EARTH Thailand

Process begins to end legal deadlock

The Nation 12 January 2010 
A final process has begun which is aimed at ending the legal deadlock halting construction on 64 major industrial projects in the Map Ta Phut area of Rayong province.

The process, of ensuring that health- and environment-related assessments are conducted as required by the Constitution, began after a preliminary selection process was approved yesterday.

A 13-member independent commission is to be appointed to make sure Article 67 of the Constitution is complied with by all projects. The members of the commission will be nominated by an 18-member selection panel that is soon to be set up. The 13-member commission will be selected within 60 days.

Deputy Prime Minister Korbsak Sabhavasu, who leads the government's efforts to solve the Map Ta Phut problem, will submit the proposal to the Cabinet for approval today.

The 18 members of the selection panel may be those currently serving on an ad-hoc four-part committee which is now handling the issue, or others selected from relevant agencies, affected villagers, activists, or non-governmental organisations involved in tackling environmental problems affecting residential areas adjacent to the estate, a member of the four-part committee, Hannarong Yaowalert, said yesterday.

The 18-member selection panel will also serve in an advisory role to the independent commision for a two-year period, when the commission is scheduled to be endorsed by Parliament under legal equirements making it a legitimate body.

When appointed, the 13-member commission will enforce organic laws under Article 67 of the Constitution, making sure that all project owners carry out mandatory health-impact assessments (HIA) and environmental-impact assessments (EIA) and pass them, before the projects are approved by the Central Administration Court to proceed with construction.

The head of the 18-member selection panel could be former PM Anand Panyarachun, who currently heads the four-part ad-hoc committee, or any other person with good qualities to be appointed by the prime minister.

"This 18-member panel will serve alternatively as a unit of the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry's Environmental Quality Promotion Department, to prevent possible budgetary and paperwork problems," Hannarong said.

Before parliamentary endorsement is given, the independent commission will function under special regulations from the PM's Office Ministry.

The controversy, which has threatened to weaken Thailand's position as a destination for direct foreign investment, began when the Central Administrative Court issued an injunction halting construction work in 76 projects in the Map Ta Phut area because they failed to conduct an EIA, or pass one. After an appeal, 11 projects were allowed to proceed when the Supreme Administrative Court deemed them environmentally harmless to their surroundings and nearby communities. Another was also later given permission to proceed.

Meanwhile, the Joint Public-Private Committee yesterday gave a five-month deadline for laying out an action plan to resolve the suspensions.

Thai Bankers' Association chairman Apisak Tantivorawong said he did not believe foreign banks would leave investors in Map Ta Phut, because they are prime borrowers. There are no reasons for not lending to clients like PTT and Siam Cement Group, both of which have large projects involved in the controversy. "After surveying the situation, we find that none of our members has squeezed or stopped lending to customers facing problems at Map Ta Phut," he said.

Commenting on reports that the Japan External Trade Organisation was concerned about liquidity problems for Japanese investors because of the slowdown in lending to the suspended projects, Apisak said these would be foreign bankers.

"We are ready to provide loans to support the projects as they are facing technical problems that will not exist for long," he said. He said that if the projects were further delayed, the banks could reschedule repayments as a result of new revenue projections. However, he is confident that the debtors will still be able to repay debts.

A senior director of the Bank of Thailand's Domestic Economy Department, Suchart Sakkankosone, suggested that the government should listen to the problems of Japanese investors. "If the government can end the problem quickly - in eight or nine months as scheduled – it will be positive for the country's investment sentiment," he said. If not, the country's image will be damaged.