Opposition and Pheu Thai leader Sompong Amornwiwat raised questions about a government minister accusing him of being linked with illegal drugs and murder. It was the sting in the tail of a withering assessment of the government, its policies and the current Thai economy in which the Mr Sompong said Thailand was now referred to as the ‘sick man of Asia’ in international economic circles.

The opposition succeeded during Thursday and Friday in landing blows on the government regarding the economy and forced the government leader to suggest that the levels of tax in Thailand were going to rise. Both the leader of Pheu Thai and of the Future Forward party succeeded in raising serious questions about the new government’s economic policies in particular with regard to funding during the heated debate. The PM suggested twice that there were going to be more taxes levied from within the economy. The debate while it is expected to be followed by a vote which the government will carry, has exposed it’s handling of the economy which has deteriorated alarmingly since the election and is now its greatest weakness.

The Government’s policy debate which it is expected to win has been a success for the opposition parties notably Pheu Tai and Future Forward who pulled apart the government’s plans for the economy. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (right) defended the government defiantly but was forced to reveal that the government would need to raise taxes or borrow more to fund its plans. Pheu Thai leader, Sompong Amornwiwat (left inset), gave a withering assessment of the Thai economy as the ‘sick man of Asia’ and the government’s ability to fund its plans effectively. Future Forward founder and Secretary-General, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, used the occasion to defend his party from attacks but also went on the offensive questioning the government’s plans for new taxes. He wanted to know who would end up paying them? The House Speaker, Chuan Leekpai (bottom left), was forced at the beginning of the debate yesterday to instruct the prime minister to restart his speech and read the policy statement word for word into the parliamentary record.

Thailand’s opposition parties moved into action on Thursday and today as the prime minister presented the new government’s policy statement to parliament for a debate and subsequent vote. This is a significantly important constitutional step that has for weeks promised to be an important moment. It did not disappoint.

Extra security drafted in at TOT building as Government showdown with opposition took place Thursday and Friday

On Thursday morning, after an extensive security operation involving police and army beefing up existing security at the building including the presence of sniffer dogs, the heavy hitters from the government began to arrive at the former TOT Auditorium on Chaeng Watthana Road which is the temporary seat of Thailand’s parliament.

Second term as premier a far different proposition

The prime minister had only just started his speech after 10 am on his new government’s policy statement when he was stopped in his tracks by a series of objections which put him on notice that his second term as Thai premier would be an altogether different proposition to the first.

Spurious question regarding the prime minister’s oath of office defended easily

An early spurious objection querying the PM’s oath of office was dismissed easily as the result of a doctored video clip by Palang Pracharat MP, Virakorn Khamprakorb. But the opposition soon hit home when the prime minister was forced to restart his speech and read the government’s policy statement word for word to the chamber. 

Policy statement on the parliamentary record

Julaphan Amornwiwat of Pheu Thai raised the objection pointing out that failure to do so would mean that the parliamentary record would not be correct. Chonnan Srikaew of Pheu Thai also objected to the prime minister not addressing his speech to the chairman rather than the house as was required. 

Prime minister reminded by opposition MPs that they were not soldiers awaiting orders

During the exchanges, the prime minister was reminded by one opposition wag that on this occasion, he was not addressing and giving orders to soldiers awaiting orders. Following clarification of the situation by the House Speaker, Chuan Leekpai, the prime mInister resumed his address to the lower house in a lower, more official tone.

However, the policy debate also was an occasion where the opposition was soon raising fundamental questions on the government’s economic plans and policies that have hitherto not been explored or aired.

Opposition these two days drew blood on the economy and raised valid concerns

There is no doubt that here there is a feeling, after the two days, that they succeeded in drawing blood and that this strategy of attack worked well. A key area of weakness that emerged from the debate is the government’s high budget deficit and the ability to fund a series of high profile capital projects that are now, in the face of deteriorating economic data, what the government appears to be pinning its hopes on to salvage its reputation for competent economic management.

General Pryut showed respect and courtesy to parliament during a very taxing debate

General Prayut, to give him credit showed respect for the parliament but was defiant in defending his actions and government policy. At one point, the PM showed humility when he said that he was new to the parliamentary process but would learn. He also suggested that if the opposition were more patient, the government was willing to bring on board some of their policies and campaign proposals.

Opposition went on the offensive and forced the PM to concede there would be either more borrowing or higher taxes to fund economic plans

But Thursday and Friday were not days for patience. The opposition was on the attack. They questioned the government’s spending on defence and the now-famous submarine purchase from China. Responding to them, the prime minister did seem to indicate that the incoming government would either be borrowing more or resorting to higher taxes. 

Prayut fought back at critics of military spending and accusations of corruption in government

He defended spending on the military saying it must be equipped with efficient and effective weaponry. ‘In past governments, annual budgets were estimated at 2 trillion baht as well. But why did projects to build roads, trains, electric trains, and the Eastern Economic Corridor project not come about, unlike in my government? He invited anyone listening to unfounded rumours citing corruption to bring forward evidence and file a complaint with the proper authorities.

Pheu Thai and Future Forward Parties worked well in partnership in attacking the government

During the debate, what was notable was the effective partnership between the Pheu Thai and the Future Forward parties, the latter led in the chamber by its co-founder and secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul.

Both parties appeared responsible and in touch with the ‘grassroots’ Thai economy

What was even more impressive from the debate was how these two parties emerged as champions of responsible spending and prudent management of the economy while also highlighting what the leader of Pheu Thai pointedly referred to as the ‘grassroots’ of the Thai economy as opposed to the government’s now much-vaunted flagship policies and plans.

Future Forward secretary-general used the debate to defend criticism of his party

The co-founder and leader of Future Forward in the house was at pains to defend his party against a range of accusations currently being levelled against it. Recent complaints to the election commission have called for the party to be disbanded because its constitution pledges a commitment to constitutional democracy instead of a constitutional monarchy. The complaints question the party’s support for the monarchy. 

Piyabutr Saengkanokkul said his party also upheld Thailand’s monarchy and criticised suggestions of disloyalty to the state

Piyabutr Saengkanokkul used the occasion in parliament to refute such claims. He said that the Future Forward Party upheld the monarchy as an institution as much as any party in the house. He criticised the attempts to attack the new groundbreaking party supported by younger and more educated and urban voters, as a way to create division in the country. The opposition leader said it was wrong to equate disagreement about political views with disloyalty to Thailand.

Prime Minister walked out of the session at one point on Thursday night after a spat with Liberal leader

On Thursday night, the incessant political sparring and jibes got a bit too much for the prime minister famous for his unpredictable reaction to criticism and combative nature. At 9 pm he walked out of the session following an altercation with the Police General Seripisuth Temiyavej of the Liberal Party which holds 10 seats in the house and is one of the opposition parties in the seven-party alliance.

70-year-old Liberal Party leader questioned the head of government’s qualifications as PM

The PM took umbrage when the 70-year-old party leader who once trained in the Army Academy before pursuing a distinguished and successful police career, challenged Prayut on his qualifications to hold the job as Thailand’s prime minister.

Indignant Prayut expressed his personal displeasure at the comments before walking out

The personal attack led General Prayut to become indignant and point his finger at the man who is five years his senior. He expressed dismay at hearing what the Liberal Party leader had said saying he had previously considered the man a brother. General Prayut said that the opposition leader had failed to uphold this status by his less than respectful comments. He then left the auditorium forcing a break in proceedings.

Pheu Thai leader continued to attack the economy

The new Pheu Thai leader, Sompong Amornwiwat, continued to score points and press the government again on the economy. He said that the government’s plans and policies lacked focus and detail. He did not understand how the plans being touted could be financed.

Economic wisdom of giving social welfare cards to people with high levels of debt questioned

The Pheu Thai leader repeatedly brought up the issue of household debt in Thailand and questioned the government’s plans, endorsed by the IMF only last week, to hand out social welfare cards with an expansion of social welfare payments. ‘The level of household debt is currently at its highest level. If the government rushes to inject capital into the economy through welfare cards and other welfare policies, low-income earners will likely save the money to pay off their debt instead of spending it, contrary to the government’s intention of stimulating the grass-root economy,’ Sompong said.

Farmers being hit by drought and the high baht

The opposition leader also questioned how the government proposed to protect farmers’ incomes. This is particularly topical as many farmers are suffering right now from what is thought to be one of the severest droughts in decades, especially in the north of Thailand. They have already been hit by lower prices for exports caused by the highly valued baht.

Prachachat Party points to no timescales on economic plans mooted and talked about

The stinging criticism was reinforced by the leader of the Prachachat Party who questioned if there were any timescales on a slew of government economic plans to prime the economy. He said that many of the issues are now urgent such as agricultural incomes and the pressing need for economic stimulus.

Former Democrat minister called for more detail and raised the issue of economic sustainability

Even a member of the Democrat Party, a government coalition partner, joined those expressing the need for more detail. Former Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij suggested that more detail was required from the government on its economic plans and also to show that they meet the long term goal of economic sustainability.

PM again highlighted plans to increase the tax take in Thailand as well as a better collection system

In response, the prime minister again seemed to indicate that the government plans to increase the tax take. While talking about financial discipline, he again talked about an increase in the tax base and more efficient tax collection measures.

Future Forward leader Piyabutr Saengkanokkul: who will pay these new taxes in Thailand?

The Future Forward Party leader in the house also asked how the government could talk about financial discipline and simultaneously talk about pumping money into agriculture and to prime the economy. Piyabutr Saengkanokkul wanted to know the details of the new tax measures being proposed and ultimately who would end of paying the new taxes?

Thailand now regarded as the ‘sick man of Asia’ in economic circles – Sompong

The Pheu Thai leader, Sompong, was scathing of the new government and linked it with the last administration under the National Council for Peace and Order. He said that five years of General Prayut and his government have led to Thailand being regarded as the ‘sick man of Asia’ in economic circles. ‘Being the sick man of Asia is sad enough, but even more saddening is that the old economic team is also the government’s new economic team. Thailand today is like a sick man who is not dead yet, but will never grow up,’ he concluded in his withering assessment.

Thailand now among the top 10 countries in the world for levels of household debt

The Pheu Thai leader blamed the current predicament squarely on the previous government. The leader of the opposition again harked back to the question of household debt saying that Thailand was now among the top 10 countries in the world suffering from high levels of household debt which the economy continues to labour under.

Sting in the tail as opposition leader Sompong zeroed in on the past of one government ministe

There was a sting in the tail of the opposition leader’s attack. The Chiang Mai MP and former deputy prime minister raised the issue of the ministerial appointment of a person who he claimed had a criminal record and was linked to the sale of illegal drugs and even murder. 

Junior minister was once a Pheu Thai member and has a military background – praised recently by the PM

It is thought that he was referring to a junior minister in the new government. The junior minister is also a former member of Pheu Thai, Mr Sompong’s own party, who has a military background. The man is highly regarded in the government team for his ability to work effectively and was recently praised by the prime minister.

New minster has also defended himself strenuously against these claims linked to his past

The new minister has vehemently protested his innocence of the claims and rumours swirling about him. He clarified recently that he was arrested in Australia decades ago and spent 8 months in prison before being released. The minister, in his own defence, said that he was arrested by Australian police in a case mistaken identity. He later worked in sales at a high level in Australia before being deported in an immigration crackdown. He maintains that the old charges against him related to failing to report illegal drug dealing by other Thais living in Australia thirty years ago.

Government’s legal expert and deputy PM says the minster is not precluded as he has never been convicted of a crime by a Thai court

The man was also linked to a murder investigation in Si Sa Ket province in 1998 but was acquitted in the case. The minister points out that he has never violated any laws in Thailand. It is a position confirmed recently by the government’s legal expert and Deputy Prime Minister, Wissanu Krea-ngam. He clarified that the minster was not precluded from serving in government as he had no previous convictions under Thai law.