An academic has voiced concerns over privileges to be granted to foreign investors under the proposed Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) legislation, especially in regard to 99-year land leases.
Somnuck Jongmeewasin, a lecturer at Silpakorn University's International College, said local people could end up being treated as "second-class citizens", as there will be many exemptions to Thai law and regulations under the EEC bill.
Earlier last week, Cabinet approved in principle the EEC bill, which will be reviewed by the Council of the State before being considered by the National Legislative Assembly.
Critics have expressed worries over the long 99-year land leases that would be allowed to encourage foreign investors to invest and do business in special economic zones designated under the EEC Bill.
Somnuck said more than 100 Thai laws and regulations would be amended or suspended in order to facilitate foreign investment under the bill so that foreign businesses can enjoy special privileges in Thai territory.
"This will be just like Hong Kong in the colonial era. Thai laws will not be fully enforced within the special economic zones under the EEC Bill and local people could be downgraded to be just second-class citizens," Somnuck said.
"Under this bill, around 10 laws and more than 100 articles will be waived for the establishment of the EEC and this will eliminate some legal protections in regard to the rights of Thai citizens."
The government's plan is to offer up to 631,000 rai (100,960 hectares) of land in the three eastern provinces of Chachoengsao, Chon Buri and Rayong to attract foreign investors, with laws and regulations waived in order to extend more privileges to foreign investors.
"If local people are lucky enough not to be driven from their land for special economic zone development, they will find themselves alienated in their own homeland, as all the regulations and resources will only provide benefits for foreign investors," he said.
The order by the National Council for Peace and Order to waive city planning rules within special economic zones is still in effect, so the EEC committee can choose any land within the three provinces to develop special |economic zones regardless of municipal regulations.
Moreover, under to the EEC |Bill, Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) would be conducted by a separate team of specialists focusing exclusively on the EEC, which raises questions about EIA standards.
Aside from the large land grab from local people to accommodate foreign conglomerates, Somnuck said foreign investors would also enjoy privileges such as tax exemptions for banking, renting property and buying residences inside the EEC zones.
"This means that there will be entirely new cities for foreign investors including housing, commercial areas, hospitals and international colleges. They will not only be industrial parks like before," he said.
"Foreign investors can also trade using foreign currencies directly without having to exchange it into Thai baht within the EEC areas."
Many have said the EEC Bill will boost the region and country, but Somnuck said the policy was unlikely to lead to true economic development because foreign investors could bring in specialists and experienced workers from other countries.
"Not only we will not learn from their technology, foreign investors can also set up in industries that we are good at, such as agricultural processing or tourism, and compete with our businesses," he said.