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Jun 16, 8:56 AM EDT

Thai PM gives order to fast-track Chinese-backed railway

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BANGKOK (AP) -- The head of Thailand's military government has used his special powers to cut through regulations and launch work on a much-delayed 179 billion baht ($5.27 billion) joint Thai-Chinese project for a new railway from Bangkok to the northeast.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha utilized Article 44 of the constitution imposed by the military after it seized power in May 2014. It allows him to issue orders overriding any other branch of government to promote public order and unity. Rights groups say it is essentially martial law in all but name.

The order, published late Thursday, covers construction of 252 kilometers (157 miles) to Nakhon Ratchasima. Extensions would eventually link Thailand's northern and southern borders, upgrading an antiquated system.

The rail project is part of China's "One Belt, One Road" project allowing cross-border development and connectivity among Asian countries, Africa, China and Europe.

Rail links are an important element of the concept, with China promoting expensive rail projects in Asia and Africa.

Prayuth said Thursday that his order will allow Chinese architects and engineers to begin work on the project without the need to meet Thai licensing restrictions.

The order also overrides a rule mandating that projects of over 5 billion baht ($147 million) be overseen by a committee and bypasses regulations about building in protected forest land, among other issues.

Transport Minister Arkhom Tempittayapaisith said Monday that once the order was issued, Thailand and China would be able to sign an agreement to begin construction by July.

The junta has been criticized for its frequent usage of Article 44, which was supposed to be for situations endangering public order.

Dr. Aksornsri Phanishsarn, director of the Thai Chinese Strategic Research Center, said she supports the railway construction project because it will be a good opportunity for Thailand to improve its railway system. However, she strongly disagreed with the government's use of Article 44.

"I do not agree with any attempts to invoke the absolute power of the current Thai government under Article 44 for whatever reasons," she said.

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