Thailand’s poultry industry faces devastation as bird flu reported

Thailand’s first reported case of the bird flu sweeping through parts of Asia stands to devastate the region’s largest poultry export industry.

Up to six million chickens have been culled in Thailand since last November, when the government said that an outbreak of what it described as "fowl cholera and bronchitis" had hit several central provinces.

In the face of fears of a link to the avian influenza that has hit Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, the government staunchly denied the kingdom had been affected by the virus.

But after it admitted Wednesday that three people suspected of having contracted the disease were undergoing tests, Thai senator and health expert Nirun Phitakwatchara said one of them had been confirmed as having the disease.

Nirun accused the government of a cover-up and urged it to act quickly to contain the outbreak of the chicken disease that has hit five provinces, which he said was certainly the dreaded H5N1 strain of avian influenza.

The first fallout of his announcement came just hours later when Japan, Thailand’s biggest customer for chicken products, said it had banned imports as a result.

"We suspended (imports) as of today," an official at the agriculture ministry’s safety supervision division said in Tokyo.

"We have not confirmed the infection but cannot rule it out either… We decided on the suspension protectively for the sake of food safety."

The announcement sent shockwaves around the industry which it said exported 540,000 tonnes of chicken last year, half of which or 270,000 tonnes went to Japan while the second biggest buyer, the European Union, took 166,000 tonnes.

Thailand’s poultry export juggernaut earned 1.2 billion dollars last year.

Prior to the revelation, Thailand’s chicken processers had increased measures to protect their industry.

"We’re all on very strict security measures in our breeding stocks, hatching and farms," said Fred Duncan, chairman of the Grampian Country Food Group (GCFG), one of Britain’s largest agri-food companies, which operates two slaughter houses in Thailand.

"There is a very tight security network around the farms, and the standards are always improving," he told AFP this week.

Meanwhile Thursday, mass exterminations in several small farms in the worst-hit region of central Thailand were continuing.

Checkpoints and disinfectant stations along roads leading to slaughter houses have been increased, and agriculture officials placed at production centres to monitor the industry.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra denied any cover-up and said it would take several days to confirm the status of the three people suspected of having been infected with bird flu.

Thaksin said he was not concerned about Thailand’s ability to tackle any bird flu outbreak but he conceded that negative publicity could be damaging.

If the outbreak is confirmed "we can definitely contain it, but what I am concerned about are the repercussions from misunderstandings in the media that will cause problems for sure," he told reporters.

Thai chicken industry spokespeople were unavailable for immediate comment Thursday during Chinese New Year celebrations.

Violence in Thailand’s south more serious than in past: analysts

A series of bloody attacks in Thailand’s Muslim-majority south represents a marked departure from previous violence and could spell a political crisis for the government, analysts said Tuesday.

Four soldiers were killed on Sunday during a brazen arms heist by dozens of assailants in Narathiwat province as 18 schools were set ablaze, while two bomb blasts Monday killed two policemen in Pattani.

"We don’t know for sure but from the face of it it seems to be a higher-level organised activity than compared to the past with better training, financing and most of all better intelligence among the groups," Chulalongkorn University political science lecturer Panitan Wattanyakorn told AFP.

He said up to 100 people may have been involved in the preparation and planning for the attacks.

"Based on that estimate, it is highly likely that it was a combined effort by several groups and if it is, it could very well be some of the local organised crime groups… combined with some of the militant movements."

A separatist insurgency has rumbled on in southern Thailand for years but most analysts believe it is now virtually defunct and incapable of mounting serious violence alone.

However organised crime groups have flourished in their place, with turf wars among them over profits from illegal activities such as arms smuggling blamed by some for the rash of violence in recent months that has left 20 people dead alone since April 2003.

The robbery of about 100 guns Sunday could be linked to international groups, Panitan said, while the burning of schools has been a tactic long employed by militant groups in the area.

"This is a combined operation (on a scale) that we haven’t seen for years. It means organised crime and militant groups have united — maybe just on this special occasion," he said.

"The fact they were able to mount such an organised and unified operation tells the authorities to worry much more than expected."

The government has already fumbled in its attempts to finger the culprits as they have during previous outbreaks of violence when everyone from al-Qaeda-linked Islamic separatists to civil servants have been blamed.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said Islamic militants "tied to mujahedin" were at work this time around but later said they were probably caused by business conflicts.

Interior Minister Wan Muhamad Nor Matha meanwhile told reporters Tuesday that teenage drug addicts and unemployed people were involved.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, the Nation newspaper’s assistant group editor, labelled the situation "very serious" and said he expected it to "change the landscape of the political contest this year" ahead of elections in 2005.

"I think the stakes are very high," he told AFP, warning that the government needed to respond carefully and consider that some of its policies have been deemed insensitive by Muslims.

"The focus has been on economic growth without the moral element. In the other parts of Thailand it’s okay to focus on growth but not in southern Thailand where you have Muslim communities … They have invaded their cultural space."

Panitan called for a new national security policy to deal comprehensively with the problem in the south, which he believes Thaksin’s government underestimated.

Abdul Rosue Aree, deputy chairman of Narathiwat’s Islamic committee also said the violence this time was a substantial change from other attacks.

"We really don’t know what is happening now because the latest violence in Narathiwat is different from what has happened in the past," he said, adding however that life for most people here pushed on as usual.

"Some local people may be concerned about the incidents because this time is more serious than the others, however, they keep carrying on their normal lives."