Saturday, May 24, 2008

Dubai World seeks to build ports in Southern Thailand

Staff ReportPublished: May 23, 2008, 00:19
Dubai: Dubai World on Thursday said it has signed an agreement to look at building two ports and a logistics park in Thailand.
The memorandum of understanding with the Thailand government "enables the parties to undertake a feasibility study over the next year," the Dubai company said in a statement, without providing details about its proposed projects.
The ports on the coasts of Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand in southern Thailand will be linked by a land corridor, which will have a free trade zone or business a park. "The corridor could operate as a logistics centre and may include road and rail to handle the transfer of cargo," Dubai World said.

"This is an important first step in developing world class supply chain services that will serve Thailand and the region far into the future. We are very pleased to be working with Thailand on this feasibility study," Dubai World chairman Sultan Ahmad Bin Sulayem said.
Dubai World's port operator DP World manages Laem Chabang International Terminal (LCIT) at Laem Chabang Port.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Thai Air forwarder aims to outpace industry

NAREERAT WIRIYAPONG

CEVA Logistics (Thailand) aims to increase its turnover by 15-20% this year, outpacing the industry's expected growth of 10%, according to managing director, Winfried Kiesbueye.

CEVA, Thailand's top airfreight forwarder in terms of sales, was formed from a global merger of TNT Logistics and Eagle Global Logistics a year ago. The merged unit posted 26% growth in local airfreight turnover to 2.88 billion baht in 2007.

The achievement helped lift the company's ranking by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) from fourth to first place.

''The logistics industry normally grows at double the GDP growth rate, which in Thailand this year is estimated at 5%. We want to grow at higher than the industry's average by projecting annual revenue growth of 16% starting this year,'' Mr Kiesbueye said.

The projection was in line with CEVA's target to increase its global revenue to 10 billion by 2010, he added.

''We have seen very organic growth in Thailand. The country is one of CEVA's pillars of growth in the region,'' Mr Kiesbueye said.

The Thailand unit, positioned as a hub for Indochina, also serves clients in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma.

Thailand at present contributes 12- 13% of CEVA's total revenue generated from the Asia-Pacific region which totalled 1.2 billion, behind Australia and China.

CEVA has invested 250 million baht this year to expand operations in Thailand, including the new high-tech finished goods hub in Ayutthaya and more 100 vehicles and trailers added to serve rising consumer needs, according to Roy Tan, country manager of CEVA Freight (Thailand).

The Thai unit now employs 2,900 people with more than 500 vehicles and trailers, 36 warehouses and shipping yards totalling 695,000 square metres, Mr Tan said.

Automotive-related clients, such as Isuzu, BMW, Goodyear and Delphi, generate 32% of CEVA's total revenue while the high-tech industry, as well as retail and consumer sectors were also strong, accounting for 22% and 15% of turnover respectively, he said.

Mr Kiesbueye said that in order to compete with Singapore and China to become an airfreight hub in the region, Thailand should invest more in infrastructure and create long-term consistent supporting policies for the sector.

As well, investing in industry professionals should be the focus of the government to support growth and bring down logistics costs.

''Thailand's logistics cost is about 18% of the GDP. That's too high,'' he said.

Myanmar's first jet has landed

New jet plane for donations lands in border city

For the first time in almost ten years state-owned Myanmar Airways has replaced the old propellers with a new jetliner ATR 72, reported sources from Tachilek, opposite Maesai.

“It may be a coincidence,” said a happy resident of the city. “But a day after the news about Nargis donations from Tachilek being transported to affected areas through Kengtung (160km away) came out, an ATR 72 with 62 seats landed.”

Donors from both Thailand and Tachilek have no need to worry about their relief offerings being delayed or damaged, they say.
myanmarairway
Myanmar Airways suspended its jet flights to Tachilek following an accident on 27 August 1998 which killed all its passengers and crew.

Apart from Thais across the border, most donors are Burmans, Shans and ethnic Chinese residents.

Myanmar Airways fly to Tachilek twice a week, Sunday and Wednesday.

The related report: PM Thein Sein wrong man for handling disasters? (17 May 2008) recounted the Fokker Friendship F-27’s crash in 1998 while Gen Thein Sein was serving as a regional commander.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Thailand's 3G Battle

The real driver of 3G here

It's all about escaping existing concessions, Alcatel-Lucent tells Don Sambandaraksa

3G telephony will happen in Thailand, but will not be out of market demand for high speed data or higher density voice calls. Rather, 2.1GHz 3G is all about escaping from the revenue sharing agreements that bind today's 2G operators in a country where intense competition means that airtime is already among the cheapest in the world.

In an exclusive interview, Vincent Duda, Managing Director of Alcatel-Lucent Thailand, said all the operators had told him that they could not continue with 2G, not from a technical point of view, but from the financial standpoint. Today's operators are working on concessions and have to share their income with TOT or CAT. They all want to move to something else - WiMAX, 3G, 4G - just to get out of the current concession scheme.

The Thai market today is still all about voice and fashion and there is no compelling technical or marketing reason for 3G. The ratio of data usage to voice in Thailand is tiny unlike in Europe or Japan.

Alcatel-Lucent has also been involved in many backbone projects and Duda says that the nationwide fibre networks are more ready for 3G. This is partly because 3G here will be to avoid paying concessions for voice rather than for high speed data and secondly, the large investments by CAT, TOT and the State Railway Authority of Thailand (SRT) around the years 2000 to 2001 means that today there is sufficient fibre to feed even the fast HSDPA 3G cells.

That said, the terminal equipment will need to be upgraded to modern IP (Internet Protocol) equipment and Alcatel-Lucent is now bidding on many upgrade projects.

Alcatel-Lucent is also active on the WiMAX front with 22 contracts worldwide and the largest WiMAX roll-out in the region, in Malaysia, under its belt.

It is partnering with TT&T and True in their WiMAX trials as well as state-owned CAT and TOT. However, he said that the open nature of public sector procurement meant that it was very difficult for suppliers such as his company to invest time and technology transfer for early field trials and he would much prefer to work with the private sector operators, TT&T and True, which understood partnerships

"Today the people who are investing the most in WiMAX are the people who have the most invested in ADSL. They are not competing but are aiming to use it to serve areas where it is not commercially viable to lay down copper. You will end up with the same large corporations doing WiMAX and ADSL in Thailand," he said.

Duda expressed concern at the way the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) had allocated very little frequency for Thailand's WiMAX trials. With just 5MHz of spectrum allocated to each operator (most recommend 30MHz per operator), the lack of spectrum will makes roaming between cells very difficult once operators start moving to mobile WiMAX and he expects that soon operators will have to merge to pool their spectrum to provide a quality service. Furthermore, the licence as it stands still makes importing WiMAX equipment a very difficult and time-consuming process.

He urged the incoming regulator, the National Telecommunications and Broadcasting Commission (NTBC), to adhere to common sense. While it sounded politically nice to have huge numbers of operators to promote open competition, that was wishful thinking, he said. In reality, only a handful of companies had the money and the will to invest into WiMAX here.

Part of the problem stems from uncertainty regarding foreign ownership of telecommunications companies.

"It is absolutely impossible for foreigners to invest [in telecommunications in Thailand]. With the repercussions on foreign ownership from Temasek (over Shin Corporation) no foreign operator will invest in Thailand unless they clarify the rules and regulations. So we are looking only at the Thai market, and he asked who had the resources, the money, the technology and the experience for a large scale WiMAX network? Very few and unfortunately it will be the same names we have today.

"You're talking about 3G. We know they will offer three 3G licenses and we all know where they are going to go. Think about the reality. Do you think Vodafone or Orange would come to Thailand? There is a remote chance that a Chinese operator might as they are under political pressure to invest overseas," he said.

Despite being behind one of the largest deployments of WCDMA 850 in North America, Duda said that the recent WCDMA 850 and 900 announcements are more about building awareness about 3G in Thailand than a serious roll-out. When the time comes for real 3G on the 2.1GHz band, none of the companies would want to invest billions of dollars into running two parallel 3G networks and it is clear which network any operator would rather invest in given a choice between the niche 850/900 or mainstream 2100 bands, though 1900 is an outside possibility.

"AIS, Dtac and True Move are aware of the small number of handsets available which are ultra-expensive (on 900 and 850). Not many people are willing to pay 20 to 30,000 baht for a mobile phone today. Claiming that you have launched 3G in Chiang Mai or Mae Hong Sorn is another story and it does raise the awareness of 3G in Thailand.

"WCDMA 1900 is extremely interesting with more cost-effective handsets available, if only there was the political will to encourage TOT to solve their issue with CAT and move towards reviving Thai Mobile. This would be extremely beneficial to both the Thai people and for TOT iself and this frequency would have much more chance of success than the CAT CDMA network Huawei has installed," he said.

Thailand's Telcom Wars

It's CAT vs TOT

Your CAT Telecom turned the tables on your TOT, with a surprise offer of 2.4 billion baht to buy TOT's 42 per cent stake in SuthepNet, the little mobile company that couldn't; the firm, which has dozens of subscribers under its official name Thai Mobile, is attractive because it is almost certain to be granted a third-generation (3G) licence, and CAT Telecom sees its future as a leasing ten-percenter, skimming off the top of client contracts; TOT had once offered to buy the CAT Telecom stake in Thai Mobile for 2.4 billion baht until it ran into what the media is encouraged to call "cash-flow problems".

By a huge, unconnected coincidence the National Telecommunications Commission decided to "take another look" at 3G licences for commercial services, translation: Hook up with a government duopoly member or wait quite a while. No. 1 yuppiephone network Advanced Info Service of Shingapore said it it worried about launching third-generation (3G) service even on a test basis; president Wichian Mektrakarn wondered if the 30 relay sites in test-market Chiang Mai can handle the 3GSM Advance beta-test service on the 900MHz frequency.

Your TOT, whose main activity recently has been to lose lawsuits and arbitrations, set up a special negotiating team to try to deal with 30 cases it lost, worth 70 billion baht, which at three baht per phone call is quite a lot; TOT has established itself as some sort of record loser of suits and complaints by private-sector telecoms firms, the Revenue Department and the National Telecommunications Commission; it has even lost (how bad can you get?) in suits against your CAT Telecom; having been found guilty, TOT now hopes to negotiate the penalties it has been ordered to pay. The Central Administrative Court rubbed salt in your TOT's wounds; it upheld the order by the National Telecommunications Commission for the TOT to negotiate an interconnection contract with No. 2 yuppiephone firm DTAC of Norway; TOT feels it should just be able to send DTAC a bill and expect payment, but DTAC has taught TOT a couple of lessons about that; TOT agreed to talk, but not to settle.

The law against driving under the influence of a mobile phone went into effect; police clocked 115 violators the first day, "all of whom admitted their guilt," according to officers; as time goes by, police will enforce the regulation with the same zeal they use to enforce the seat-belt law, but in the meantime they need more digital cameras.

No. 1 yuppiephone firm Advanced Info Service officially launched third-generation mobile broadband services for part of Chiang Mai city; the venture, essentially a beta-testing phase for AIS, cost 600 million baht to set up in the Rose of the North.

A group claiming to be the Internet Cafe's Network addressed the Culture Ministry and proposed new self-governance to stop all that gaming addiction and sexual harassment of minors going around: Keep the cafe's open 24 hours a day for those over 18, and tighten up supervision of the younger set - no entry before 2pm, and out by 10pm, or 8pm for the under-15s; the ICN claimed 200 members, while a study by lecturer Ithipol Pretiprasong of the Institute for Children and Family Development of Mahidol University found about 23,900 Internet cafe's registered and operating nationwide; that compares with about 4,500 7-Eleven stores in Thailand.

NCR of America began a push to sell its SelfServ line of new ATM machines, which will allow Thai banking customers to do all that stuff that tellers and cashiers now do, and help the banks save a lot of money without getting a satang in return, isn't that great?

In line with parent Telenor, No. 2 yuppiephone operator DTAC of Norway said profits jumped 51 per cent year on year to 2.3 billion baht, although revenue grew just 9.5 per cent to 17.7 billion; CEO Sigve Brekke said he expects another great year, despite inflation and consumer fears, amid signs that mobile phones have become recession-proof; Ketchayong Skowratananont, head of the prepaid division, said the average phone card refill was down from 90 to 79 baht in a year, but the company was actually selling more cards.

Up-country fixed-line phone peddlers TT&T scaled back its business plan in line with the rehabilitation plan it submitted with creditors and the Central Bankruptcy Court; Korawut Chiwaprecha, president of vice and finance, said he was cutting more than 1.3 billion out of the former two-billion-baht expansion plan, because creditors wouldn't allow the spending; he said all TT&T subsidiaries would continue expansion and investment as planned.

Your main telecommunications squeeze TOT hired someone else to install the telecoms system for the spiffy new Government Centre near the TOT building at Chaeng Watthana; TOT will skim ... er, oversee the 323-million-baht contract, which went to Thai Transmission Industry, in a completely transparent, totally honest, unbelievably credible bidding process.

Bigger budget for rail line sought in Bangkok

17% increase reflects higher material costs

NAREERAT WIRIYAPONG & WICHIT CHANTANUSORNSIRI

The Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA) has asked the Transport Ministry to lift the reference price for the new Purple rail line by 17% to reflect the rising cost of steel, concrete and building materials.

Prapat Chongsanguan, the MRTA governor, said the agency proposed raising the construction budget for the 23-kilometre elevated line from Bang Sue to Bang Yai by five billion baht to 35 billion.

Twenty-seven tenders have been submitted for the contract by firms from Thailand, Japan, Italy, China and Korea.

Mr Prapat said the prices would be revealed in August, with construction to begin by the end of the year.

''We have to accept the fact that costs have surged, due to the rising prices of construction materials,'' he said, adding that budgets for the other new transit projects were also being reviewed. ''We need to accelerate work on these projects. The longer we delay, the higher the cost will be.''

The Purple Line, with 16 stations, is due to start service by 2012.

Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee acknowledged that expenses for infrastructure megaprojects would increase due to higher material costs and oil prices.

''If we had started building the nine routes three years ago, the construction cost might have been just 500 billion baht, instead of an estimated 700 billion today,'' he said yesterday. ''Basically, we can't wait much longer [to invest].''

Dr Surapong plans talks with the Budget Bureau and the Transport Ministry to discuss whether budgets need to be revised upward. ''We need to be realistic. Otherwise, no one will bid to undertake these projects.''

He said that while the government wanted to accelerate the bidding process to maximise the economic benefits of the investments, authorities were also committed to maintaining full transparency and disclosure.

Chula Sukhamanop, a spokesman for the Transport Ministry, agreed with the increased reference price.

''The higher reference prices could make the government's megaproject scheme more realistic [for bidders]'' he said. ''Higher prices would make more contractors more willing to bid for the projects. If they can't compete [because of] rising costs, nobody would join the race.''

Contractors welcomed the news

''Higher reference prices cannot totally offset the higher cost that contractors have shouldered, but it is better than doing nothing,'' said Anukool Tuntimas, an executive vice-president of the contractor Ch. Karnchang Plc, one of the 27 Purple Line bidders.

Mr Anukool said steel bar prices, for instance, had nearly doubled from August 2007 to nearly 40 baht per kilogramme.

State officials say the Finance Ministry would likely seek cabinet approval to raise the preliminary budgets for the mass transit projects to create a buffer for future price increases.

If no budget increase was approved, a project would face considerable problems if contractors' bids failed to come under the approved budget.

The nine mass transit projects envision new investment of 770 billion baht over seven years for civil work.

Joseph Tisuthiwong, a project finance specialist at the Bangkok office of the law firm Clifford Chance, said Thailand should look to partnerships with the private sector to help develop the megaprojects.

''Not only infrastructure projects in Thailand, but all over the world, including China, have been affected by higher costs driven by high oil prices,'' he said. ''But the government has to go ahead with these infrastructure projects, not only to cut fuel consumption but also to serve the country's growing population.''

Concession terms of 20 to 25 years could be offered to developers, with the infrastructure operated on a revenue-sharing basis with state agencies, he said.

Concern grows over local steel shortage in Thailand

PHUSADEE ARUNMAS

Concern is mounting about a possible steel shortage as demand rises in anticipation of work starting on government megaprojects. As well, global demand would be pushed up by reconstruction following the earthquake in China and the cyclone in Burma.

The Commerce Ministry has asked manufacturers, distributors and importers for weekly reports on their stocks and has dispatched officials to inspect stocks to prevent hoarding.

The ministry's Department of Internal Trade plans talks with industry executives later this week or early next week to discuss ways of ensuring adequate steel supplies, said Yanyong Phuangrach, the department's director-general.

An industry source said there were signs of price speculation by traders who believe the department will approve increases in steel prices. A Commerce Ministry source said that officials had tentatively approved higher prices for steel bar and sheets.

Last week, local contractors threatened to boycott government projects unless authorities acted within 30 days to deal with skyrocketing material prices.

The source said steel bar prices would increase by eight or nine baht per kilogramme from 28 baht, or to at least 36,000 baht per tonne. The new price for steel sheet would be 39-40 baht per kg, up from 30-31 baht currently.

''Steel manufacturers have been asking to raise prices since the end of April, but the ministry asked them instead to help hold the prices for a while and they agreed, but now the price of raw materials have risen markedly, partially on expected higher demand from China to rehabilitate [buildings] damaged by the earthquake,'' the source said.

Vikrom Vajarakupta, executive director of the Iron and Steel Institute of Thailand, said world prices remained relatively high, with hot-rolled steel at US$900 to $1,000 per tonne compared with about $600 at the end of last year.

He predicted prices would ease later this year on ebbing demand in a slowing world economy. He estimated Thailand's steel demand at 13 million tonnes this year, a rise of 3-5% from last year.

3 soldiers injured when training plane hits ground

(BangkokPost.com) - A training plane of the army experienced technical problems and fell in Kanchanaburi province, critically injuring three soldiers.

The L-19 plane belong to the army's pilot school in Lop Buri province.

It fell in the middle of the Surasri military camp in the Muang district, at an area near a petrol station located there.

The wounded soldiers were taken to the Surasri military camp hospital.

Cause of the problems are still uncertain.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Biodiesel hub taking shape in Thailand

New lease on life for abandoned orchards


YUTHANA PRAIWAN

A former tangerine orchard in Rangsit could be the next frontier in local biodiesel development, with heavy-duty support from a number of government agencies.

The first small harvest is about to get under way on 100 rai at the 20,000-rai site in the suburban area north of the capital in Pathum Thani, where oil palm trees were planted in 2004.

The pilot project is backed by state and private universities as well as the ministries of energy, agriculture, finance, and science and technology.

''With collaboration among related ministries, we plan to set up the perfect prototype for biodiesel, which is the last resort for the country to deal with the oil price crisis,'' said Capt Dr Samai Jai-In, an alternative fuels specialist with the Royal Thai Navy.

The first harvest is expected to yield 30-40 tonnes of fresh palm fruit a month from 100 rai.

Dr Samai examines a palm tree grown alongside jatrapha trees at the Rangsit site, where the first harvest on 100 rai will soon take place.

In the second phase, the project is to expand to 50,000 rai and expects to ultimately generate 200,000 tonnes a year of palm nuts that can be processed into biofuel.

The possibility of growing palm in high-acidity soil was initiated by His Majesty the King, whose idea led to a new growing method that transformed a site in Narathiwat province into a high-yielding palm oil plantation in 1983.

Rangsit was the country's premier orange-growing area 30 years ago, but output fell as the soil became increasingly acidic, and an outbreak of mosaic virus in 1997 proved devastating. Many farmers in the area are still paying off debts today.

Dr Samai said the farm owners at the time traced the problem to poor waste-water treatment at the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand's gas-fired power plant at Wang Noi.

Several hundred thousand rai of tangerine orchards in the area were abandoned after the virus outbreak and yields were low on those that remained. Most of the growers moved to new sites in Kamphaeng Phet and Phichit provinces.

Dr Samai said that rehabilitating the soil in the area so that it could support other farm crops would cost a huge amount of money.

But growing biofuel crops such as palm and developing a biodiesel complex would make the area economically viable again.

''A century ago, soil in the Rangsit area was so high in acid that it could not even support the fishery due to the poor quality of water,'' he said.

Tests done so far at the site showed that it could produce about four tonnes per rai of oil palm _ higher than the country's average of 2.8 to 2.9 tonnes.

Dr Samai said biofuel output from the complex would have a competitive production cost, not only because of the high-yielding plantation and efficient production technology, but also because the area had superior irrigation and infrastructure.

Pornchai Rujiprapa, the permanent secretary of Energy Ministry said the managers of the project were preparing to build a palm crushing plant and a refinery to produce B100 or 100% biodiesel.

The plants will benefit from equipment and technical support provided by the National Science and Technology Development Agency, which is headquartered nearby. Kasetsart University is supporting research and development of new palm-based products and production processes, while PTT Plc has committed to buy all of the biodiesel output.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Buddhism, democracy and dictators



Are US$500,000 shrines like this one in Nakhonratchasima, Thailand, really Buddhist, or are they religious glitter used by a misled and misleading elite to distract the public from more pressing needs? (Photo/Frank G. Anderson)
Nakhonratchasima, Thailand — Former American civil rights leader Martin Luther King said, “The Negro’s great stumbling block is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice…who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

Today, in 2008, Southeast Asia is witnessing another paternalistic determination of who gets what kind of freedom in the Burmese constitutional draft referendum, as well as with the accommodating Thai government next door. Thailand clearly wishes to please Burma more than it does to promote real democracy. There are several good reasons for doing so, but none of them is conducive to freedom -- and all that it entails -- in the region.

It seems that both Thailand and Burma are struggling with intense and immense pressures, most of them internally created, but also many from abroad. The latter pressures are generally dismissed by the two as outside interferences, as unwarranted intervention or more plainly as Western imperialism. With the generals of both nations proudly geared up in the latest scrambled-egg-covered uniforms and ruled by an elite that sweeps aside freedom movements as easily as dust under the carpet, the future for the general populace in both countries is bleak at best, at least in the next 20-50 years.

Use of violence or threat of violence by state agencies, their supporters and misled uninformed citizens is one of the first tools used to ensure unity, stop divisiveness and mold public opinion. Up comes the national flag and anthem, parading of military might, denunciation of free-thinkers who really have no personal axe to grind other than wanting to be free. There are also appeals against foreign interference -- “Believe us not them!” -- and the inevitable periodic shakeup of uncontrollable democracy movements that result in democratic leadership being decimated.

There is a lack of transparency and ultimate authority in the region by leadership that is able to constantly reengineer public thinking and redirect angst against not the locals who created it but against legitimate opposition instead -- with foreigners a favorite target.

There is official immunity from being fired or sued, exercised by the friendly moving to inactive posts of those who have fallen into disfavor. Another technique is refusing to provide details about anything whatsoever, a nearly complete but compliant media silence against official wrongdoing out of fear of lack of advertising, closure or imprisonment -- these are just a few of the tools being used today in both Burma and Thailand to silence opposition and to paternalistically set a timetable for a molded freedom that best fits in with the design of those who will never relinquish power voluntarily.

Perhaps a pertinent question to ask is how two widely divergent government systems -- a strong socialist/communist repressive regime in Burma, and a strong unity-driven pseudo-democracy in Thailand -- could have turned out so closely resembling one another, not so much in terms of overall government administration but in social values, especially when viewing their shared Theravada Buddhist underpinnings.

Further, given the similarities and growing alignment between the two neighbors, what’s in store for the people of these staunchly nationalistic yet separate-leaning countries? And what’s in store for countries in Asia and even beyond to the Great Superpower, who trade with Thailand and Burma?

Optimism does not appear to be warranted. The recent tragic cyclone that hit Yangoon -- whose inapt name means “end of strife” -- was handled true-to-form by the regime prohibiting foreigners, especially Westerners, from providing assistance to the stricken and dying.

One would think that a country that identifies itself with Buddhism would have immediately welcomed foreign assistance, but this was not the case. Nationalistic pride, paranoid fears of being invaded, and perhaps the thought that Burma’s total mismanagement of its people and resources would become known to the world, got in the way.

This takes us to a serious and highly negative parallel between Burma and Thailand, with long-term implications, since it affects both countries and their societies, including the ruling elite.

This parallel is the habit of addressing reality with illusory disdain, almost as if reality does not matter. This ethic also resembles Buddhist doctrine -- leaving many scholars scratching their heads -- but it provides a hint into what makes societies in Burma and Thailand click. If reality is not that important, then surely the physical realities of oppression, domination, deprivation, human suffering, even life and death itself are illusory and merely a flow in the continuum of false existence?

Buddha taught a way of life that lies halfway between self-indulgence and self-mortification. In Buddhist teachings, there is also advice against interference in events that are more often referred to as inevitable or the result of fate. Such non-interference leads to less frustration for the individual, but then the question of the permanence of suffering arises.

This is where Western society crosses the void by taking action to end suffering as it is perceived, or by taking action to prevent further suffering. The objectives of the Western ethic and the Theravada Buddhist are the same -- to alleviate suffering. This has been ingrained in Burmese and Thai societies, as well as other Buddhist countries and enclaves in the region. It has taken root and is accepted, to parlance, as The Gospel.

Thus when events occur, such as the Burmese Cyclone Nargis, and there is a great deal of suffering, those ruling the country do not view the suffering in humanitarian terms the way the West does. A similar tale was told during the horrible tsunami that hit the region on Dec. 26, 2004. Despite thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of homeless and hungry, foreign nations were told by Thailand’s government that it did not need their aid or assistance, as “Thailand is not a poor country.”

It boils down, then, to different ways of seeing things. And therein lies the problem that will continue to vex Thailand and Burma, if one views as vexing the needless suffering and death of our fellow human beings. Obviously it is not vexing to national leadership that turns away aid or pillages it with resale in mind or writes over donor names on aid boxes with the names of its own generals who know nothing about how to manage a nation or a people, who fear losing their jobs and giving up power, who literally have the power of life and death over hundreds of thousands, even millions, of their people.

Buddhism’s -- and Thailand’s -- greatest threat is first and foremost human greed, of which there is plenty in Burma and Thailand, as in all other countries around the globe, sadly. It is human greed that will undermine principles of compassion, cooperation, understanding and giving with the twin evil rewards of power and control.

This undermining based on greed is what causes elections, and various representative forms of democracy in Burma and Thailand, to be so questionable and ineffective. There is really no system of checks and balances either within the governments or between the governments and the electorate. Voters do what they are told to do, or paid to do. Government officials, instead of being properly elected and independent of corrupt central authority, instead are created to serve that authority.

Overcoming this harsh reality is possibly an illusion the West is forlornly hoping to accomplish. In the greater scheme of things, in the traditional Buddhist ethic, it all does not matter as everything is an illusion and suffering was preordained because of desire and past acts.

But to the West, to humanitarians in a larger sense, the suffering does matter. It matters because it can be prevented. Part of the prevention process is in fact enshrined in the democratic form of government that empowers not just the greedy but the needy, the poor as well as the rich. How to get autocratic rulers -- especially dictators, including wayward Buddhists -- to comprehend this truth and to let go of the whip, is the historic task at hand.

--

(Frank G. Anderson is the Thailand representative of American Citizens Abroad. He was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer to Thailand from 1965-67, working in community development. A freelance writer and founder of northeast Thailand's first local English language newspaper, the Korat Post -- www.thekoratpost.com -- he has spent over eight years in Thailand "embedded" with the local media. He has an MBA in information management and an associate degree in construction technology. ©Copyright Frank G. Anderson.)

Myanmar: sealed off from the world

LYSE DOUCET

Globe and Mail Update

MAE SOT, Thailand — As soon as you cross the Thai-Myanmar friendship bridge, you have to shift perspective. From driving on the left-hand side in Thailand, you suddenly veer to the right. The sharp zigzag is just the first clue that, in Myanmar, the world looks different.

The former British colony drove on the left until 1970, when its first military ruler, Ne Win, was supposedly advised by his soothsayer to "move to the right." The nation of 48 million has been subjected to this kind of eccentric rule since 1962, when the generals seized power and largely sealed it off from the world.

But its fearful view of outsiders has been magnified on a global stage ever since the country was hit by Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in its living memory. Two weeks have gone by and, despite the mounting fears of a second "man-made" disaster — many more deaths from disease, if not starvation — the ruling junta holds the line: Aid from friendly countries and agencies is welcome, but not the foreign relief teams that want to distribute it.

Unprecedented and astonishing is what the United Nations calls this response. Outrageous and shocking is the verdict of those warning of a disaster of "unimaginable proportions." It has rung alarm bells around the world, triggering defiant calls for "forced intervention" if Myanmar's generals do not open the door on their own.

Their obstinacy is like nothing Asia has seen, even from other tough regimes.

When the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated Aceh province in northern Sumatra on Dec. 26, 2004, the Indonesian military in the region soon realized it had to loosen its grip, even though it was locked in battle with separatist rebels. Within two days, as the death toll climbed, Vice-President Yusuf Kalla told journalists: "Tell the world. Everyone can come," and we marvelled at how restrictions disappeared overnight. Waves of aid agencies and journalists landed, even travelling to areas controlled by the insurgent Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM).

Then, almost a year later, when an earthquake ripped through the mountains in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, the military also eased controls that had long blocked access to large parts of a fiercely disputed territory along the Indian frontier.

The sports stadium in the capital, Muzzaffarabad, was transformed into a makeshift airfield with a steady stream of craft landing and departing. Pakistani soldiers never stopped thanking aid agencies for their help and journalists for telling their story.

Now, even hard-line China has opened its doors and asked for help to cope with its devastating earthquake. Will Myanmar ever follow suit?

From the border town of Mae Sot, aid workers have been crossing the Thai-Myanmar Friendship, a gently sloping ribbon of concrete baked mercilessly by a blazing sun, day in, day out, hoping to secure visas to allow them to bring their skills and supplies to more than 2.5 million desperate survivors.

"No one has ever shut the door to us," remarks an astonished Mike Larsen of the Toronto-based Global Medic, a rapid-response team that has worked extensively in disasters and emergency situations across Asia.

"We keep going to the border crossing," he adds. "The customs authorities just turn away and talk on their mobile telephones. They don't even want to deal with us."

Mae Sot is a last resort of aid workers trying to get in. It's a long way from areas hit by the cyclone, but many agencies have wasted precious hours in consulates pleading for access, and are growing desperate.

The few journalists who have managed to enter Myanmar posing as tourists and then tried to make their way to the worst-hit area, the Irrawaddy Delta, have found themselves hiding in paddy fields and hotel rooms to escape military intelligence officers furiously hunting them down.

READING THE GENERALS' MINDS

As well as pleading for access in Myanmar's consulates around the world, trying to comprehend the thinking of the generals has also absorbed valuable time. It's the stuff of speculation, guarded whispers and seasoned observation.

Maung Zarni, founder of the Free Burma Coalition and a research fellow at Oxford University, says that "the military is not monolithic."

But, he cautions, "there is an institutionalized madness at the very, very top and the rest of the generals fall in line."

Reports from inside the country that are impossible to confirm but cited by many say Lieutenant-General Thein Sein, the Prime Minister, went to the country's remote capital of Naypyidaw shortly after the cyclone struck to tell military ruler General Than Shwe about the scale of this disaster and that they needed help.

By all accounts, he was overruled. For the reclusive 75-year-old general, his overriding priority was a constitutional referendum, which went ahead, one week after the cyclone, whatever the cost to the relief effort. Officially, the referendum is meant to move Myanmar a step closer to multiparty rule as part of a "road map to democracy." Critics called it a sham to legitimize military rule.

"The generals know there is only a thin veneer of legitimacy that separates them from their people," explains a senior United Nations official who, like anyone who works with the government, wants to remain anonymous.

"They'd lose face if foreign rescue teams were seen to be travelling around Myanmar saving their people from this disaster."

In the midst of such deep xenophobia, small shifts loom large. Even the decision to accept any foreign aid was significant. "In the first 72 hours, I had some optimism," recalls Myanmar watcher Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia's Macquarie University.

"The generals crossed an important line and I wondered whether rational elements would step out of the shadows."

SHOUTING DOESN'T HELP

Being located on the border has made Mae Sot home to tens of thousands of Myanmar migrant workers, refugees and displaced people. Among them are many outspoken activists who have long pondered the vexing question of change in their homeland.

Asked if there is any chance Myanmar's rulers will open up, Khun Myint Tun, an exiled member of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), draws his answer from seven years spent in solitary confinement.

"I passed through military intelligence and stood five days and five nights on a wooden stool, not allowed to sleep," he says. "They are heartless and have no wish to change."

However, as a chorus of criticism grows louder outside, a different tone has emerged from aid agencies working inside: They insist that shouting just doesn't help.

"It only makes the military dig in its heels further," says one aid official reached by telephone in Rangoon, Myanmar's largest city.

Charities like the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and a range of non-governmental agencies, have been based in the former capital for years. They have responded and achieved results with their skilled local staff and more co-operative local officials.

Also speaking by telephone from Rangoon, Canadian Andrew Kirkwood, who heads the British charity Save the Children, points to efforts of the local business community. It generously pitched in to buy relief goods locally and has been annoyed by all the negative media coverage.

But everyone agrees that whatever good is being accomplished — by the military's limited resources, the aid agencies lucky enough to be on the ground and an accelerated airlift — is dwarfed by the scale of this disaster. There simply aren't enough helicopters, trucks and boats to reach all the survivors.

The UN believes that at least 100,000 are already dead and that number could rise sharply if the aid effort isn't scaled up soon, and significantly. Grim reports from the Irrawaddy Delta speak of a trail of devastation, of rotting animal carcasses and human corpses contaminating the water, of hungry survivors desperately begging for food, and entire villages having nothing more than a cup of rice to share. And now there are warnings of more heavy rain to come.

The situation stands in stark contrast with the aftermath of Monday's earthquake in neighbouring China.

"China has massive capacity and, by international standards, good preparations for earthquakes," says Amanda Pitt, a UN official based in Bangkok. "But it has understood the disaster it's facing is beyond the capacity of any one country to deal with."

Foreign rescue teams have already arrived to assist in an urgent race against time. Journalists reaching the epicentre of the quake are sending wrenching accounts of heroic efforts to pull survivors from the rubble and of families in unbearable grief.

As the world shares their pain, it may reach out to help China's victims at the expense of Myanmar's desperate citizens.

EMERGENCY FORCE READY

In an especially cruel irony, U.S.-Thai military exercises, code-named Cobra Gold, were getting under way just as the cyclone struck. The theme? How to prepare for a multinational response in the event of a major natural disaster.

As a result, about 11,000 members of the U.S. armed forces, a large number of aircraft and four ships were in the region, along with three U.S. Navy ships in the Bay of Bengal, all at the ready if Myanmar's generals gave the green light.

So convinced were they of a chance to do good, Admiral Timothy J. Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, flew on the first ever flight of U.S. military aid, which took goods into Rangoon after a week of arduous negotiations. He had hoped to persuade the authorities to grant more access, including permission to distribute the U.S. aid. Instead, all he got was a photo opportunity on the tarmac.

"We're an optimistic people, we like to believe people will do the right thing," says a U.S. Marine whose team has flown to Mae Sot to check a nearby airfield for possible use.

Do they really believe they can crack Myanmar? "The higher up the hierarchy you go, the more excited they get," one officer remarks.

Having seen how a timely and well-meaning humanitarian intervention can boost U.S. ratings even in places like Pakistan, where there is strong dose of anti-Americanism, generosity also makes good political sense. One Western diplomat with extensive experience in the region regrets that, in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, the United States was too quick to politicize the situation.

First lady Laura Bush, who has made Myanmar one of her causes, called on the military government to accept a U.S. disaster-response team and scolded the generals for failing to alert their people to the approaching danger. Observers say this only reinforced the regime's deep suspicion of a country that has all but advocated its overthrow.

As the crisis moved into its second week, more visas were granted and the door seemed to open a little wider to allow in expertise from such neighbours as China, Thailand, India and Bangladesh. The two countries have historical differences, but the Thais have tried to persuade the generals the world has good intentions.

"They're suspicious of countries like the United States," Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama said in an interview. "But we're telling them this is just aid. There are no conditions, no politics."

'DAY OF RECKONING'

At the end of the day, the junta must face its own people. "There will be a day of reckoning," says Prof. Jason Abbott, a Myanmar expert at the University of Surrey in Britain. "There will be political consequences, not in days but weeks and months."

An aid official who spent five years in Rangoon says that "Myanmar is more like Zimbabwe than North Korea. The borders are more porous, people can access foreign media, so it's not hermetically sealed."

And the activists in Mae Sot seem to put much faith in "sparks" that can lead to change. One example was the sudden rise in fuel prices last September that lit the fire of street protests and was met by a brutal suppression by the military. Looking for silver linings in what are literally dark clouds has become part of the story of disasters.

But outcomes are not always shining. Although the 2004 tsunami led to a peace deal in Aceh, it also contributed to a worsening of tensions in Sri Lanka and the eventual collapse of a six-year-old ceasefire between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has called on Mynamar to "put people's lives first," but when he tried to call Gen. Than Shwe from New York, no one even bothered to answer the phone. Some European nations are now urging the UN to invoke its much-vaunted principle of a "responsibility to protect" when governments fail to safeguard their own people. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's call to go ahead and drop aid in the disaster zone initially met a resounding silence, but now a heated debate is growing in the face of what British Foreign Secretary David Miliband condemns as the regime's "malign neglect."

Many observers here now believe Myanmar's policy is fixed. The government already says it is moving from emergency response to reconstruction in some areas.

But a colleague who has just returned from the Irrawaddy Delta says she lost count of the corpses she saw along the route. Having done an extensive cleanup in Rangoon, the military has now blocked all roads to the worst-hit areas.

However, she says, local residents are helping journalists get through, and news of what's going on in Myanmar's rice bowl will get out. When it does, the generals may find it just as hard to face their people as it will be to feed them.

Lyse Doucet is a Canadian journalist with BBC World News who covered the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.