grenades were found with a courier” in Bangkok.

The military were involved in the investigation. That seems odd in itself, although police are mentioned later in the report.

As usually happens, they were able to immediately blame “a network of 30 people including a Bangkok-based soldier…”. It is said that “a source” claims “the military had been tracking as many as 30 people suspected of trading in grenades by taking orders from customers in many provinces.”

The “source said the real sender was an engineering sergeant in Bangkok who had stolen grenades from a Bangkok army unit with the intention of selling them.”

The 1st army commander Apirat Kongsompong reportedly “ordered tough actions against any soldier behind the thefts and illicit grenade trade, and against any supervisors who failed to prevent the crime.” Yet it is claimed the “network” has been highly active. Army boss Chalermchai Sitthisart had “ordered army units to cooperate with the police investigation into the grenade sales and check their weapons stocks.”

Any “connection between the illegal grenade sale and three recent bombings in Bangkok” were denied.

The notion that soldiers and officers have long been involved in arms trafficking is not addressed.

The second story is of an ISOC officer running guns. This case came to light after a pickup ran off the road in Trat.

The story is that “local residents and naval paramilitary rangers rushed to help the slightly injured driver from the badly damaged vehicle” when they found weapons and ammunition, in the pickup, being driven by “an air force officer…”.

The officer is said to be “in custody.”Again, he’s held by the military and the police seem not involved, although they too are mentioned later in the report.

The pickup was carrying “29 AK-47 rifles, four 7.62mm machine guns, 4,147 AK-47 bullets, and 53 grenades to be used with launchers inside the vehicle.” In addition, it is reported that “[a]uthorities also found a rocket-propelled grenade, 42 machine-gun magazines, a hand grenade and ten 9mm bullets.”

(We do recall that “investigations” of 2010 events by the military stating that the military didn’t have AK-47s.)

The air force officer driving “was identified as Flt Sgt Pakhin [or perhaps Manas] Detphong of Wing 2 from Lop Buri, attached to the Internal Security Operations Command in Bangkok.” He is said to have “refused to make a statement about the weapons and authorities had yet to find out what his destination was.”

ISOC is an internal security agency that reports to the prime minister and which is under the command of the army’s boss, General Chalermchai. ISOC has been involved in numerous operations to undermine people’s sovereignty and has undermined several governments. No one in it may be trusted.

Very interestingly, “Vice Adm Rattana Wongsaroj, marine commander for Trat and Chanthaburi provinces,” rushed to the navy site where the officer was being held.

An alleged civilian accomplice was given VIP treatment in moving through military border checkpoints, immediately suggesting high-level backing.

This report does note that this “case is the latest in an innumerable series of incidents that expose what appears to be lax security at Thai military facilities where weapons are stored.” That makes Apirat’s gruff statement seem all too tame. He knows as well as everyone else that weapons trading is lucrative for many in the military and makes generals wealthy.