By John Reed
Bangkok, January 9, 2018
Thailand’s military junta is staking its legacy on a plan to direct more than $45bn of investment into three eastern seaboard provinces, as it tries to revitalise lagging growth and prepare the south-east Asian kingdom for a new world of sharper competitive challenges.
As they seek to draw Asian, European and other investors into the Eastern Economic Corridor project, Thai leaders are racing against the clock ahead of an election planned for November that will mark the country’s first return to electoral politics since the 2014 coup that brought them to power. A bill on the EEC is set for approval by Thailand’s rubber-stamp Senate in the first quarter of this year.
The project includes several large-scale public-private partnership projects including a new international airport, port facilities, and road and railway links, while offering rich tax and regulatory breaks to lure private investors into setting up shop in the east of the country.
“The coming year will be one of the most important years for Thailand in terms of infrastructure,” said Kobsak Pootrakul, a minister in the government of General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the country’s prime minister. Thailand’s government says it will spend 1.5tn baht ($47bn), mostly on infrastructure, over five years in the east, but the sum appears to include both new projects and repackaged existing ones.
The EEC is an attempt by Thailand’s pro-royalist military rulers to replicate the success of an investment programme in the east carried out in the 1980s on the back of a natural gas boom that propelled the country’s rise as an export powerhouse.
This drew billions of dollars of Japanese, American and other investment into carmaking, electronics and other sectors, and paved the way for a decade of growth in which Thailand’s economy grew at an average annual rate of 9 per cent.
“The Eastern Seaboard project has been critical in changing Thailand and taking Thailand to this point, but it’s losing steam,” Mr Kobsak said.