Category Archives: Thaksin

Claims of Political Interference in DTAC FBA Probe

We said it would get interesting.  Over the last two days the press have carried stories about conflicts within the Ministry of Commerce (MOC) over the probe into DTAC for allegedly violating the Foreign Business Act (FBA).  Page one of the business section of today’s Bangkok Post provides a good summary (“http://www.bangkokpost.com/business/telecom/246620/official-defies-instruction-to-file-suit-against-dtac”).  The whole story should be read, but first a few snippets:

The head of the Business Development Department is challenging his boss’s order for the department to take legal action against DTAC on its nationality, saying the instruction is a “direct political intervention” and “illegitimate”.

The department, a unit under the Commerce Ministry, insisted on submitting its committee’s original findings to the police and ask them to determine whether the law had been broken, and if so, to take further action.

The move openly challenges Commerce Minister Alongkorn Ponlaboot, who had yesterday demanded that Banyong Limprayoonwong, director-general of the ministry’s Business Development Department, press the charge against DTAC. “He [Mr Alongkorn] has no authority or obligation under the Foreign Business Act (FBA) to force me to accuse a company of being foreign-owned,” Mr Banyong said.

“Mr Alongkorn’s decision cannot be regarded as a government policy. It is a direct political intervention,” Mr Banyong said.

The article goes onto to describe the difference between Business Development Department’s report and the report from Mr. Alongkorn’s committee as follows:

Mr Banyong’s panel is less certain about the legal implications and planned to ask the police to investigate further for more evidence.

The original complaint against DTAC was raised by True Move, the country’s third largest mobile operator. It alleged that DTAC is 71.35% held by foreigners and their nominees.

***

A telecom veteran, who asked not to be named, said the legal move by True Move could also spell trouble for mobile leader Advanced Info Service on its shareholding structure.

“Even though True said it would not do the same with AIS, the outcome of the DTAC case will inevitably put pressure on AIS’s shareholding structure, particularly under the administration of the new Pheu Thai-led government,” he said.

We’re not going to delve much further into this politically charged morass here, other than to make the obvious observation that it is morass.  Laws such as the FBA lend themselves to this sort of political controversy in Thailand.  There are views on what constitutes an illegal nominee under FBA Section 36, but much of this is contested terrain – perfect ground for political battles having little to do with sound policy or providing Thailand with a better IT infrastructure.

It is also safe to say that these sorts of controversies do not instill investor confidence in Thailand.  More about that later.

2007: Proposed Amendments to the FBA – What Happened?

Following the 19 September 2006 coup that ousted the government of Thaksin Shinawatra (Thailand’s first non-constitutional change in over 15 years), the military did all of the things that you would expect of coup makers: it canceled upcoming elections, abrogated the Constitution, dissolved Parliament, banned protests and all political activities, suppressed and censored the media, declared martial law, and arrested Cabinet members.  The military also appointed members to a body called the ‘National Legislative Assembly’ (NLA), and the NLA began to consider and enact new ‘legislation’.

For the foreign business community in Thailand, proposed amendments to the Foreign Business Act (FBA) were the most controversial piece of new legislation. These amendments were intended to re-define what constituted an “alien business” under the FBA.  Foreign control would matter even if the company was majority owned by Thais.  From the post on the history on the FBA, you will recall that up until this time, Thai law expressly provided that a Thai majority owned company was not considered an “alien company” – even if it was foreign controlled – unless the Thai shareholders were  “nominees” of foreigners.

To attract investors, previous Thai governments had publicly emphasized this point when trying to explain the FBA to prospective foreign investors.  And in reliance on this very narrow definition of an “alien” in the FBA, 35 years of practice and repeated reassurances by prior Thai governments, foreigners established and controlled tens of thousands of companies, and done so for decades.  But it appeared that all of this was about to change.

The NLA put forward increasingly restrictive proposals.  Foreigners would essentially be forced to divest themselves of businesses they might have established decades ago in Thailand.  The money, time and effort that tens of thousands of foreigners had put into establishing businesses in Thailand – some of them household named businesses that employed thousands – would be subject to forced fire sales to local interests.

This was headline news in the early part of 2007 with front-page articles about pleas by foreign embassies that the NLA please refrain from enacting such legislation.  The EU said such measures would violate Thailand’s obligations under the WTO.

In the heated arguments over these controversial amendments, the then government put forward some rather interesting arguments to justify their proposed amendments to the FBA, such as

  • The new laws would only affect businesses that were already using illegal nominee structures; these businesses were already violating the law, and they therefore had no right to complain.  The response to this was obvious: if these businesses are already using illegal nominee structures, why change the law?
  • Senior officials in the Ministry of Commerce claimed that every “civilized country in the world” had laws restricting foreign ownership similar in breadth to that of Thailand’s FBA, and such laws determined a company’s “nationality” based on voting control.  While there may be some truth to the latter, the former was demonstrably untrue, unless the U.S., Australia and every member of the EU don’t count as civilized countries.  Thailand’s FBA was and is extraordinary in its breadth.

What happened? The foreign business community’s relationship with and confidence in the government was strained.  There was genuine concern – indeed, an expectation – that such changes would be enacted by the NLA before elections were held on 23 December 2007 to replace the appointed NLA with an elected parliament.  But the elections came and went without any change to the FBA.

The foreign business community sighed in relief. But even in the several weeks after those elections while the NLA remained in power before an elected parliament was seated, there was a strong press to make the FBA much more restrictive.

But it never happened.

Although no legislation was enacted, Thailand’s reputation with investors suffered tremendously.  And the foreign business community felt as though they had only gotten through this by the skin of their teeth.

In the next post on the FBA, I will take a look at the current state of the FBA.  Between now and then, perhaps something else.