Laos’ airline revamps in bid to cast aside chequered past

VIENTIANE – The national carrier of tiny landlocked Laos is undergoing a dramatic revamp, leasing its first jet, changing its name and unveiling a new logo as it seeks to leave its chequered past behind.

Formed when the communist government took power in 1975, Lao Aviation officially adopted its new name Lao Airlines on Wednesday to coincide with the inaugural international flight of its newly-arrived Airbus-A320.

The lift-off of the leased 140-seat aircraft marks the end of an era for the previously all-turbo-prop carrier, which has been dogged by a notorious reputation for questionable safety practices. Four aircraft have crashed in remote areas of mountainous Laos in the past decade.

"Many conversations over beer take place about this experience when this happened and that experience," says a British expatriate who has flown with them for six years. "It’s generally: ‘Oh blimey, Lao Aviation!’"

The United Nations advises its staff to fly only on the fleet’s two hardy but ageing French-Italian ATR-72 aircraft, and the governments of the United States, Britain and Australia advise their citizens likewise.

Flying on the Chinese Yuen-12s and Yuen-7s is discouraged — but difficult to avoid in a country where the roads are frequently rated just as dangerous.

Stories of rain-flooded cabins and pilots forgetting to fill the fuel tank before take-off swirl among those who have flown the airline, with many tales bordering on the mythical.

One long-running suggestion to jittery fliers is to ensure that the French mechanic said to maintain the ATRs is not on leave if they plan to fly.

"Well, this is one of the great unknowns of Lao Aviation: Does this man really exist? And if he does, is he working?" says a Vientiane-based diplomat.

At the least, the French have been closely involved with the rebirth of Lao Airlines, with Air France Consulting, a subsidiary of Air France Group, engaged by the government last year to knock the cash-haemorrhaging carrier into shape in preparation for its part-privatisation expected within a few months.

"For me it was a very small company with very bad organisation. No plan, no project, no ambition, nothing. The company was losing a lot of money and not believing in the future," says Guy Le Sann, who headed the consulting team before joining Lao Airlines as advisor to the carrier’s president in March.

A seven-year business plan was put in place covering the serious to the superficial: staffing levels have been slashed from 400 to 320 and a jaunty tropical frangipani replaces the carrier’s former inscrutable red, white and blue logo.

A one-year agreement has been inked with Vietnam Airlines to provide crew, maintenance and support services, while four Lao pilots have been whisked to France for training and two in-country Airbus staff are providing technical assistance.

High hopes are placed in particular on the Airbus jet, which is expected to double the company’s revenue — just 14 million dollars in 2002 — from its second year of flying.

Aviation analyst Binit Somaia from Sydney-based Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation said the leasing of the Airbus was a "major step forward" for the struggling carrier.

"They’re going through a fairly comprehensive overhaul of their image which has to be good in the long-term, particularly for their tourism industry," says Somaia.

Just 700,000 tourists visited this former French colony last year, seduced by its image as a sleepy destination almost forgotten by the outside world and dotted by more than 4,000 Buddhist temples.

The World Heritage-listed town of Luang Prabang in the country’s north represents a definite focus for optimism, says Robert Martin, managing director of Singapore Aircraft Leasing Enterprise, lessor of the new aircraft.

"This is one of the important reasons behind Lao Airlines wanting to grow their fleet at the moment, because they can see what has happened already with Angkor Wat, what has happened with sites in Thailand," he says.

"There’s no reason why Luang Prabang shouldn’t have the same number of tourists coming to it in the future."

Thai government struggles with Myanmar policy after Suu Kyi detention

BANGKOK – Thailand’s government is struggling to adopt a coherent stance on Myanmar following its military-ruled neighbour’s detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi more than a month ago, analysts say.

In a departure from his typical conciliatory tone, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra joined US President George W. Bush in issuing a strong call for Yangon to release her during a visit to Washington last month.

But the premier’s critics say he has now realised that this facade for international consumption needs to be balanced with some quick back-pedalling at home to keep relations with the ruling generals intact.

As a result, he targeted 1,500 political refugees who have fled previous crackdowns in Myanmar for sanctuary in Thailand: they must now relocate to camps along the border already holding some 125,000 refugees.

"Thailand doesn’t really have an overall policy on Burma… They’re quite pragmatic and reacting to different circumstances with different policies," said Chulalongkorn University political analyst Panitan Wattanyagorn.

"They have no clear policy based on clear principles but under these circumstances this may be the only way the government thinks is appropriate: a dual-track policy," he told AFP.

Panitan said refugee policy was likely altered in the interests of "trying to smooth out relations because there has been pressure by the Burmese to make sure the refugees do not cause problems relating to the embassy and personnel in Thailand".

Thailand said last month that Myanmar’s government warned its authorities of a possible plan by dissidents to take its diplomats in the Thai capital hostage to demand the Aung San Suu Kyi be given her freedom.

The democracy campaigner has been held under what the junta calls "protective custody" since attacks on her supporters by a government-backed mob on May 30.

Thaksin’s administration wants to placate Yangon for several reasons: constructive engagement is seen as key to Thailand wielding influence with the regime, while business interests want to protect lucrative cross-border trade.

Several senior Thai leaders are also known to have very close personal and financial ties to the generals.

"In the short term it may get by. But in the medium to long term it could present a conflicting stand and the international community may see Thailand as having no common foreign policy towards Burma," Panitan said.

Sunai Phasuk from regional rights network Forum-Asia linked Thaksin’s sudden policy change to Myanmar deputy foreign minister Khin Maung Win’s visit to Thailand last week.

"It often happens this way, that every time before a visit from the SPDC (ruling State Peace and Development Council) the Thai government carries out this aggressive rhetoric against pro-democracy groups," he said.

"The Thai government has created a climate of fear and uncertainty which in effect stops democracy groups taking any action to work for freeing Aung San Suu Kyi," Sunai said.

Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based Irrawaddy magazine which deals with Myanmar affairs, said the Thai government’s new refugee policy was misguided and unfair on exiles who fled their homeland in fear for their lives.

"Thailand is trying to contain these people, but they must realise that there are problems in Burma that have to be solved," he said.

"You can’t put the blame on these underdogs… They appreciate that they’re here and it’s risky for them to go back home."

The dissident community, for whom Bangkok and Thai border towns have become a stronghold, have used Thailand to express their anger at Yangon before.

In October 1999, five armed rebels were involved in a day-long siege at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, in which nearly a hundred people were taken hostage, which was followed by another dramatic stand-off at a major hospital.

Thailand works to export anti-AIDS drug know-how to Africa

At less than a dollar a day, Thailand produces the world’s cheapest anti-AIDS drugs, but one woman is determined to give impoverished African countries the know-how to produce them even cheaper.

Along with India and Brazil, Thailand has become a global pioneer in the production of generic anti-AIDS medicines, thanks largely to Dr. Krisana Kraisintu, who started research into them here in 1992.

Working at the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation (GPO) where she heads the research and development division, Krisana was by 1995 overseeing production of 21 drugs whose patents had either expired or never existed.

Now Africa — home to more than 28.5 million of the world’s 40 million people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS — looks set to benefit from the GPO’s policy of encouraging other countries to manufacture their own cut-price medicine.

"It’s not technology transfer in a way that Thailand is giving them facilities," Krisana said. "They have everything. We’ll just tell them what to do."

The plan, which took form in April 2001, is to choose countries spread around the continent to act as production centres which can export to up to 12 neighbouring nations.

Memorandums of understanding have been drafted and are waiting to be signed between Thailand and both Zimbabwe and Ghana. If all goes well, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria will follow.

"Zimbabwe and Ghana have very good manufacturing facilities … There is no question of standards at all of the manufacturing," Krisana said, adding that pharmaceutically, the process of making the drugs is simple.

Krisana has already negotiated prices for raw materials — which make up 80 percent of the cost — far below what the GPO pays its suppliers in India and Korea who heeded appeals to make discounts on humanitarian grounds.

"I expect the products to be much cheaper than in Thailand," she said, offering as an example the price of the antiretroviral (ARV) drug, stavudine. ARVs are the best available medicines that slow the march of HIV.

"The original product costs two dollars and nine cents. Our product costs eight cents — that’s 26 times as cheap. And if these drugs were produced in African countries, they would be cheaper than this," she said.

GPO managing director Dr. Thongchai Thavichachart is a firm advocate of the policy of transferring know-how to other developing countries.

"We will be happy to help (them) to produce, rather than to buy from us. It will last longer — it’s self-help," he said.

"We will not charge anything to any government… I would like to urge the world, I would like to push other countries to have this kind of production."

Krisana said she is fighting to help Africa obtain cheap drugs as a matter of principle.

"It’s about human rights. I think everybody, whether they are rich or whether they are poor, they need to have access to treatment… I feel that multinational companies are taking too much advantage of these people."

The GPO made world headlines in March this year when it announced it would start selling the world’s cheapest triple-therapy ARV drug, known as GPO-VIR.

It sells for 27 dollars per month, or less than a dollar a day. Previously, a similar regimen cost up to 240 dollars a month.

Some 20,000 patients now take ARV drugs made by the GPO, but an estimated 50,000 of the Thai citizens infected with HIV could benefit by taking them, Krisana said. The United Nations estimated that one million Thais have been infected with the disease, and that a third of those have already died.

Paul Cawthorne, Thailand country manager for the international aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders – MSF), said the group is "totally supportive" of Thailand’s production of generic drugs.

"We do use all the drugs that the GPO produces here generically," he said. "We wouldn’t be using them if we were concerned about the quality."

Cheaper GPO-VIR is already improving access to AIDS therapies in Thailand, he said, with more patients considering buying their own medicine.

"I think it’s beginning to have a significant impact, particularly in areas like Bangkok where patients can think about spending 40 baht (95 cents) a day on medicine. There’s less of an impact in the provinces where 40 baht a day is still a lot."

New Asian regional forum to launch amid scepticism of usefulness

Thirteen Asian foreign ministers are to gather Tuesday evening to launch the inaugural Asian Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), a brainchild of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that sceptics fear will prove to be just another regional talking shop.

The Thai premier has invited foreign ministers from 17 other Asian countries to attend the dinner at his holiday residence in Cha-Am, a seaside resort town 150 kilometres (93 miles) south of the capital.

Some 13 foreign ministers have confirmed their attendance at the historic talks — including Japan, China, South Korea and Singapore — while four will be sending other ministers.

Myanmar, with whom Thailand’s relations are currently strained due to tension along their common border, reportedly declined its invitation.

The real substance of the ACD is scheduled for Wednesday, with a half-day of free-form talks aimed, the government says, at strengthening cooperation among Asian countries.

"We want to strengthen cooperation among Asian people. Secondly, (we want to) eradicate poverty, and (examine) how to increase or enhance the potential of Asia," government spokesman Yongyut Tiyapairat said over the weekend.

"We have much more than half the population of the world and much more than half the world’s reserve funds. How should we manage our high potential?"

The ACD will be unlike other regional groupings as it exclusively involves all Asian countries, Yongyuth said.

"This is the first time the whole of Asia will talk," he said.

"It’s not about politics. It’s only about social and economic (issues), much more than security or politics."

The only concrete outcome from the ACD is expected to be a statement issued by Thailand following the talks, reports said.

Academics and the local press are unsure that such a casual session of chatting, which pointedly excludes issues of controversy, will be worth the effort at all.

Political scientist Khien Theeravit told the Nation newspaper that Thailand doesn’t need to spend millions of taxpayers’ baht on a dialogue that has no clear objective and overlaps existing regional mechanisms.

"Fine, we can take it for granted that everybody likes to have cooperation, but what kind of cooperation, and how to make it benefit all?"

A Bangkok Post editorial Tuesday also questioned how a forum with no agenda could succeed.

"The premier hopes it will establish his first foreign policy triumph. But many wonder how a high-level talkfest with no agenda can succeed," the paper said.

"If the dialogue issues a general, meaningless statement, this week’s first meeting of the group is likely to be the last," it concluded.

Thaksin’s diplomatic experience is also being called into question.

"It is ironic that Mr Thaksin is promoting — or launching — his foreign policy reputation on the basis of an international meeting," the Post editorial said, pointing to Thaksin’s complaints about United Nations "interference" in Myanmar’s problems and Thailand’s lack of participation in groupings such as the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, the Asia-Europe meeting APEC.

The 17 countries invited by Thailand include the 10 grouped under ASEAN, which are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, along with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Qatar and Bahrain.

All countries who have responded are sending foreign ministers, except Brunei, India, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Thailand reflects on a decade of change after its Black May uprising

Ten years after Thailand’s military shocked the world by firing on thousands of unarmed protestors rallying against its usurpation of power, the country is reflecting on the days that tragically marked a coming-of-age for national democracy.

Civil society groups have organised various talks and exhibitions to commemorate uprising’s anniversary, which will culminate with a candlelight vigil May 19 at the capital’s Democracy Monument, one of the sites of the bloodshed that transformed the nation.

"Before May 1992, we elected politicians and we gave them a mandate to run the country," said Narimon Thabchumpon, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University who was then working for one of the uprising’s organisers, the Campaign for Popular Democracy.

"But May 1992 proved that you cannot allow your representatives to do what they want… Now even though we elect politicians, we continue to participate in the decision-making process."

From May 17 to 20, some 44 people were killed and 37 went missing — those are the government’s official figures — as thousands protested the appointment of unelected General Suchinda Kraprayoon as premier.

Officials said there were 3,780 injured, but NGO groups said the injury toll topped 5,300.

Armed forces commander Suchinda had been the driving force behind a bloodless military coup against then-Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan on February 23, 1991. It was Thailand’s tenth military coup since the country shifted from an absolute to constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Elections were held in March 1992, and although they were won by a pro-military coalition, the people were not going to tolerate an unelected premier.

A rally on May 8 at Sanam Luang park saw an estimated 150,000 people assemble peacefully, led by former Bangkok governor — and former military officer — Chamlong Srimuang to demand Suchinda’s resignation.

The protests were called off when the government agreed to amend the constitution to bar non-elected people from becoming premier, but when the government revealed the change would not affect Suchinda, the demonstrations swelled again.

Up to 200,000 people are estimated to have returned to Sanam Luang on May 17, but thousands were blocked from marching on Government House.

Journalist Mukdawan Sakboon reported for the English-language Nation newspaper on what she calls "the most important event in our modern political history".

"People kept calling The Nation asking what was happening, and should they join the protesting," Mukdawan said.

"They couldn’t know what was happening by turning on their TVs," she said, referring to the fact all five television stations were state-controlled.

Early on the morning of May 18 the troops opened fire for the first time, killing around 10 people, according to news reports at the time.

Thousands remained on the streets, and repeated bloody clashes over the next two days left scores more dead.

The chaos was dramatically brought to a halt on May 20, when Suchinda and Chamlong appeared on television before Thailand’s highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who made a rare intervention to order the two to work together.

The scene of the two leaders sitting humbly on the floor before the seated King was an enduring image beamed around the globe, and a turning point for democracy in Thailand.

Suchinda announced his resignation several days later, having first made an irreversible executive decree that granted amnesty to himself and his associates that lasts even today.

Still, Suchinda leaves the country each May to avoid protestors who picket outside his home, and this year has headed to China during the anniversary.

Meanwhile the relatives of the dead and missing are still fighting for justice, says Audl Khiewborriboon, chairman of the Relatives Committee of May 1992.

The committee continues to call on the government to take responsibility for "the spirit" of the May 1992 events, to resolve the missing persons issue before paying reparations to victims, and to build a monument to the dead.

Last September, the current administration of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra set up an independent committee charged with resolving the "missing persons" issue and making reparations.

"We will honour their decision. We trust in this committee, we believe in this committee," Audl said.

It was the sheer scale of the protest that lingers in the minds of the military today, says Kaisak Choonhavan, a senator and son of ousted premier Chatichai.

"The alliance was so wide. It included ex-student activists of the 70s, NGOs of the 90s, slum dwellers, the political middle-class — in general all supporters of the democratic system in Thailand were against any further manipulation of Thai politics by the military," he said.

It was this alliance that smoothed the path towards democratic reform in Thailand, leading directly to a stronger civil society and creation of the 1997 constitution, Thailand’s sixteenth charter but the first decreed by a civilian government.

"The most important outcome of May 1992 was the spirit to launch a new constitution," said Ukrist Pathmanand, the assistant director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies.

"This is a constitution for the people. Many of the articles are there to protect human rights, a free press, to allow the close scrutiny of politicians."

It is a document likely to be around longer than its predecessors, according to Chulalongkorn’s Narimon.

"In Thailand in the past, if you wanted to change the constitution you could hold a coup and write a new one. But now that would be very difficult."

The business of relaxing

A designated, beautiful space for you to let your troubles evaporate, your stress dissolve. Treatments to relax and re-energise your tired, hard-worked body and mind, over the course of just a few hours. Welcome to the day spa concept: already wildly popular in places like the US and Singapore, Thailand has only recently caught the bug.

"I think there will be a big burst of day spas in Bangkok over the next few years," says Ukkrid Sresthaphunlarp, co-owner and manager of Thailand’s first day spa Being Spa. Ukkrid and his wife opened their spa in September 2000, following two years of research, design and construction. "We predict that the next really big growth industries globally will be in health and fitness. And we believe Thailand is one of the best countries in the world to provide treatment and destination spas."

Ukkrid says Thailand’s assets include good food, unique treatments, a developed hospitality industry, and service-minded people. "And it’s a cost effective place compared to other countries, which is important because spa operations are labour intensive."

Back when they started their research, Ukkrid and his wife noted that spas in Bangkok were invariably located in hotels. They wanted to offer a simple alternative: resort-like spa services outside the hotel environment, targetted towards the international market, expatriates and "the top tier of local Thais". After spending ten months developing treatments and constructing their spa, they opened to the public and the induction of many Thais into the world of day spas began.

"Some hotel operators thought we were crazy, opening in the crisis period, with no developed local market. We knew it would be a lot of work," says Ukkrid. "Now it’s paying off, and other spas are opening too, which helps awareness grow – and that helps us too."

Towards the end of his first year of operations, Ukkrid says they "did okay". His market is 85 per cent foreign, half expatriates, half tourists, and 15 per cent local. A third of his visitors are first-time spa goers. But he warns potential market entrants that there is much more to successfully operating a day spa than just building and opening one. "Finding a market to target, and marketing, they’re very important. Hotels have their customer base right there; day spas don’t. And quality of service has to meet customer expectations."

Nevertheless, he says there is room in the market for more day spas. "People like to change their spas- they want to experience different atmospheres. They may choose three or four spas that they visit regularly – so long as you manage to make it onto their shortlist, you’re doing okay," says Ukkrid.

He concedes that people will always go to hotel spas. "What someone like The Oriental is doing is completely different – we’re not competing with them. The Oriental and Chiva Som really paved the way in Thailand for spas. But if guests want to leave their hotel to try somewhere outside, that’s when they will come to us," says Ukkrid.

So how did things get started – and how are they going – at The Oriental’s spa? Hotel general manager Kurt Wachtveitl explains that the idea for their spa was generated more than eight years ago when staff noticed an influx of stressed out businesspeople checking in. Add in the fact that Thailand’s neighbouring countries at that time didn’t offer much in the way of comfort – with many travellers using the hotel as a base to travel there- and the impetus to open was sufficient.

Several factors drove the spa’s development. "It was important to integrate the spa into the hotel, for it to be part of the whole Oriental Hotel experience," Wachtveitl explains. "We also decided to go it alone – to develop all the products we would use locally. We didn’t want to have a consultant from England telling us we should have the same stuff as you find in spas in Miami."

Keeping the environment uniquely Thai was also seen as being essential. A Bt130m teak building, housing 15 treatment rooms, was built on the Oriental’s property on the other side of the Chao Phraya River. "We really didn’t know what we were getting into," Wachtveitl says candidly. "It was difficult to convince the shareholders that we should spend the money."

But once the spa opened in 1993, offering a mix of Thai and western treatments with a Thai influence, they saw they’d made the right decision. "We hit on an absolute goldmine. From day one until today, we’ve been full. The concept we created hit the nail right on the head. We made our money back in a year."

And despite demand that often exceeds supply, there are no plans for expansion. "No product is more successful than a product that is scarcely available."

Attempting to corner the local market across town in the Thong Lor area is Palm Herbal Spa, a home-style day spa located in a renovated house. Dolchai Boonyaratavej, CEO of advertising agency Dentsu, Young and Rubicam, created the concept for the spa along with 15 friends. "We liked spas, but not the prices charged by hotel spas – they’re too expensive to use once a week. But we didn’t like going to roadside places for massage either. We were aiming for something in-between."

So Bangkok’s first "home" day spa opened in March this year, with treatments being a mix of traditional Thai massage and western aromatherapy. Like others in the business, Dolchai knew it was important to hit on something unique. "Our prices are reasonable, our therapies are good, and we developed our products using Thai herbs. The ambience at Palm is casual, not too elegant or stiff."

Dolchai says business has been very good. "For the first four months we struggled because we didn’t have a budget for PR, but news about us has spread by word of mouth." There has even been some interest from Singapore in franchising them.

Forty per cent of Palm’s market is local Thais. "Life is too stressful for people," says Dolchai. "They want to relax, reward themselves at the end of the day. Going to a spa has now become another option, along with going to a restaurant, bar or a movie."

Pirom Spa is one of the newest market entrants. Opening in June this year, it’s another boutique home-style spa, featuring a garden too. Owner Kornsuang Pirom started researching the market in 1999, and decided to target foreigners, who now make up 80 per cent of her clientele. She says numbers are slowly but steadily increasing. "People who want to invest in the spa business are still confused about what a real spa is – it’s not an attachment to a beauty salon. Investors have to study in detail what people want, and develop a good concept and name."

For Kornsuang, the concept is a homey spa complete with a garden where people can relax. And she focuses on using products that foreigners are unlikely to have experienced before: thanaka, tumeric, tamarind, bergamot. When the garden opens at the end of the rainy season, she hopes her spa will become a venue for businesspeople to negotiate deals – an alternative to golf.

Kornsuang doesn’t believe she’s competing with other spas. "I’m happy that [spas as a group] can help each other make this business grow and meet international standards. I’ll be happy when tourists confidently spend money on this industry in Thailand. It’s important to establish a reputable industry." That’s why Kornsuang has been involved in the formation of the Thai Spa Association, currently in the process of registering with the government. Directors have been elected, with Being Spa’s Ukkrid taking the role of vice president.

Ukkrid says that the Association has around 50 or 60 members so far – vendors, suppliers, operators, therapists. "Our objective is to promote, develop and help the industry develop standards. Indonesia and Singapore already have their own association – it’s time Thailand had one."

The association is developing criteria for spas to meet in order to attain a certified plaque. They also hope to hook up with government bodies such as the Ministry of Health, the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Department of Export Promotion.

So stay tuned, and keep your eyes peeled. A haven for relaxation might soon be opening near you.

Thailand’s paper industry: Predictions difficult, potential there

If you want to take the pulse of Thailand’s pulp and paper industry, the Thai economy is the wrist to grab for a beat. “There is some lag, but Thailand’s GDP is really like an index for how the paper industry is doing,” says Price and Pierce (Thailand) project manager Nillachai Damrongkijudom.

Unfortunately, the Thai economy has seen little growth this year, with falling demand spurred by the slowing US economy having an impact by the end of 2000. For Q1 2001, a 0.1 per cent decline in GDP was measured by the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), while Q2 saw quarter-on-quarter growth of 0.9 per cent, contributing to year-on-year growth of 1.9 per cent. The NESDB recently downgraded its forecast for 2001 from two to three per cent, to 1.5 to two per cent, while the Bank of Thailand forecast is for 1.6 to 1.8 per cent.

The world is now focused on the global aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, which could see anything from war to at least recession occurring. In case of either, the inevitable rising oil prices, declining exports and falling tourist arrivals would have a direct and dire impact on Thailand. Bangkok Bank has already revised its growth forecast downwards following the attacks – the only institution to do so at time of going to press – to 0.7 to 1.5 per cent.

The impending global gloom comes just after Thailand’s pulp and paper industries seem to have clawed their way out of the Asian crisis. From 1990 to 1997, the Thailand Pulp and Paper Industries Association (TPPIA) estimates that the industries saw annual capacity expansion of six to 10 per cent and operations close to maximum capacity. With the devaluation of the baht in mid-1997, pulp and paper companies saw their debt repayments escalate, while domestic consumption for paper fell – from 38kg to 31kg per head from 1997 to 1999 – and world prices stumbled.

Now, at least in isolation, it seems the worst is over. Domestic pulp and paper consumption for 2000 was estimated by the TPPIA to have grown five per cent from 1999 to 2.8 million tons – close to the 1996 consumption level of 2.9 million tons. Capacity expanded by six per cent to 4.6 million tons, comprised of pulp mill capacity of 956,000 tons (with a utilisation rate of 80 per cent), and paper and board mill capacity of 3.7 million tons (with a utilisation rate of 63 per cent).

Rising domestic demand contributed to a fall in exports for 2000 of almost 20 per cent. Thailand’s main export markets are China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, USA, Philippines, Taiwan and Australia.

Over the same period, paper imports – from Indonesia, Japan, US, Sweden, Taiwan, Finland, Korea, Russia, New Zealand and Singapore – rose by 21.4 per cent to 420,179 tons, due to a domestic shortfall in newsprint and high quality printing/writing paper.

Looking ahead, the TPPIA expects pulp consumption to increase from 868,000 tons in 2000 to 1.2 million tonnes in 2004, while paper consumption is expected to reach 2.4 million tons by 2004.

In regards to pulp, prices for the first half of 2001 prices “were quite poor” according to a former analyst, falling from US$500 per ton in January to US$400 per ton in June, due to excess capacity and dumping by Indonesia. “Most companies expect a turnaround in prices next year, so they’re delaying any capacity expansion,” he says.

Phoenix Pulp and Paper’s chief financial officer Mr Banthia As concurs with this opinion, saying that the Thai companies that had been planning for expansion are reconsidering in light of falling prices. “Self-sufficient companies [ie those that have overcome crisis period debt problems] had expansions planned, but they’re watching for something concrete to emerge before they go ahead,” he says. “Thai companies will have no problems surviving, but their capacity is limited because if their old debts are continuing, then commitment to new funds is difficult.”

Jakarta-based UBS Warburg analyst Mr Ray Anthony agrees that one key for Thailand’s pulp and paper industry expansion is affordable financing to allow a reasonable return on investment. “But I’m not entirely convinced the Thai banks are in a position to lend that kind of money immediately.”

Regionally Mr Anthony says that Thailand’s pulp industry fares relatively better than its paper industry, as it uses predominantly single-species wood fibre. “Indonesians and the Chinese use a varied mix of either tropical hardwood fibre or bagasse. Advance Agro [Thailand’s largest pulp producer] and Phoenix [the second largest] have been able to cultivate eucalyptus wood for the majority of their wood fibre needs, and thus they produce a better quality pulp.”

On the paper side, Mr Anthony isn’t as sanguine. “Thailand is at a disadvantage regionally mainly due to the size of its machinery. With many regional companies building 350K-plus ton per annum paper machines, the unit cost per ton of paper favours the large producers. In any event, much of Thailand’s paper production is sold domestically and thus their focus has not yet been towards the export markets – yet.”

But it is to this front that Thai more producers are now turning their attention.

“Over the next two years I think companies will review their spending on technology,” says Price and Pierce’s Mr Nillachai. “The big players will aim to export more – they’ve started to change their strategy to focus on exports over the past two years while recovering from the crisis, and while world paper prices were up [throughout 1999 and 2000].”

Mr Somboon Chuchawal, president of the TPPIA, and [Sahana, please check caption sent with photos] of Siam Pulp and Paper Public Limited Company (PCL), says that to export more, companies need to improve the quality of their products. “That’s a must,” he says. “Secondly, they need to develop good distribution channels. And thirdly, they need to be big enough.”

The importance of size leads Mr Somboon to speculate that the industry will undergo a consolidation period in the future. “There are opportunities for good companies within Asia overall to grow larger – but problem companies need to restructure. The way to survive is to consolidate, so they can take advantage of size, scale and scope.”

For Thailand, consolidation already appears to be starting, as earlier this year Siam Pulp and Paper PCL considered taking a stake in Phoenix Pulp and Paper PCL to bolster their own supply – but a final outcome hasn’t yet occurred.

Mr Pattanapong Cholvanich, secretary general of the TPPIA, and [please check caption] of Siam Pulp and Paper PCL, says Thailand’s export opportunities are enhanced because the country has its own forests and thus pulp. Then there’s relative regional quality. “China has a lot of paper mills, but quality- wise they’re not up to world standard – Thailand’s quality is better. They have many old machines still in operation that they’ll need to shut down.”

Specifically, he identifies growing demand for brown paper from China and for printing and writing paper from Europe and China. The US – where the focus has been on virgin pulp and paper facilities rather than recycled pulp – could also be a growth area, as could the Middle East.

The essential challenges, then, are to keep costs down but quality up. “We are pretty sure that with our costs in Thailand, we can compete with other countries,” says Mr Pattanapong. “But a number of Thai producers do need to improve in terms of cost and quality. New investment needs to focus on quality improvement – not just capacity expansion.”

UBS Warburg‘s Mr Anthony believes Thailand has an opportunity to become a major presence in the region. “Much of the investment in Indonesia has ebbed due to various increased risks. Malaysia has problems with sustainable wood resources. China has yet to commit to building up a modern pulp and paper industry – outside of investment from Asia Pulp Paper,” he says. “The growth area for capacity could certainly be focused in Thailand for the next few years, while other regional players wait for their domestic economies and issues to improve.”

Other factors could affect Thailand’s pulp and paper industry growth. In line with the Asean Free Trade Agreement, import tariffs for paper products are to be reduced to between zero and five per cent, depending on the grade, by 2003. Although this initially raised concern among the TPPIA, they are now less vocal about the potential impact.

A more persistent – and highly important – bugbear are the environmental concerns that continue to be raised domestically, and are at least partly affecting decisions to expand pulp- producing capacity. Advanced Agro PCL had recently been considering adding 700,000 tons per year capacity to support demand from China –which would close to double Thailand’s overall production – while Phoenix Pulp and Paper was considering adding 150-300,000 ton per year solely for export. Both companies have suspended plans in light of environmental considerations, plus falling prices and difficulties in procuring funding.

At a more general level, Dr Thanwa Jitsanguan, head of Kasetsart University’s department of agricultural and resource economics, argues that the polluter pays principle be followed more closely. “Varied incentives, such as emission charges or pollution management fees, should be strictly enforced, both to conserve the public environment, and to encourage the sustainable production of this industry.”

In response to the particular debates over the negative impact eucalyptus plantations are having in Thailand, Dr Thanwa believes research should be done to help consensus be reached. “Research and development is one of key factors needed to be invested in the paper industry, especially in increasing tree plantation for pulp industries,” he says. “Data and information should be collected to make clear the environmental impact from eucalyptus trees.”

Besides environmental management and control, Dr Thanwa believes other factors are important to the pulp and paper industry’s future, such as stimulating domestic market demand for paper products, and growing more pulp domestically to replace imports. “More importantly, policy makers should understand clearly that paper is an important foundation for many value-added products,” he says. “Paper is obviously a necessary ingredient to increase the value of many other products and services in the economy.”

The economy and paper each, therefore, affect the other.

With recent developments in the US at the forefront of people’s minds, Price and Pierce’s Mr Nillachai reflected the sentiments of most when he said the industry will just have to wait and see what the future holds. “The industry is coping with the economic recovery – they’ve climbed out of the bottom and are doing better. But really, it’s difficult to predict anything now.”

Rehabilitating hope

The sun dips into the horizon over the ocean off Chonburi province, the water taking on muted hues of pinks and blues. It?s a tranquil and fitting backdrop to the reception at the Ocean Marina Yacht Club, being held to celebrate Omega?s donation of funds to the Royal Thai Navy?s coral rehabilitation project. The Navy band whoops it up on one side of the pool; diver and model Sirinya Burbridge is on hand as MC; we press members sip our beer and enjoy the fresh barbecued seafood under the darkening night sky.

The next day we head out on Navy Coastguard boats to experience what appears to be an archetypical tropical paradise of white sands, green palms, and inviting seawater. But that?s precisely the trouble with marine environments: they hide any damage to their ecosystems under the very waters that make them appear so idyllic in the first place.

The birth of the Navy?s coral rehabilitation project stretches back to 1993, when the Navy built a wave breaker to allow ships to enter and leave its port base at Satthahip.

?The construction destroyed the environment,? admits Lieutenant Issares Lertangtam from the Royal Thai Navy Coastguard. The coral surrounding Ko Tao Moh near the base initially survived, but was at risk of being killed from the sediment now floating in the water.

There was, however, a chance to save this precious marine life if a method to safely transplant it could be devised, and a place to transplant it to could be found. The Coastguard surveyed the area and concluded that Ko Kham, a nearby island of just over sixty acres, would be the best place for the coral to have a second chance at life. The waters surrounding the island were declared as an underwater national park.

Around this time, Divemaster Thosaporn Hongsananda, who was then community service director of the Rotary Club of Prakanong, heard about the plans. Having dived at numerous sites around the country, he had seen the environment of many coral reefs slowly being destroyed. ?From my experience and study I knew that it was vital to conserve coral reefs as well as increase the overall coral reef population,? Thosaporn says.

He proposed that the Rotary International Fund support a continuing coral reef rehabilitation project in conjunction with the Navy; in 1994, the Rotary Club of Prakanong was granted 700,000 baht to donate to the Navy for this project. The one-off move to save Ko Tao Moh?s coral would be turned into an ongoing project to rehabilitate at-risk coral from other locations.

By 1995 the transplant was ready to take place. As coral is incredibly sensitive to its surroundings ? and will die if exposed to air for longer than three to five minutes – moving it was a risky operation. The coral had to be ?planted? in cement blocks, each weighing 30 kg, and then left in its original location for ten to fifteen days. Then it was quickly moved to its new location, where divers carefully lowered it into the sea. Despite the risks, close to one hundred per cent of the coral survived the move.

But in 1998, things took a turn for the worst. The El Nino effect swept the world and hit the Gulf of Thailand, causing temperatures there to rise by one to two degrees Celsius.

?Many marine organisms died, and as a result the environment changed tremendously,? says Lieutenant Issares. Around half the coral that had been successfully transplanted to Ko Kham died that year. But the project pushed on.

?It?s difficult to calculate the cost [of moving coral] ? but it?s a lot of money,? says Issares. The cement into which the coral is planted, the use of the ships and staffing costs all need to be taken into account when budgeting for such a project.

In 2000, one of divemaster Thosaporn?s students happened to be Thamonwan Rienpaiboonas, Omega?s marketing and sales manager. They discussed Omega?s successful ?No water, no life? global marketing campaign, a campaign that has seen the watch company support numerous ocean exploration missions and various ocean-loving sportspeople. ?This gave me an idea: that the project initiated by the Rotary Club of Prakanong, in association with the Royal Thai Navy, should remain active by Omega joining in with its support,? says Thosaporn.

Omega agreed that the project fitted well with its objectives and sponsored the training of a civilian volunteer diving team by Scuba O, Thosaporn?s diving instruction company, to work not just on this particular project, but also on any others concerning marine environmental issues across the country.

The Chonburi reception in June formalised Omega?s financial commitment to the project, while the daytrip on Coastguard boats to Ko Kham allowed divers to demonstrate just how it is they are able to safely transplant coral. ?Fifty pieces were moved on that weekend,? reports Issares, adding that the Coastguard has developed considerable expertise in this area of marine conservation. ?In the future, if we discover that other coral needs to be moved, we know how to do it.?

Marine-lovers can only hope that the need for them in the future isn?t too great.

Sisters still doing it for themselves

While the participation rate of Thai women in the workforce is higher than average for the region, evidence shows that pay differentials between the sexes persist and various obstacles stand in the way of women getting ahead in their careers ? indeed relatively few Thai women hold significant decision-making positions in either politics, the civil service or the private sector.

Participation high
The 1998 participation rate for women in the labour force was 63 per cent, one of the highest figures for Asia; however, there are marked gendered patterns of employment across industries. For instance, according to the 1998 Labour Force Survey, only 22 per cent of women made up all administrative positions as opposed to 58 per cent of clerical workers. United Nations Development Fund for Women?s (just put Unifem and it?s not so much of a mouthful?) regional program director for east and southeast Asia Lorraine Corner attributes this figure partly to women not getting ahead in the public service and government – until 1998 there had never been a female permanent secretary. ?The government needs to recognise its own rhetoric,? she says. ?It has not been very active; large sections of the government are not very supportive [about addressing imbalances].?

But pay isn?t
Despite legislation requiring equal pay, women on average are paid considerably less than men for the same or comparable work. The same survey showed that the average monthly salary for women overall was Bt15,074, while their male counterparts earned Bt23,742. At the officer (ie lowest) level women made up 54 per cent of the total employed and earned Bt9,388 compared to males, who earned Bt10,971. And the more senior the position, the wider the gap. At the director level, where women made up 23 per cent of the total, women earned an average of Bt51,206. Men pocketed Bt63,848.

On men?s terms
Panatda Chennavasin made news in July when she was chosen as director of marketing for Tri Petch Isuzu, a Japanese-Thai company in the automotive industry. Panatda says she does not believe she?s faced particular obstacles to get where she is today. ?However, my company is not typical of either Thai or Japanese firms,? she says. ?It is very unique, and has its own way of corporate management. From my first day here, I have not had to face any discrimination.?

However, she had to overcome it to be accepted into the company in the first place ? she answered an advertisement asking for male applicants. ?I called the Japanese GM and said, ?Give me a chance ? you will never be disappointed.? ? She took the necessary exam and interview and was offered a position in 1977.

Panatda argues that women have to be the ones to prove they are capable of the job. ?They have to show men that males and females are equal, that brains have no gender.? For Panatda, this has involved working long hours and planning her time carefully. ?You really do have to plan – you cannot just work like a man.?

Breaking through in the civil service
Secretary-general of the Office of the Civil Service Commission Khunying Dhipavadee Meksawan agrees. ?Both males and females are not used to having a woman leader at the top,? she says. ?You have to prove yourself more than a man, but you have to look at life in a positive way too ? people tend to underestimate your ability because you?re a woman, so it?s not difficult to be compared well to your male colleagues.?

Khunying Dhipavadee identifies several problems for Thai women getting ahead in the workforce: they are still viewed as the weaker sex; they lack role models; they need to balance being aggressive with being soft; and they need to balance family life with work. ?Even if outside the house you?re number one, you are still expected to go home and be a proper housewife.?

She offers advice to women who want to get ahead: ?We have to start with ourselves. You have to keep improving yourself and depend on your own abilities. You have to have confidence in your own ability, and present the positive side of yourself to the public. You have to work hard, and work as a team. Try to create a network of both male and female contacts; and manage your time.?

Couldn?t this advice apply equally to men? Khunying Dhipavadee concedes that it does. ?But women have to work at all of these things much harder.?

Taming Thailand’s Press

It was a test of strength for Thailand’s Constitution Court, formed under the country’s progressive 1997 constitution. One of the country’s most powerful politicians, Sanan Kachornprasart, was on trial, accused of falsely declaring his assets. Independent Television (iTV), the country’s first and only truly independent free-to-air channel, broadcast the live proceedings in full. On August 10, 2000, Sanan was found guilty and barred from holding public office for five years.

Now the Constitution Court faces a bigger challenge as Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, head of ruling party Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), answers allegations that he failed to fully disclose his assets while deputy premier in 1997. The case could go either way. What’s been proved already, however, is that iTV has changed. It suspended its broadcast of the proceedings after just one week.

It was perhaps a predictable development, following the February 7 sacking of 23 iTV journalists who had alleged editorial interference by their newest shareholder, Shin Corporation, the telecommunications company founded by billionaire Thaksin. But the apparent collapse of iTV’s independence raises further questions about the often unclear influence of politicians and businesspeople on the media in Thailand today. “If you look back to when the army controlled the country, [the issue of who controlled the press] was black and white. Now there are a lot of blurry lines,” said Jira Honsamroeng, the channel’s former managing editor.

Some say those lines began being blurred with the onset of the 1997 economic crisis. President of the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and managing editor of The Nation newspaper, Kavi Chongkittavorn, says that over the past three years there’s been a shift away from ownership of newspapers by journalists towards ownership by businesspeople and politicians. “The new money has led to changes in some editorial positions. It’s more pluralistic, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. You need to ask, who’s behind this? There is a new pattern of owners with vested interests. The Thai press used to get mad. They don’t get as mad anymore.”

iTV stood out for its ability to “get mad” on issues. The channel was born in the aftermath of the country’s May 1992 anti- government protests, when the five government-controlled channels failed to accurately report on violence that saw scores of Thais killed; its hard-hitting investigative reports, in which social issues were given unprecedented prominence, were something never before seen on Thai TV. So when the company founded by the man most likely to be the next prime minister took an interest in the channel in early 2000, staff got edgy. When Shin Corporation took a 39 per cent stake in the company, they started protesting.

On 12 June, iTV news director Thepchai Yong was removed from his position for his part in the protest. Next to go – ‘voluntarily’ – was managing editor Jira Hongsamroeng, six days after the January 6 election of Thaksin. “There was so much pressure to do this, to not do that,” said Jira of the lead up to the election, adding that he had been told by management he “had to learn to compromise”. Then on February 7, seven dissident journalists were sacked and 16 were layed off, after alleging editorial interference in political reporting. A majority of them had also tried to form a labour union.

UK Leeds University academic and Thai media expert Dr Duncan McCargo says that iTV now suffers from exactly the same problem it was designed to avoid: the image of a television channel controlled by a powerful interest group. “The ITV sackings are definitely a step backward for Thailand, which is now reverting to the 1992 position when television could not be relied on for objective information. They do illustrate a longstanding problem with Thailand’s media: that people buy and own media as a fairly crude means of exerting political power and influence.”

Still, along with the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia, Thailand has one of the freest presses in southeast Asia. The 1997 constitution comprehensively protects media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information; press monitor Freedom House upgraded Thailand’s press from “partly free” to “free” in its 1998-99 report.

Thailand’s journalists have also taken the lead when it comes to promoting freedom in the region. In Singapore last October, the TJA staged a walkout at an assembly held by the Confederation of ASEAN Journalists, an organisation that had linked journalists in the region for 25 years. “They don’t want to fight for anything,” said TJA president Kavi. “Our walking out was a big shock to them; they told me I was behaving like a westerner.” Kavi says that Thai journalists will instead work to strengthen the South East Asian Press Alliance, formed in 1998 by Thai, Indonesian and Filipino journalists.

As developments at iTV indicate, such an organisation has plenty of work to do. “Definitely Thailand has more freedom than in other parts of the world where journalists are physically threatened,” said sacked iTV anchor and reporter Karuna Buakumsri. “But here there are psychological threats. Sometimes there is self-censorship – these days there is a lot.”

The pressures to self-censor are even greater outside Bangkok. Amnat Khunyosying, journalist and publisher of Phak Nua Raiwan (Northern Daily) in the northern city of Chiang Mai, says he paid the price for refusing to self-censor his reports on local corruption. On April 18 last year, he narrowly escaped death when shot by four soldiers, who are now in jail awaiting trial. “A group of influential men in Chiang Mai are pressuring me to accept Bt500,000 and drop the case,” Amnat said through an interpreter. He says the jailed men have threatened to name the person who ordered the shooting if they remain in jail for longer than a year.

Amnat has covered corruption all his life, and has been sued – unsuccessfully – by disgruntled subjects before. “Many have threatened me, but nothing ever happened before this,” he said. Despite feeling the pinch following both the economic crisis and the shooting – the paper is now published three times a week instead of daily, and has been cut from 16 to 12 pages – Amnat is determined to continue publishing his paper. “I want to publish a real newspaper. Other newspapers don’t dare to review corruption.”

As Amnat says, the law in Thailand is good. “It’s the people who use the law – the public prosecutors, the police, the lawyers – who are not good. There are black influences hanging over Thailand.”

The sacked iTV journalists will soon be testing that law themselves. Article 41 of the constitution guarantees the rights of journalists in media organizations to be independent of influences from their owners, so long as the journalists behave ethically. The journalists will petition the Labour Court, from where their case is likely to be referred to the Constitution Court. There are also plans to lodge a complaint at the ILO. Whatever happens, it’s unlikely to be broadcast on iTV.