Friday, August 31, 2007

Thailand's Internet Nannies

Daniel Ten Kate
30 August 2007
Offended by some content on YouTube and other sites, Thailand’s censors hope Thais will accept a sanitized alternative.

restrictedmedia1 Since the military government has banned popular video-sharing websites Veoh, Metacafe and others because users posted videos deemed offensive to the royal family, where can Thailand's netizens turn for video clips?

On Aug. 30, YouTube agreed to remove all "insensitive" videos and the government reached agreed to unblock the site. Veoh, Metacafe and a site called Downthisvideo are all still blocked.

But in the meantime, Thailand has come back with SiamTube, a website that delivers all the movie previews, flapping fat stomachs and gyrating dancers of those other sites with no nasty rumors about the royal family or insults to the monarchy.

The website was launched a few months ago — around the time YouTube was banned — by half-Thai, half-British actress and cover girl Sonia Couling and several business partners. The Eurasian model told local press SiamTube was conceived before YouTube got blocked, but implied that it wouldn’t make the same mistakes.

“Only YouTube is our direct competitor, so that is our strength because right now that website is still closed so this is a good chance for us,” she told the Thai-language publication Biz Week.

Indeed, given Sonia’s partners in developing the site, it’s unlikely that any offensive material would unwittingly sneak in. All the videos on the site now that refer to the country’s revered king are akin to the worshipful clips shown before any cinema screening in Thailand.

SiamTube was developed in conjunction with Mustang Technologies, an American software development firm with Board of Investment privileges that once received a visit from Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

“Obviously we are very sensitive to not upset the powers that be,” said John Kathrein, Mustang’s chief technology officer. “It just shows that YouTube doesn’t understand the love the Thai people have for the king.”

SiamTube was designed “to carve out a niche with local content,” Kathrein said, but added that the site would still uphold free speech.

“If it’s not insulting to His Majesty, or not insulting to the monarchy, then we will keep the video,” he said. “Anything that insults His Majesty the King, I wouldn’t hesitate to get rid of it. Even if it’s a gray area, it’s not worth upsetting people.”

Vietnamese company iWay, which helped Mustang build the site, said the partnership would look to develop similar websites in Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia—countries not exactly hailed for freedom of expression.

“We hope they will bring to visitors the best quality in the most conformable [sic] to their culture, politics, network infrastructure, hobbies and habits,” the company said in a statement on its website. Yet even as a market develops to serve governments who want to put a lid on political speech, the questions concerning how to protect both free speech and Thailand’s monarchy have still not been dealt with, technologically or politically. This allows the government free reign to ban anything it deems offensive to either the monarchy or national security — two catchall categories that could be stretched to mean just about anything.

Veoh, a site similar to YouTube, was blocked earlier this month after a user posted a rrisque personal video purportedly of the Thai Royal FamilyICT Minister Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom has said that YouTube would be unblocked once Thailand’s internet service providers (ISPs) have installed cache engines that allow officials to block individual URLs instead of entire websites. Supposedly this was going to happen a month ago, but still today visitors get this Thai-language message when clicking on YouTube, Veoh or Metacafe: “Sorry [state telecom company] TOT as an organization of Thailand has seized the connection of this website due to certain content, messages and images that are inappropriate that have had a tremendous impact on the hearts of Thai people.”

Apparently the Thai people are unable to look after their own hearts by simply not clicking on YouTube, so the Bangkok nannies will do it for them. Back in April when the site was first banned because of a crude clip that insulted the king with all manner of indignities, YouTube offered to “educate” Thai authorities about how to block certain videos. “It’s up to the Thailand government to decide whether to block specific videos, but we would rather that than have them block the entire site,” YouTube spokeswoman Julie Supan told Agence France-Presse at the time.

A senior ICT Ministry official said in an interview Monday that YouTube should come back online for Thai users “within this week. We are working with the private sector and YouTube headquarters.”

Although he wouldn’t disclose exactly how the situation would be resolved, he said: “YouTube cannot allow certain videos with the royal family because it’s against the right of privacy. The king is not a public person under the law. YouTube has also banned the video of [British princess] Diana’s car crash because it was private.”

“Frankly the status of the king doesn’t compare with the status of the US president; it’s different,” he added. “Someone very far from Thailand doesn’t understand, but we try to explain it to them.”

A compromise seems inevitable as fighting the web is almost surely a losing battle. Miscreants who want to see offensive videos can certainly do so through proxy servers or new video-sharing sites that pop up all the time. Indeed, blocking websites often simply draws attention to the banned videos, and the most lurid material often passes hand-to-hand aroundBangkok anyway.

The problem that free-speech advocates have is that YouTube’s closure comes amid a climate of suppression that has persisted since the military deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup last September. While Thaksin also stifled the media through heavy-handed libel lawsuits, corporate maneuvers and withdrawing advertising dollars of his family’s firms to unfriendly papers, the new government has done nothing to improve media freedom.

Although the new constitution supposedly increases media freedoms, eight laws sitting before the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly will actually undermine the guarantees in the new charter, Joel Simon and Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in The Nation newspaper earlier this month.

“The government’s new willingness to openly censor Internet-posted news suddenly puts Thailand in league with Asia’s more notorious media freedom violators, including the likes of China, Vietnam and Burma,” they wrote. “More broadly, it shows how the application of laws intended to protect the honor of Thailand’s widely revered monarch can have a sweeping and adverse impact on freedom of expression. With YouTube blocked, the Thai people are cut off from a vital new tool of global communication.”

Supinya Klangnarong, secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, said in an interview that the government had yet to distinguish between sites that are truly offensive to the monarchy and those that express legitimate political opposition.

“The media environment is not better than under Thaksin; it’s worse,” said Supinya, who suffered first-hand when Thaksin’s Shin Corp leveled a 400-million-baht libel lawsuit against her — a case she eventually won.

“Thaksin tried to control things too much, but we were able to fight back,” she said. “But under this government when you try to fight back they say you don’t love the nation, don’t love the king, and you are a bad person. They scare people from upholding these rights, which deeply affects the country’s democracy.”

Thailand's southern rebels prepared for 5 more years before they will talk to government

Policeman so scared of insurgent attack on outpost he kills himself


A police lance corporal shot himself dead at an outpost in Pattani's violence-plagued Sai Buri district yesterday after suffering from stress caused by fear of an insurgent attack. Pol L/Cpl Adisak Khanpabutra, 25, was found dead in the outpost about 7am yesterday.

Sai Buri police chief Pol Col Khamron Yodrak said Pol L/Cpl Adisak had been positioned in the district for three months and had a history of mental problems.

Police colleagues said he was playing a computer game and listening to radio before shooting himself in the head.

His death has triggered concern about the mental health of police officers working in the deep South.

The government should take their welfare seriously, Pol Col Khamron said.

The post where Pol L/Cpl Adisak was stationed had previously been attacked. Three policemen were killed.

The size of the unit was later increased to better protect the outpost. This caused overcrowding, on top of the anxiety about future attacks.

In Mayo district, village head Masameg Sameng was shot dead and three other people were wounded in an attack on Wednesday night.

In Yala, a janitor and his daughter were injured in a drive-by shooting in Muang district yesterday morning.

The National Defence College has issued recommendations on coping with the southern violence, urging state agencies to take into account external factors such as the Islamic revolution for pure Islam and anti-globalisation in their counterinsurgency strategies in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.

Army spokesman Col Akkara Tipparoj said this week's Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on violence in Thailand's deep South confirmed that villagers there were victims of severe human rights violations by insurgent groups.

Released on Tuesday, the report said Muslim Malay rebels in the region are prepared to continue their armed struggle for an independent Muslim homeland for another five years before they contemplate talks with the Thai government.

It confirmed that more than 2,400 people have been killed in the violence since it erupted in January 2004.

Col Akkara said the report was a wake-up call for all Thais to help put an end to the unrest in the far South.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Thai Esso Likely To Launch IPO Around April

Government Official
Dow Jones

NGKOK -(Dow Jones)- Oil refiner Esso Thailand, a unit of ExxonMobil Corp. ( XOM), is likely to sell shares via an initial public offering in April next year, a senior government official said Monday.

An amended contract between the Ministry of Energy and Esso will allow the company to sell at least 25% of its shares, up from the previous 20%, in order to meet Stock Exchange of Thailand requirements, said Viraphol Jirapraditkul, director-general of the Energy Policy and Planning Office.

Esso, which has a refining capacity of 170,000 barrels a day and a 13% share of Thailand's refined oil market, is expected to submit its IPO filing to the stock exchange in November or December, he said in a statement. ...more....

Thailand's salary gap 2nd largest in Asia

local salary gap near top in Asia

The pay gap between clerical staff and senior management in Thailand is the second largest in Asia, according to the management consultancy Hay Group.

Senior managers have gross salaries 10.6 times those of lower-ranking clerical staff, a level second only to Vietnam. More developed economies in the region such as Australia, South Korea and New Zealand have pay gaps of just 3.1 times, following the trends of mature economies such as the UK and US.

Boonlerd Viboonkiat, country manager for Hay Group's reward information services, said the pay gap in Thailand was influenced by the need for companies to recruit higher paid expatriates to compensate for local skill shortages.

''Thailand's high ranking is in part due to the fact that starting salaries for clerical jobs in Thailand are relatively low,'' he said.

''At the other end, bigger salaries are being used to bring in senior managers, often from overseas, due to a skill shortage here,'' he said.

Roland Ruiz, Hay managing director in Singapore for reward information in Asia, agreed that the lack of skills in the labour force for emerging Asian markets was producing the wide pay gap.

''Our analysis shows that the powerful growth of emerging Asian markets is outstripping the global supply of senior managers,'' he said.

''In Vietnam and China, there is a real lack of management talent. Pay is indicative of the premiums being paid to managers to attract and retain them. This trend is likely to continue as the Asian economy continues to enjoy positive growth.''

From 2005 to 2007, the gap did not narrow for countries such as India, China and Vietnam, due to strong economic growth.

The pay gap in the Philippines remained relatively constant due to strong unions, while Pacific countries such as Australia and New Zealand and developed Asian economies including Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea also saw relatively little change.

But the Hay Group cautioned that the pay gap in Asia should widen over the next five years ''as the global war for top level management talent intensifies''.

Mr Ruiz said the widening gaps would have social and business implications for companies and policymakers.

''Governments may choose to impose minimum wage schemes or reform their tax structures in the short term, or invest in more education and training in the longer-term so as to spread the economic gains. All these will have implications on companies doing business in these countries,'' he said.

''The widening pay gap is also indicative of the wide divide in skills and capabilities between senior executives and clerical employees. Economic globalisation will continue to put competitive pressures on companies and governments to come up with the right mix of talent and compensation policy across the entire workforce spectrum.''

Mr Ruiz said governments face a challenge in balancing between ''having a globally cost-competitive work force and socio-economic equity''.

Companies meanwhile need to make strategic choices about their locations and parts of their business to best spend compensation dollars.

Thailand's auto industry tunes up for investments

Thailand forecasts 100 billion baht worth of investment in the automobile industry over the next three years based on the industry's new master plan.

Vallop Tiasiri, general director of the Thailand Automotive Institute, said yesterday that there would be a new wave of investment in the country's automotive industry.

He projected the amounts committed would reach 100 billion baht through various projects over the next three years.

To handle such an inflow, the institute is mapping out an industry master plan. It recently held a conference with local automobile and auto-parts makers to brainstorm the direction of the master plan in collaboration with the Industry Ministry.

Mr Vallop said Thailand could act as a gateway to Asean, which is nearly as large as the Chinese and Indian markets. In addition, Thailand has improved many facilities and services to accommodate multinationals.

Deputy Prime Minister and Industry Minister Kosit Panpiemras said that under the master plan, the government would work together with the private sector, particularly in areas of human resources, technology and supporting industries and the auto-parts industry.

The plan aims to enable automotive and auto-parts producers in Thailand to efficiently improve their capabilities to meet the changing environment and tougher competition in the world market.

According to Mr Kosit, Mitsubishi Motor has been investing around 800 million baht in technology development for its one-ton pickup truck production.

In addition, Ford has expressed interest in investing more than US$1 billion, or around 34-35 billion baht, to expand its auto production in Thailand, while Honda plans substantial investment in the local production of eco-cars _ the energy-saving, small-engine vehicles.

In addition, two more Japanese automakers are planning to apply for eco-car production by November, said Mr Kosit.

British and Italian carmakers are also exploring the possibility of investing in the production of motorcycles and passenger cars in Thailand, said Mr Kosit.

But automotive and parts makers yesterday voiced concern over the stability of the Thai government and the continuity of the country's economic policy.

''What the private sector wants from the next government is a clear economic policy. The government is required to give us a long-term direction _ what it expects of the industry over the next 10-15 years,'' commented a representative from General Motors Thailand.

Most of the car producers' representatives also expressed concern over the stability of the Thai baht, which would affect their performance.

Pramot Pongthong, president of the Thai Auto Parts Manufacturers' Association, said the government should include in the master plan a scheme to develop an auto-parts testing centre to boost the country's competitiveness.

''China and India are eagerly developing local facilities to accommodate investment in their automotive industries, including auto-part testing facilities. Thailand's competitiveness could be eroded if the country ignores this project,'' he said.

Actually, such a plan was proposed to the government four years ago, with the required investment of 5-7 billion baht, he said.

Monday, August 27, 2007

thailand's Samart may sell Cambodia air traffic stake


Samart Corp is considering divesting its 100% stake in Cambodia Air Traffic Service (Cats), according to unnamed sources.

Cats, which has 22 years remaining on its 30-year concession from the Cambodian government to offer air traffic control services, could fetch a hefty price from foreign buyers, considering the economic and tourist potential of the country.

One source said foreign buyers have suggested a pricetag as high as $1 billion to buy the company.

But advisers to the Vilailuck family, the major shareholders of Samart, are advising that a share sale should only be for a 20% to 25% in Cats.

"The value of the company rests with the concession and monopoly rights. The protection period has a significant amount of time remaining, and the potential value is very high," one source said. "There have been a number of offers so far. But no firm buyer has yet been selected."

Sources said Samart's investments in Cambodia offer significant upside potential as the Cambodian economy continues to grow and open up to foreign investment. Economic growth over the past three years has averaged 11.4% and is projected to reach 9% this year, compared to just 4% for Thailand.

Cambodia's favourable location in Indochina also offers benefits to Cats for air traffic moving to Thailand, Hong Kong and Vietnam.

Watchai Vilailuck, the Samart president, said no decision had been made on the company's policies toward its Cats subsidiary. Samart wanted to expand its I-Mobile brand into the region, given the significantly higher margins offered to the company from sales when compared with handset sales for international brands like Nokia or Motorola.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Bangkok airport's making porgress to fix problems

Smooth landing in sight

Suvarnabhumi Airport is slowly resolving problems that have rankled passengers and airlines alike


It will be one year next month since the premature opening of Suvarnabhumi Airport amid a host of problems including widespread corruption, construction defects, mismanagement and service deficiencies.

Have the flaws, which have given the 155-billion-baht airport a bad name internationally rather than being the "pride of Thailand," been fixed over the past 11 months?

A fair answer is that the facility's drawbacks, which have irked travellers and those whose work revolves around the airport, are getting fixed, albeit slowly.

But the good news is that fixing problems at Bangkok's new international airport is receiving greater attention from Airports of Thailand Plc (AoT), the 70% state-owned monopoly that runs the kingdom's six major airports.

AoT now seems to be more focused on correcting the airport's shortcomings, rather than devoting all of its effort to dealing with corruption cases related to airport construction and equipment-supplying contracts, concession deals and others.

However, Serirat Prasutanond, the general manager of Suvarnabhumi Airport, insisted in an interview with the Bangkok Post that the airport officials were doing their best to resolve problems.

Furthermore, AoT is even challenging itself in a very ambitious plan to gain a top ranking in the global chart as one of the world's favourite airports in the next two years.

"Our aim is to become one of the top 10 best airports in the world in the annual rating by the Airports Council International (ACI) in 2009 and move further up in the ladder in the following years," said Mr Serirat.

Suvarnabhumi is now 40th in the ranking of ACI, the Geneva-based organisation representing 1,643 airports in 178 countries and territories.

In March it named South Korea's Incheon International the "Best Airport Worldwide for 2006", followed by Hong Kong International Airport, Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Singapore Changi Airport, respectively.

These are the airports that have strived to give what travellers want, by offering a good airport ambience, a sense of security, clean terminals, friendly and courteous staff and comfortable waiting areas, to name just a few factors.

Showing its intention to resolve service deficiencies at Suvarnabhumi, AoT has commissioned ACI to conduct a series of passenger surveys on service quality and what really needs to be done to satisfy travellers.

The 900,000-baht survey will involve 700 questionnaires in the first quarter of the study, with a final report due in the next 18 months.

AoT has already spent about 600 million baht fixing problems at Suvarnabhumi and another 500-million-baht budget is on its way to address unresolved issues.

"If that is not enough we can always ask for more, as AoT is really serious about solving pending problems," Mr Serirat said.

AoT's current mission is geared toward completely eliminating passenger-service deficiencies at Suvarnabhumi by the end of this year.

"With several improvements underway, Suvarnabhumi would be able to offer the speedy, connivent and safe services to passengers by the end of this year," he said.

According to Mr Serirat, one of the most irritating issues, the shortage of toilets, is being cleared, with facilities capable of accommodating 208 more people being added to the existing ones that are capable of serving 1,464 people at any one time.

New toilets come with a better design, materials and equipment that are easier to locate with bigger signs.

Some of the existing restrooms, while functiong well but looking dull in shades of grey, have also been undergoing improvement.

The dim lighting issue has been tackled with the rearrangement of lighting angles and addition of reflectors and more lights in required spots.

Signage has also been improved. More than 300 additional signs have been installed in various spots such as the check-in area, ways to departure gates and fire escapes, with colour schemes in compliance with international colour-coding standards.

In the near future, Chinese characters will be added to the signs, now in Thai and English, at key spots or main junctions. Thee main direction signs, now in shades of grey on a white background, are being replaced by white characters on bright blue for more visibility.

As many as 2,000 chairs were brought from the old Don Muang airport, raising the numbers of terminal seating capacity to 20,000, thus clearing another main passenger complaint.

The recent completion of repairs to a taxiway has also enabled AoT to reopen 10 aircraft parking bays, solving one of the problems requiring embarking and disembarking passengers to be transferred by coaches from remote bays to the terminal, he added.

Next year, the airport will continue with another major campaign, to inspire service mind in those responsible for running Suvarnabhumi, including 2,900 AoT staff and more than 6,700 contractors' employees.

Mr Serirat also regconised the need to remove the authoritarian and monopolistic attitude among airport personnel, including immigration and customs officers, and replace it with a mindset that is more passenger-friendly.

Plans are afoot to draw up a best-practices reference that all parties dealing with passenger services will be committed to observe.

But despite a host of problems including damage to runways and taxiways, Suvarnabhumi has not posed any safety concerns to the 90 airlines that have aircraft taking off and landing 800 times a day, involving around 120,000 passengers daily.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Thailand to Extend Chevron Gas Rights Soon

Thailand to Extend Chevron Gas Rights Soon

City of Industry, CA --( 08/24/2007 - Energy industry news provided by Financial News USA (OTC: FNWU). Thailand will soon extend offshore gas oil rights held by Chevron Corp (NYSE:CVX) by 10 years to 2022, the Thai energy minister said. Chevron and PTT Exploration & Production PCL (PTTEP) have requested permission to carry on operating their separate fields in the Gulf of Thailand after the original concessions expire in 2012. "The talks are nearly concluded. There's only a minor legal problem but we will conclude the talks soon," Piyasvasti Amranand told reporters in a ASEAN ministerial meeting in Singapore.

Thai largest biodiesel producer builds fourth plant


THAILAND: Thai oil refining company Bangchak Petroleum Plc. will invest about US$28 million to US$31 million to build a biodiesel plant by the end of this year, Patiparn Sukorndhaman, Bangchak's senior executive vice-president said in a statement. The new plant, which will be capable of producing up to 300,000 litres a day, will be located near Bangchak's existing oil storage facilities in Bang Pa-in, Ayutthaya. Construction of the plant is expected to be complete within two years.

Of the total investment, up to US$9 million would be drawn from internal funds and the rest from bank borrowings, lifting Bangchak's debt-to- equity ratio twofold. Bangchak said it now holds 78.6 percent of Thailand's total market volume of 30 million litres per month as the market leader in Thailand's biodiesel industry, followed by state-owned PTT Plc with 21.4 percent. Patiparn said the company's biodiesel production output rose by 47 percent to 28.7 million litres per month over the past six months.

Bangchak is responding to a call from the local government for all oil companies to switch the diesel products to B2, a fuel blend containing two percent biodiesel and 98 percent diesel.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Thailand plans biodiesel plant near old capital

Bangchak plans biodiesel plant

B900m facility to be located in Ayutthaya


Bangchak Petroleum Plc plans to invest between 900 million and one billion baht to build a biodiesel plant by the end of this year, according to Patiparn Sukorndhaman, Bangchak's senior executive vice-president. The new plant, with a daily production capacity of 300,000 litres, is scheduled to be completed within 20-23 months.

Mr Patiparn said the plant would be located near Bangchak's existing oil storage facilities in Bang Pa-in, Ayutthaya, to save the company's logistics cost.

Of the total investment, up to 300 million baht would come from the company's capital and the rest from loans, which would lift its debt-to-equity ratio to two times from 0.6 currently.

Bangchak is now the leader in the biodiesel market, with a share of 78.6% of total market volume of 30 million litres per month, followed by PTT Plc with 21.4%.

Mr Patiparn said the company's biodiesel production output rose by 47% to 28.7 million litres per month over the past six months. At 70 satang per litre cheaper than conventional diesel, the alternative fuel will become increasingly popular locally.

In addition, starting in April next year, the government will call on local oil companies to switch all their diesel products to B2, a blend of 2% biodiesel and 98% diesel fuel.

The move would encourage and build up confidence among motorists to use the much cheaper B5 (a blend of 5% biodiesel).

Mr Patiparn said Bangchak forecast its total revenue would grow 15% this year to 107.57 billion baht although its gross refining margin would decline to below US$2.90 per barrel this year on average compared to more than $3 per barrel on average last year.

The revenue growth would be contributed by the company's promising exports of fuel oil, which account for 30% of its total output, to China. This year, it will ship around 25,000 barrels per day of fuels to China, almost double the 14,000 barrels per day last year. The export price is now around $8-10 per barrel.

Nevertheless, the exports would have to be terminated in the fourth quarter when its product quality improvement (PQI) facilities have been completed. The facilities will transform fuel oil into more lucrative lighter fuel products including gasoline and diesel.

Bangchak will shut down two-thirds of its production capacity for 12 days in February next year, which will cause its capacity to decrease to 40,000-50,000 barrels per day from 70,000 barrels currently.

Bangchak now ranks fourth in the local retail market, with a 12.5% share or 180 million litres per month, after PTT (32.9%), Esso (17.5%), and Shell (15.9%).

Bangchak reported first-half profits of 880.6 million baht, down from 907.81 million in the same period the year before. Total revenues fell to 44.56 billion baht in the first half compared with 51.87 billion in the same period last year.

Second-quarter profits were 881 million baht, up from profits of 393 million last year. Revenues fell slightly to 24.37 billion baht in the second quarter compared with 25.16 billion last year.

Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation in the second quarter were 1.44 billion baht, up from 958 million in the same period last year. Refinery earnings rose 172 million baht year-on-year to 1.36 billion baht in the second quarter, while marketing earnings rose 314 million to 82 million in the quarter.

Bangchak shares (BCP) closed yesterday on the Stock Exchange of Thailand at 11.90 baht, down 10 satang, in trade worth 11.19 million baht.

Thailand plans for nuclear power by 2020

Atomic energy seen as efficient, cost-effective

Singapore _ Thailand plans to generate 4,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2020 under a plan to find alternative sources of energy, a senior Energy Ministry official said yesterday.

Deputy permanent secretary for energy Kurujit Nakornthap told an Asean energy business forum in Singapore that the government needs seven years from 2007 to develop safety standards, establish the regulatory framework and train the necessary personnel. Another six years would be needed after that to complete the plant's construction, he added.

The decision to include atomic energy in its long-term development plan was made because nuclear energy is recognised as efficient and cost-effective, and emits no carbon dioxide.

Nuclear safety issues are expected to feature prominently in talks among Southeast Asian ministers in Singapore today, as more countries look to nuclear as an alternative amid soaring oil prices, diplomatic sources said.

Energy ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will hold a one-day meeting _ first among themselves and then with counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea.

Energy ministers from Australia, India and New Zealand will join the meeting later in the day, the Singapore government said in a statement.

Diplomatic sources said a key topic will be safety issues, following a move by several countries in the region to build nuclear plants to meet growing electricity needs and reduce dependence on oil and natural gas.

In addition to Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam have announced plans to tap nuclear energy, but environmentalists have warned about safety risks as the region does not have the expertise to operate such plants and deal with nuclear waste disposal.

The Thai government has not decided on the location of the plant but Ranong, Chumphon and Surat Thani, all close to the sea in order to supply water to the plant, have emerged as possible sites.

The armed forces recently offered their Sattahip naval base in Chon Buri as a possible site if other sites face opposition, but the offer could not be confirmed.

Korb Krittayakeeron, a former National Science and Technology Development Agency official, is chairman of a committee on the feasibility of the plant.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Thailand budgets 21 million Euro for TV security cameras in Muslim South

By Saigon Charlie

allocated a budget of 969 million baht (or nearly 21 million Euro) to go towards the purchase of closed-circuit television cameras which are to be installed in the south of Thailand.

The camera installation project will cover five major southern provinces and is to be overseen by the the Finance Ministry and the Budget Bureau.

Sources state that Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont was not present at the morning meeting as he was attending bilateral talks with the Malaysian government, discussing among other topics, how to end the violence in the southern Thailand.

Thailand to expand tuna fleet

TUF to expand tuna and shipping fleet


Thai Union Manufacturing, a unit of Thai Union Frozen Products (TUF), has announced investments totalling 440 million baht in five new companies to expand its tuna operations and shipping fleet.

Thiraphong Chansiri, the TUF president, said the investments would be to procure four purse-seiners and one fish-searching vessel for use in catching tuna in the Indian Ocean.

Each purse-seiner would have onboard cold-storage capacity of 700 to 1,100 tonnes. The new vessels are expected to supply 25,000 tonnes of tuna per year, or 8% of the total annual requirement of the country's largest seafood company. Mr Thiraphong said the vessels would be ready for operations by the end of the month.

''Tuna in the form of frozen loins or in cans are our key products that have produced steady growth over the years. We would like to secure fish supplies to meet continual growth in the market. Having our own tuna vessels will certainly help achieve this objective,'' he said.

The TUF group currently requires 300,000 tonnes of tuna per year, with daily production capacity of 1,200 tonnes.

Mr Thiraphong said the investment would also help the company take advantage of lower import tariffs under the new Japan-Thailand economic partnership agreement (JTEPA) and the European Union's Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) tariff scheme.

''The JTEPA requires fish used in canned tuna exported from Thailand to be sourced either from Asean-registered boats or any member of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission,'' Mr Thiraphong said.

''The fish supply from Thai-registered tuna boats is very limited due to the small fleet available. ... At the moment, tuna fishing in the Western Pacific and Indian oceans is dominated by the Taiwanese, the Japanese and the Spanish.''

TUF reported first-half profits of 957.9 million baht, up 27% from a year earlier. The company will pay an interim dividend for first-half operations of 0.55 baht per share on Sept 18, with the share registration closed on Sept 7.

TUF shares closed yesterday on the SET at 23.80 baht, up 0.85%, in trade worth eight million baht.

Thailand to develop potash mine for chemical fertilizers


Italian-Thai Development Plc (ITD) plans to earmark 12 billion baht to develop a potash mine immediately if it receives approval in the face of opposition from environmental groups.

The company acquired a potash mining concession and business in Udon Thani from Asia Pacific Potash Corporation (APPC) last year. It has not been able to not start mining because of opposition from conservation groups and non-governmental organisations.

It has embarked on a large public relations programme to ease opposition, and capitalise on the booming potash market. Visuth Jirathiyut, managing director of APPC, said opposition had prevented the mine's former Canadian owners from starting production despite having held a concession since 2001.

He said potash had been in great demand, particularly in the United States, Brazil, China, India and Asean where the consumption of chemical fertilisers has increased continuously.

While annual demand for potash in Asia is as high as 18-20 million tonnes, only three million tonnes could be produced from sources in China, the Middle East, Canada, Russia and Germany.

The benchmark price of potash set in Vancouver, Canada has risen gradually, from an average of US$161 a tonne in 2005, $174 last year and $180 so far this year. Consumption is expected to grow 3% annually from 2006 to 2011.

ITD expected it would produce around 45 million tonnes of potash in the remaining 22 years of the concession.

The company plans to produce one million tonnes of potash annually in an initial period and to increase production to two million tonnes in the fifth year of operation. Around 12 billion baht would be set aside to support production.

Thailand imports between 400,000 and 455,000 tonnes of potash worth 3-4 billion baht each year for chemical fertiliser production.

Should it manage to weather the opposition by environmentalists and NGOs, he believed, other mines now in the exploration stages in Sakon Nakhon, Khon Kaen, Nakhon Ratchasima, and Maha Sarakham could start production without resistance.

He expressed confidence that Thailand would become a potash production base in Asia because production sources in the country are high quality. He said the company hoped the new government would support and promote the project.

Shares of ITD closed yesterday on the SET at 6.85 baht, up 50 satang, in trade worth 139.21 million baht

Malaysia, Thailand ink pact to boost education, economy in Thailand's insurgency-hit south

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia: Malaysia will help train Thai Muslim religious teachers and provide scholarships for students in insurgency-wracked southern Thailand under a pact signed Tuesday, officials said.

Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont arrived in Malaysia late Monday for a three-day official visit aimed at securing Malaysia's help in boosting the economy in Thailand's Muslim-dominated south and curb the insurgency that has killed more than 2,400 people since 2004.

Most of the violence has been in provinces near Thailand's border with Muslim-majority Malaysia, which is concerned that it could destabilize the region.

Surayud and his Malaysian counterpart Abdullah Ahmad Badawi witnessed the signing of the agreement on cooperation in education after talks at the administrative capital, Putrajaya.

The pact will create linkages between the two countries' education institutions especially in southern Thailand, and cover areas such as religious education, curriculum development and training, Malaysia's Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told national Bernama news agency.

Some 100 Thai educators and religious teachers are expected to be sent to Malaysia at the end of this month for training, said a Thai education official, who declined to be named because she is not authorized to speak to the media. No other details were immediately available.

Accompanied by a high-powered entourage that included his foreign, defense, education and interior ministers, Surayud was given a red-carpet welcome at Putrajaya on Tuesday.

Both Surayud and Abdullah are due to fly to the northern resort island of Penang on Wednesday for a meeting expected to focus on security and economic development in Thailand's restive south.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar has said that the leaders were likely to discuss setting up an Islamic bank in southern Thailand, with the expertise provided by Malaysia's central bank.

He has said talks would center on education, employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for Thailand's southern provinces, which are among the country's poorest and have long complained of discrimination by the government.

Syed Hamid and other ministry officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Lockheed wins radar contract from Thailand

The Royal Thai Air Force has awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin in Salina to make a long-range air surveillance radar that will complete a multi-phase national air defense system for Thailand.

The TPS-77 will be installed and operational in 2009. The transportable radar provides continuous, high-quality 3-D surveillance on aircraft targets at ranges to 250 nautical miles.

The company declined to reveal the contract's dollar amount, citing competitive reasons. This is Lockheed Martin's first direct commercial sale to the government of Thailand.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


About the best thing that can be said about growing old is that it beats the alternative, but as SIRIPORN SACHAMUNEEWONGSE reports, there are a number of positive steps that can be taken to add value to the twilight years

When we are born, we're surrounded in the caring arms of our parents, who from then onwards watch out for us in whatever we do. They understand our cries, admire our laughter, find happiness in our smiles and are excited upon hearing our first words and seeing our first footsteps.

But as the years go by and we go off to school and then get caught up in our work and in our own lives and families, the older generations often fade into the background. These days, particularly with the influence of western values, it is not uncommon in Thailand, or other eastern countries for that matter, for the younger generations to strike out on their own, and after a time some may begin to ignore or even abandon their parents and grandparents. The question then follows as to how the seniors left at home are able to cope with a reality that would have been unthinkable in the not-too-distant past.

For example, I have a neighbour, an old woman, who lives alone in a classic Thai-styled wooden house. With regret, I must say that I doubt she goes anywhere, or has any visitors at all. I have spotted her only once in the past 7 years.

According to my own parents, in this neighbour's house once lived a happy family of five. She has lived through the death of her partner and now survives in solitaire, without the company of her children or grand-children, a gloomy fate for an Asian matriarch.

Older ladies in an exercise group line up at a local park for free sportswear. Social participation is an important requirement for active aging.

Generally speaking, old age has little fascination for either the young or old, certainly as far as the physical aspects go. The wrinkles, the lost muscle tone, the thinning and graying hair, in addition to lower immunity levels, frailty and loss of vigour, all define the final stages of life.

Yet, for better or worse, the statistics point to an aging population throughout most parts of the world, and this includes Thailand. There are around 7 million people aged 60 or above in this country at present, which amounts to 11% of the national population. It is projected that by 2020 this figure will rise to 10.8 million, at that time around 17% of the population.

In addition, there are also a number of indicators that point to significant changes in the traditional Thai family structure, which in the old days effortlessly and naturally accommodated older family members.

Considering the new trend of greater independence for the young, which tends to weaken the safety nets for the old, and the rising proportion of older people, it becomes critical for the government to take appropriate actions and implement policies to address the health and socio-economic needs of the elderly.

At the recent Seminar on the Social, Health and Economic Consequences of Population Aging in the Context of Changing Families, co-organised by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Unescap), the UN Population Fund and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, it was noted in the Thai delegation's statement that as a result of changing social values and economic conditions, the elderly are more likely to live alone at home, especially in rural areas where the younger generations frequently migrate to urban and industrial zones for the purpose of education and employment. It was also noted that Thai families are becoming smaller, which leaves less potential care givers for the elderly.

Supot Dantrakul, 84, (above) and Dr.Phichai Tovivich, 68, (below picture) are fine examples of active aging.

In such changing times, it may, therefore, be beneficial to gain more understanding of how to deal with the process of aging, and just as important, to recognise the concept of "active aging".

There is a difference between aging, and aging well, or active aging. Active aging, according to the Asia-Pacific Population Journal put out by Unescap, refers to the fulfillment of older persons in different domains, namely personal, family, social and professional.

The World Health Organisation defines active aging as the process of optimising opportunities for health, social participation and security in order to enhance the quality of life.


An example of someone who is aging well is Supot Dantrakul. Born in Nakhon Si Thammarat province in 1923, the 84-year-old writer is recognised for his works on Thai politics, history and Buddhism. He now lives in Nonthaburi with one of his 6 children. He reflected that aging is a part of the natural process, and as such it is not something that should be feared or loathed, but accepted.

"Everything happening around us is correct within the laws of nature...One will be able to realise this only if they try to understand nature.

"Whatever has to happen will happen. Change is inevitable. Even illness and disease, it is all destined," he continued. "Some older persons fail to understand this law and therefore live through old age in distress."

Although he acknowledged that financial security is particularly important for the elderly, he suggested that if one understands the law of nature and accepts change willingly, there should be no problems at any age.

However, he noted, many older people become the victim of negative thinking, which is why so many are prone to psychological illnesses.

Dr.Phichai Tovivich

As for himself, he says that he just tries to be the best human being that he can. He is absolutely content with his achievements and contributions to society and continues to write even today.

He recognises that as people age the roles and duties as a child, husband/wife, parent and as a contributor to society by way of occupation are gradually fulfilled, but it is essential to consider that even in old age one can contribute to society. "If one is alive, there should be some purpose to it," he thought.

Another actively aging senior is Dr Phichai Tovivich - 69 and the president of the Centurion Club of Thailand. He is always involved in some sort of meaningful social activity, whether organising spiritual discourses under the Samnak Poo Sawan's Fellows Society or representing the World Citizen Association (Thailand). He is president of both organisations. He remarked that the age of 60, the present measure for retirement in Thailand, was not ideal. For many careers, for example that of a university professor, functionality and even excellence can persist for many years past the mandatory retirement age.

"One's retirement should be assessed based on the requirements of the profession as well as the health of the individual. It should not only be subject to one's age as there are many other aspects to be considered," said Dr Phichai, who at 69 remains perfectly fit, cheerful and active, ready to take up his various roles in society.

Like Supot, Dr Phichai is totally content with his life too. He did confess to one regret - that as a chemistry professor at Chulalongkorn for over 2 decades he may have given his students only superficial knowledge.

"Such knowledge is everywhere; it is accessible by 2 fingers via the Internet nowadays. It is wisdom that is more important - the key to help solve life's problems."

His practical and positive message for the elderly is that they should try to shift their focus to keeping the mind relaxed. Remarking that this is sometimes easier said than done, he suggested prayer, meditation and religious involvement as being very helpful.

Thailand is world's number one rubber exporter

Rubber export growth bestin five years

Rubber exports this year from Thailand, the world's biggest producer, will probably rise at the fastest pace in five years as production outpaces local demand.

The country plans to ship 3.1 million tonnes of the commodity this year, 12% more than in 2006, said Somjate Pratummintra, a senior rubber policy adviser at the Agriculture Ministry. Shipments would probably rise to 3.5 million tonnes in 2008, he said.

Increased shipments may extend losses in rubber prices in Tokyo, the global benchmark. Futures prices yesterday in Tokyo were near eight-month lows as a strengthening yen and the global equity rout spurred investors to sell riskier assets such as commodities to raise cash. Falling prices may help tyre makers such as Bridgestone Corp and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

Higher exports are ''certainly not positive news'' for prices, said Takaki Shigemoto, an analyst at the Tokyo commodities brokerage Okachi & Co. Farmers in Thailand had increased rubber planting and output in recent years to profit from rising prices, he added.

Rubber for January delivery on the Tokyo Commodity Exchange (Tocom) lost 9.4 yen, or 3.9%, to 234.2 yen a kilogramme ($2,071 a tonne) yesterday, after falling to 233.7 yen, the lowest since Dec 25. Thailand's production will probably climb 11% to 3.5 million tonnes this year from 3.14 million last year, and reach 3.9 million tonnes in 2008, Mr Somjate said.

Ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra promoted the expansion of rubber plantations by around 8% from 2004 to 2006 as prices rose. Thailand is now trying to keep plantation areas to 2.24 million hectares.

China bought more than a quarter of Thai rubber exports last year when the country increased purchases by 30%.

''China will remain Thailand's most important market,'' said Mr Somjate. ''If anything happens to its demand, the effect on us will be severe.''

The country's domestic demand accounts for 10% of rubber output, so gains in production lead to rising exports.

Expanding output could exacerbate oversupply in the domestic market where vehicle sales have decreased this year. Sales rose in July for the first time in seven months because of low interest rates and easing political concerns.

''We still can't come up with ways to stimulate domestic demand,'' Mr Somjate said.

Bangkok Airways secures savings on A350s due to delays


Bangkok Airways has won a concession from Airbus to maintain the prices of six A350 jetliners at the rates originally agreed last year, even though the prices have since risen sharply because the aircraft are being redesigned.

The agreement could mean a saving of US$240 million for the carrier, which has been seeking to apply the price based on the original version of the mid-sized, long-range aircraft. The redesigned and more expensive planes it will receive have had the suffix XWB (Xtra Wide Body) added to the name.

The ''discount'' is compensation from the European planemaker for the delay of four to five years in deliveries of the fuel-efficient new aircraft, according to an airline insider.

The redesigned aircraft, with a fuselage cross-section wider than the original A350-800 than Bangkok Airways ordered, costs about $200 million.

However, the final agreement between Bangkok Airways and Airbus is pending the former's successful negotiations with the UK-based jet engine maker Rolls Royce on the terms of the turbines that will go with all of the A350 XWB jetliners to be manufactured.

The negotiations are tied with other contracts Bangkok Airways and Rolls Royce are discussing.

Bangkok Airways and Airbus are expected to announce the final A350 XWB accord by the end of this month. The aircraft are now expected to be delivered to Bangkok Airways beginning in 2014.

The development cost of the A350 XWB, the planned rival to the popular B787 Dreamliner from US-based Boeing Co, has surged to $15.3 billion from $5.3 billion for the original version.

Bangkok Airways is also negotiating with leasing companies to lease six A330-200s, the long-range jets that offer nearly the same carrying capacity as the A350 XWB (more than 250 passengers) until it receives the new A350s.

The A330-200s will enable the carrier to start its first long-haul services to European cities including Frankfurt. But the first long-distance flights are likely to be from Bangkok to Dubai.

In another development, Bangkok Airways said it expected to miss the targeted 5% increase in net profit this year due to high operating costs, primarily for jet fuel, and the its inability to raise fares.

It is more likely to achieve 2% growth in profit this year on revenues of about 10 billion baht from its core airline business.

Commerce Minister invites European investors

Europeans wooed

TRADE :Commerce Minister Krirk-krai Jirapaet plans to invite European investors to form ventures with Thai partners in logistic and laboratory services during the first meeting of the Thai-European Business Forum next month.

The forum, to be held from Sept 11-14 in Belgium, is aimed at tightening co-operation in trade and investment, according to Krisda Piampongsant, a ministry spokesman.

Thai participants will be seeking more advanced technology for food laboratories to inspect for chemical residue. Joint investments in the field would help make Thailand a key provider of lab services in Southeast Asia.

As well, Mr Krirk-krai will encourage European businessmen to invest in logistics services to improve the competitiveness of Thai traders.

Carmaker upgraded

FINANCE :Fitch Ratings has upgraded the national long-term ratings of two billion baht worth of guaranteed debentures due in 2007 and 2.5 billion baht due in 2009 from DaimlerChrysler (Thailand) To AA+(tha) from AA(tha).

The move follows the upgrade for DaimlerChrysler AG's long-term issuer default rating to A- from BBB+. The rating outlook for both debentures is stable. DaimlerChrysler (Thailand)'s national rating is based entirely on the full, irrevocable and unconditional guarantee by DaimlerChrysler

AG. 14-day bonds yield 3.1%

DEBT MARKET :The Bank of Thailand yesterday auctioned 40 billion baht worth of 14-day bonds for a weighted average accepted yield of 3.09986%. Accepted bid yields ranged from 3.08% to 3.11%, with the bid coverage ratio 1.44 times.

Reserves off $100m

FINANCIAL DATA :International reserves totalled $73.4 billion as of Aug 10, compared with $73.5 billion the week before. The net forward position was unchanged at $13.2 billion. Net claims on government were 125.1 billion baht, compared with 139.1 billion. Net policy credits were -1,231.8 billion baht, compared with -1,228.3 billion. Reserve money was 795.1 billion baht, compared with 803.7 billion the week before.


Asia and Africa fuel gains for SCG unit


Siam Cement Trading Co is increasingly upbeat about its business prospects for the rest of this year, buoyed by an impressive performance in the first six months. Sales in the first half of this year rose 38% year-on-year to 23.7 billion baht, driven by the diversification of product lines and markets, said managing director Kalin Sarasin.

The trading arm of the Siam Cement Group (SCG) expects to achieve full-year sales of 48 billion baht, a gain of 40% from last year, due to substantial increases in Asia and Africa.

Sales are projected to reach 100 billion baht by 2011, Mr Kalin said.

About 54% of the company's sales now come from exports, 27% from imports and the remaining 19% from international trading by its offshore branches. The sales ratio for goods and products made by SCG subsidiaries and those outside SCG is 40:60.

Key exports include cement, building materials and tapioca, while the main imports are aluminium, coal, steel scrap and waste paper.

The company this year expects to import 1.4 million tonnes of coal, mainly from Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam. It forecasts imports to reach three million tons next year and six million in 2011.

Currently, the company has six offices in China and plans to add units in Guangxi and Nanning. It also operates three offices in Indonesia.

It also aims to increase the number of posts in Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia and eastern India to improve access to raw materials and the finished goods needed by the company's customers.

Mr Kalin said the company intended to increase upstream sourcing of raw materials for SCG's paper business. Imports of waste paper account for more than 60% of total imported raw materials.

Recently, the company entered into a joint-venture agreement with Greenkraft Corporation to set up five bailing stations in the Philippines to supply raw materials for the SCG paper plant there.

Apart from waste paper, the company plans to recycle and re-use steel, plastic and other non-ferrous scrap in the future. It has established recycling stations in Laos, the Philippines, Poipet in Cambodia. Three more facilities in Vietnam, Phnom Penh and Thailand are expected to start operations by 2008.

Banpu coal sales to stay flat this year

Lower mine output keeps lid on earnings


Banpu Plc, Thailand's largest coal miner, expects flat sales growth this year because of lower coal production, according to chief executive Chanin Vongkusolkit.

The company has revised down its coal production volume in 2007 to 20 million tonnes from an earlier estimate of 21 million, reflecting poor results at its mines in Indonesia in the first half and a significant drop in volume of its two mines in Thailand.

As a result, he said, Banpu expected revenue to be the same or slightly lower than last year's 33 billion baht.

However, rising coal prices in global markets would help the company offset lower volume.

According to Mr Chanin, the current spot price for coal is US$70.35 per tonne, up from $60 in the second quarter. Banpu has revised up its average selling price of coal this year to $39 per tonne from $38. He added that the average selling price in the second half would be about $40 per tonne.

The discrepancies reflect the fact that Banpu has long-term sales contracts for about 70% of its total output. Only 30% is sold at spot prices. Many contracts were based on last year's prices, which were lower than current spot prices.

Mr Chanin said heavy rain at the company's Trubaindo and Jorong mine sites in Indonesia had hurt production in the first half. ''However, the natural impact is seasonal so we won't expect it to happen in the second half of the year.''

Poor output from two mines in Thailand _ LP-2 in Lampang and CMMC in Phayao _ also would result in flat growth this year. Mr Chanin said the LP-2 would be closed this year and CMMC next year as Banpu's coal-mine concessions were expiring.

With no plan to operate new mines in Thailand, the company will focus on new investments in Indonesia and China in the future. It is also looking for a joint venture partner in India as well.

In the first half, Banpu produced 500,000 tonnes of coal from the two local mines, compared with 8.3 million combined from its Indominco-Bontang, Trubaindo and Jorong mines in Indonesia. It also extracted 1.59 million tonnes from its Hebi Zhong Tai Mining and Daning mines in China.

Banpu sold 9.2 million tonnes of coal from January to June, down 7% from 9.8 million in the same period last year. Japan, Taiwan and China are its key markets for mid- and high-grade coal, while Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and India are main consumers for its low- to mid-grade coal.

Banpu targeted to produce 10.3 million tonnes of coal from Indonesian mines and 3.01 million tonnes from its mines in China. Only 900,000 tonnes are expected to be manufactured in Thailand in the second half, said Mr Chanin.

Banpu expects to produce 20 million tonnes of coal in 2008, the same as this year, reflecting the ending of Thai operations. Revenue in 2008 is targeted at 36.3 billion baht.

Next year, 47% of its coal is already contracted and priced, while 17% is contracted but not priced yet. The remaining 36% would be sold at spot prices.

According to Mr Chanin, the unpriced product should be sold at more than $50 per tonne. Coal would contribute 40-50% of Banpu's overall income in 2008, while its power business would bring in the remainder.

The power business generated 4.33 billion baht in the first half. Of that, 2.58 billion baht came from BLCP, in which Banpu holds a 50% stake, while 1.75 billion came from power and steam businesses in China.

Banpu aims to list its unit in Indonesia, PT Indo Tambangraya Megah, on the Jakarta Stock Exchange (JSE) in October or November.

After the IPO, Banpu's holding in the Indonesian unit would be diluted to 80% from 95% now.

Banpu reported first-half net profit of 2.95 billion baht, up 90% from 1.4 billion baht in the same period last year, on sales of 14.61 billion baht, down 1% year-on-year from 14.78 billion baht.

Banpu shares closed yesterday on the SET at 252 baht, up two baht, in trade worth 683 million baht.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Thailand has decided to impose an excise tax rate of 25%

Thailand has decided to impose an excise tax rate of 25% on cars capable
of running on 20% ethanol-blended gasoline from January 1, 2008, onward,
lower than a tax of 30% imposed on normal cars in a bid to boost demand for
ethanol, a government official said Wednesday.
The new tax rate is higher than the government's original plan of
imposing a 20% tax on E20 cars, but that tax rate would have been effective
only from January 2009, he said. Natural gas-fueled vehicles are charged a tax
rate of 20% in Thailand.
E20 cars are scheduled to be available from early next year onward, the
official said. According to estimates by the excise department, some 30,000
E20 cars are expected to be made available next year by manufacturers
including Toyota and Honda.
Thailand currently sells 10%-ethanol blended gasoline, also known as
gasohol in the kingdom. Gasohol sales account for around 20% of total gasoline
sales of 24 million l/d in the country.
Local refiner Bangchak is expected to start supplying 20% ethanol-blended
gasoline from next year, the official said.
Sales of E20 will help ease some of Thailand's ethanol oversupply
problem. The country's ethanol stocks have surged dramatically since the
government backtracked on its plan to switch all 95 RON gasoline to 10%
ethanol-blended gasoline, also known as gasohol 95, from early 2007.
Stocks are currently at levels high enough to cover demand for a few
months and have prompted several producers to slash operating rates and even
suspend operations altogether.
--Mriganka Jaipuriyar,

Friday, August 17, 2007

Inside Thailand's Amulet Craze

Charm Offensive

August 17, 2007

NAKHON SI THAMMARAT, Thailand -- Not so long ago, Nakhon Si Thammarat was a sleepy town with no obvious tourist attractions -- or tourists. Its economy revolved around shrimp farming and fishing.

Now this provincial capital in southern Thailand is crawling with thousands of visitors each week. The big draw: amulets, some as small as three centimeters wide, called Jatukam Ramathep.

Thais are big believers in the supernatural. Amulets, which come in various materials and sizes and are usually worn around the neck, are basically lucky charms thought to have magical powers that protect from physical and spiritual harm as well as bring good fortune. Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country and the amulets usually depict famous monks or the Buddha.

[Amulet map]

Thailand has seen its share of amulet crazes over the years. But the Jatukam Ramathep medallion -- which depicts a mythical figure that resembles a Hindu god with multiple arms and heads -- has set new heights in the annals of amulet history. And at its birthplace in the town of Nakhon Si Thammarat, most buyers seem to be snapping them up more for their supposed power to deliver instant riches than for their promise of good health.

"Every province has its amulets, so I've asked myself, 'Why this one, and why has it become so popular now?'" asks Patrick Jory, a history professor from Australia who teaches at Walailak University in Nakhon Si Thammarat province. The answer, he thinks, lies in Thailand's weak economy and the political instability gripping the country, particularly a Muslim insurgency in the area around Nakhon Si Thammarat, a Buddhist stronghold that so far hasn't seen conflict. There is "this sense that maybe we're losing the south," Mr. Jory says, so many Thais are turning to the supernatural world for help. Popular demand for Jatukam Ramathep amulets also might be a way of expressing solidarity with the beleaguered Buddhists in the southernmost provinces, he adds.

Nithit Somsimme, who has traveled to Nakhon Si Thammarat to shop for an amulet, is a believer. Mr. Nithit owns a real-estate valuation business in northeast Thailand. After his father-in-law gave him a Jatukam Ramathep amulet a few years ago, his business boomed -- an outcome he attributes "100%" to the amulet. Mr. Nithit now plans to expand his business, and he wants to buy another amulet before going ahead. He's willing to pay up to 100,000 baht ($3,200) -- in cash -- for the right one. "It has to be a special one," he says before strolling off to peruse the town's wares, which include medallions with auspicious-sounding names such as "Enormously Super Rich" and "Get Rich Quickly."

Gold and Ivory

To the untrained eye, Jatukam Ramathep amulets might not look like much: the most popular size is five centimeters in diameter but they can be bigger. Most are decorated with a many-armed Hindu-esque god on one side and on the other, a demon-god eating the moon or a mandala, a geometric pattern that represents the universe.

[Amulet photo]
A Thai man wears three amulets, including a Jatukam Ramthep.

Some are fashioned out of ivory and gilded in gold, silver or bronze. Typically, though, they're made of more humble materials, such as dried jasmine, tree bark, sacred soil, medicinal herbs and holy water, all of which are mixed together and pressed into a mold, often by monks. The amulets are then glazed or touched up with gold and silver paint. They are often marketed in series, and prices start at less than $2 (about double the price of other kinds of amulets), and can go up to several thousand dollars. And as prices have climbed, speculators and investors have jumped in.

Fake plastic versions abound, especially in Bangkok's night markets. But unless a Jatukam Ramathep amulet is registered and consecrated at Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan, a 13th century temple in Nakhon Si Thammarat, it isn't regarded as being official, and is believed to have fewer magical powers.

As to who exactly Jatukam Ramathep is, no one knows for sure, says Narong Bunsuaikhwan, a sociologist from Walailak University. Some people say it's the spirit of a 17th-century king. Others believe the figure represents two princes from the 13th century. And there is a coterie of academics and local town officials who are bent on proving that the figure is a genuine Hindu god.

But there is one thing most people agree on: It was the death about a year ago of the man who created the amulet, Phantarak Rajadej, the town's former police chief, that sparked the current craze. An imposing figure with a handlebar moustache, he was said to have practiced black magic and could disappear into thin air at will. According to one story, the police chief created the amulet 20 years ago as a way to raise money for a city shrine.

Mamat Pengsut, a senior government official from a nearby district, swears by a Jatukam Ramathep amulet for its protective powers. Mr. Mamat wears one around his neck on a heavy chain. A few weeks ago, he contends, the amulet saved him -- and eight other people who each were wearing one as well -- from harm in a three-car pileup. Another person, the only one in the accident who wasn't wearing a Jatukam Ramathep amulet, sustained a shoulder injury.

[Amulet photo]
A glass case filled with Jatukam Ramathep amulets in the market next to the Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan.

Stories like that keep people pouring into Nakhon Si Thammarat to buy the medallions.

The extent of the craze is far-reaching -- stoked by marketing campaigns. According to Neilsen Media Research in Thailand, amulet purveyors spent $5 million between January and March this year alone on TV, radio and newspaper advertising for Jatukam Ramathep amulets. It's even swept up tourists from Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong who are beating a path to Nakhon Si Thammarat.

In Bangkok, for instance -- 780 kilometers north of Nakhon si Thammarat -- Chinese-Thai businessmen in suits as well as noodle vendors proudly wear the medallions, sometimes more than one. Military figures and politicians are also believers. Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont presided over several unofficial Jatukam Ramathep amulet blessing ceremonies in June at a beach getaway destination near Bangkok favored by Thai high society.

About 70% of the people buying Jatukam Ramathep amulets are speculators who are betting that their value will skyrocket, says Paka-on Tipayathanabaja, a senior researcher for Kasikorn Research Center, a Bangkok financial-information company, who has tracked the amulet market for the past five years.

Consider the gain an investor could have made on the first edition of a Jatukam Ramathep amulet. When it was issued in 1987, the amulet cost about $1.30, says Mr. Narong, the sociologist from Walailak University who has a collection of rare Jatukam Ramathep pieces he says is worth more than $160,000. Today, Mr. Narong says that same medallion has been appraised by amulet experts at nearly $13,000. "Look at me," says Mr. Narong, chuckling. "Even Ph.D.s have lucky charms."

Online Amulets

Thailand's amulet trade is well established. Every major Thai town has shops that specialize in selling medallions. Amulets also are sold on eBay. There are magazines -- almost 40 in all, available at mainstream bookstores nationwide -- and Web sites devoted to the lucky charms. The opinions of amulet appraisers are quoted in publications, on Web sites and in Thai-language mass media. Kasikorn Research Center estimates that the total amulet market will be worth about $1.5 billion this year, more than double the total in 2005, driven largely by the demand for Jatukam Ramathep amulets. By comparison, according to the latest government figures available, in 2005 Thais spent $1.8 billion on books and newspapers.

"I feel a little weird about it," says Watcharapong Radomsittipat, an amulet expert who has been in the business for 15 years. "Like people are too crazy about it. It's almost overshadowing Buddhism."

Not everyone has succumbed to Jatukam Ramathep fever though. To Buddhist purists, the big emphasis the amulet puts on wealth is anathema. They argue it is unseemly for monks to participate in such an overtly commercial venture.

[Amulet photo]
A monk blesses amulets at a temple ceremony.

At Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan, for instance, the temple where all true Jatukam Ramathep amulets are blessed, sponsors give the temple $1,600 to $3,200 for each incantation ceremony. The temple holds the ceremonies, during which many amulets are blessed at once, four or five times a day. Officials at the temple say they have no idea how much money such services bring in.

As much as the Jatukam Ramathep amulet frenzy reflects "a degree of hopelessness in Thai society," says Mettanando Bhikku, an Oxford- and Harvard-educated physician-turned-monk, "it also reflects the decadence of monks' morality."

Moral issues aside, Nakhon Si Thammarat's economy is booming. While local government authorities won't say how much the town has earned, the amulet's effect is impossible to miss: Along the road from the airport, billboards advertise the latest series of Jatukam Ramathep amulets. In town, nearly every business along the main drag has banners emblazoned with images of medallions as well as glass display cases holding a dozen or so for sale.

Besides tourists, the craze is attracting attention from another quarter: Thailand's tax authorities recently sent a team to town to study imposing a special tax on shops that sell the amulets.

--Jennifer Chen is a Bangkok-based writer.