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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's prime minister will invoke an executive order to allow construction to start on a $5.5 billion railway project with China, which forms part of Beijing's regional infrastructure drive but has been beset by delays.
The high-speed link, in theory a centrepiece of Chinese-Thai cooperation, has been held up by years of negotiation over everything from cost and loan terms to land development rights.
A Thai government spokesman said on Tuesday that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who heads the junta that has ruled Thailand since a May 2014 coup, will invoke Article 44, a security order that gives him the power to push through policy. Prayuth will discuss the matter at a cabinet meeting next week.
The measure, dubbed the "dictators law", has been heavily criticized by rights groups. Government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said invoking Article 44 would clear hurdles such as building on protected land.
"This is why Article 44 is needed," he told reporters.
The $5.5 billion first phase of the railway will be a 250 km (155 miles) line between Bangkok and the northeastern province of Nakorn Ratchasima.
Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith said last month that construction would begin in August or September.
Thailand will largely fund the project and China will provide technical assistance under terms agreed so far.
Including later phases, the project intends to build a 873-km rail line linking Thailand's border with Laos to eastern ports and industrial zones.
China wants to connect its cities to trade centres in Southeast Asia, including Thailand's eastern industrial zones, as part of its 'One Belt, One Road' project, while Thailand needs to revamp its aging rail network and boost trade.
Thailand and China have enjoyed warmer relations following the 2014 coup which saw several Western nations downgrade ties with Thailand in response.
The rail project, however, has hit various delays over details including construction funding and technical assistance.
(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Kitiphong Thaicharoen and Satawasin Staporncharnchai; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Susan Fenton)