Thailand: Wheeling Or Dealing?

2001

Dr Anthony Diller

As Lafarge-Boral and their new Thai partner Siam Gypsum may be planning to move heavy loads on Thai roads, political potholes loom ahead for Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party. In fact the Thai trucking industry is making some of the first bumps publicly felt.

Colloquial Thai refers to large trucks by the number of wheels: 6-wheelers, 10-wheelers. For successive governments this has been no mere literary synecdoche. Wheel-count and weight together specify a dual regime of official and 'unofficial' taxes.

Unofficial payments have been going on for years. They are typically extracted at roadside checkpoints by the Thai highway patrol. Official police wages are scarcely enough for subsistence so collection is efficient. Pragmatic trucking bosses provide their 10-wheel drivers with enough baht in multiple envelopes for a given trip's known checkpoints. Bosses know that the envelopes cost them far less than sticking to the 21-tonne legal limit, below the break-even point for most hauling jobs.

With bribery so blatant, it might seem laudatory that a clean-up was proposed back in pre-crisis 1997 by the politician responsible for police, the Minister of Interior. Of bemusement to skeptics was the suggested method: to raise the legal 10-wheel weight limit from 21 to 30 tonnes. The Minister, Snoh Thienthong, claimed this increase would deprive corrupt police of their main pretext for extortion.

Of technical concern to engineer-bureaucrats was potential roadbed deterioration and whether Thailand's 11,000 highway bridges could sustain extra weight but others knew that 10-wheelers were regularly hauling 30-50 tonnes over these roads and bridges already. More scandalous: the Thienthong family owns a construction/trucking business, with a fleet of 200 or so 10-wheelers. Due to the political events of the economic crisis the Minister's truck-weight plan fizzled in 1997, but now the scheme has re-ignited.

Snoh is a well-known numbers-man who, say many, has been responsible for the making of three Prime Ministers: the current Thaksin, but formerly Banharn Silpa-archa (Chat Thai Party) and Chavalit Yongchaiyudh (New Aspiration Party). Thaksin has invited CTP and NAP into government to form what Thai papers see as the 'three-PM coalition'— with Snoh hovering above.

Snoh has exerted his influence by deft use of construction- and truck-generated capital along with strategic deployment of his Northeast-based political clique, the Wang Nam Yen faction. Over the years WNY has shifted alliance from one party to another, bringing old-style electoral success to each new host. Deals may be done over golf or even over golf courses: Thaksin's acquisition of a former Thienthong golf estate is now the subject of destabilising judicial scrutiny.

Given Thailand's new-style constitution and Thai Rak Thai's (TRT) proclaimed platform of bold debt-fighting and fiscal reform, some supporters were upset when Thaksin welcomed the tarnished old WNY clique into TRT. But the numbers worked: the TRT electoral victory was a landslide and Thaksin has rewarded WNY with three influential Deputy Minister appointments (Finance, Industry and Agriculture & Cooperatives). Snoh himself has gained Cabinet-level status as TRT Chief Adviser.

Snoh's chief advice has included putting the truck-weight limit back on the Cabinet table. This time though the WNY boss has Thaksin's own inner group as well as outer coalition malcontents to deal with. The truck-weight issue seems just a pretext for more truculent and significant infighting. Former Snoh political foes have joined in, provoking public brawls that threaten to crumble TRT-WNM-NAP-CTP political bridges faster than overloaded 10-wheelers can wreck the roads.

WATCHPOINT: Can Thai Rak Thai come up to speed on its newly laid-out reform superhighway or will old-style internal wrangling slam on the brakes, skidding the nation off into more fiscal quicksand?

 

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