Critics round on $7.1 bn rail deal with Thailand's richest family

Bangkok (AFP)


Critics have urged Thailand's junta to reconsider the award of a $7.1 billion high-speed rail contract to a consortium led by the kingdom's richest family, just days before a new parliament is set to convene.

The junta, which has ruled since a 2014 coup, has faced criticism for a lack of transparency in its spending, with little oversight and no public debate on major infrastructure and arms schemes.

The proposed 220-kilometre (135-mile) line will link the capital Bangkok's two main airports to a third near the resort city of Pattaya, to the southeast.

The area is a "gateway" to the massive Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), the junta's ambitious $45 billion infrastructure scheme to transform the coastal area between the cities into a tech hub.

On Monday the junta said a consortium of 13 companies led by Charoen Pokphand Group -- a giant conglomerate spanning food to telecoms -- had won the rail contract.

CP Group's chairman is Dhanin Chearavanont, 80, the patriarch of Thailand's richest family who is worth an estimated $16.6 billion according to Forbes.

The consortium includes China's Railway Construction Corporation, Japan's Bank for International Cooperation and Germany's Siemens.

But the timing of the deal has been questioned over fears it was hustled through before the new parliament meets.

"It is inappropriate for them to make a commitment to this," Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of Future Forward Party, which emerged as the third biggest after a March election, told AFP.

"It is in the best interests of the Thai people that we revisit" the deal as it could create a "burden" for the next government, he said.

Pro- and anti-junta coalitions are jostling for the right to lead the government.

A spokesman for the Pheu Thai party, which leads the anti-junta coalition, said its requests for details on the deal have so far been stonewalled.

"These checks and balances will happen" after parliament is convened, warned party deputy spokesman Thepparith Senamngern.

"Things that are quickly passed can also be... revoked," he added.

The rail link still requires cabinet approval by the new government, which should be in place within weeks.

According to the EEC's website, the project will cost $7.1 billion.

An advisor to the EEC defended the award of the contract to CP Group.

Their proposal was "more attractive", Djitt Laowattana told AFP.

Although CP Group has little known experience in railways, it won the contract due to its close China ties, said Benjamin Zawacki, an expert on Sino-Thai relations.

Chinese investment is "the 'anchor' of the EEC," he added.

CP Group did not answer requests for comment.