A multi-billion dollar infrastructure project intended to protect Thailand from a repeat of the devastating floods of 2011 was shot down in court on Thursday over environmental concerns and doubts about the South Korean contractor’s ability to complete the job.
Ever since 2011 flooding killed more than 800 people and put a major dent in the country’s economy, Thailand has placed flood defense high on the national to-do list. A large chunk of an $11 billion project to build reservoirs and other infrastructure went to Korea Water Resources Corp, better known as K-Water. South Korea-owned K-Water has faced harsh criticism from Thai media, which has highlighted its lack of experience and pointed to scrutiny directed at the company by a South Korean audit office over environmental damage caused by dams it built on four rivers.
But if shooting holes in K-Water is so easy, why did it win the contract? In the wake of Thursday’s ruling, Thai social media users were quick to circulate the above unconfirmed photo of Thailand’s exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra (front row, center), as one possible explanation. Thaksin is the brother of current prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and is widely believed to be exerting influence from abroad via Skype. Supoj Tovichakchaikul, acting chief of Thailand’s Office of the National Water and Flood Management Policy, defended K-Water and said its selection had been based on “ideas and works, not politics.”
The K-Water project, backed by Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party, is now a political hot potato. The opposition Democrat Party said it plans to impeach Shinawatra’s entire cabinet over the issue. Perhaps that’s one reason why Thailand’s television Channel 5 cut short a broadcast about K-Water’s finances part way though on Thursday evening, abruptly switching to a commercial midway through the segment. Channel 5 director-general Chatchai Sarikalaya told The Nation newspaper the report was dropped “because the news item remained unclear and could lead to lawsuits.”
The channel is owned by the Royal Thai Armed Forces, and Chatchai added that “Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha later instructed the station to make sure news presentations were credible.”