February 06, 2014 00:00 By WATCHARAPONG THONGRUNG THE NA
The chief executive of energy giant PTT, Pailin Chuchottaworn, warns that Thailand could follow the "Arab Spring" countries to become a "failed state" and face a prolonged economic malaise if the political instability lingers on and escalates, The Nation'
THE NATION: HOW DOES PTT SEE ITS ROLE IN THE CURRENT POLITICAL CONFLICTS?
Pailin: We can’t take sides. We are non-partisan, because it’s written so in the state-enterprise law.
There have been some allegations that we prohibit our staff or the Amazon coffee shops from doing this or that – I take this as a cause of hatred. Over the Internet, there is so-called hate speech. Since we have liberated media that that are outside the control of law, there have been attempts to create hatred and spread it [to the general public].
In many countries there are laws that oppose hate speech, but our country is still learning about it. However, if I find misleading information, I have to pursue legal action.
THERE IS AN EXPECTATION THAT IF THE CURRENT POLITICAL SITUATION IS PROLONGED FOR MORE THAN SIX MONTHS, THE ECONOMY WILL BE HIT HARD. WILL PTT ADJUST ITS PLANS TO COPE WITH THIS SCENARIO, AND IF SO, HOW?
If we anticipate a big impact, we will definitely adjust our plans accordingly. But I’m rather afraid that the situation has already gone far beyond it the point of no return. Taking “Arab Spring” countries such as Tunisia and Syria as a case study, none of them has yet been able to return [to normal].
From being a country that had earned huge incomes from tourism, Egypt, for example, has seen its tourism industry ground down to zero. We’re moving quickly to that point. I think if it continues like this for a while, the consequences will be unpredictable. I myself dare not think about it. I’m very worried.
In the case of the Arab Spring, Westerners still call them “failed states”. If we think we should allow the problem to go towards its extreme … out of fairness or whatever … it will be useless to talk about anything when that day arrives.
HOW WILL THE ENERGY SECTOR BE AFFECTED?
The energy sector will be among the last to be hit. The tourism, automobile and construction industries are among the first. We also need to weigh whether the currency’s depreciation will help boost the export sector [enough to] offset impacts on other sectors.
WILL PTT’S INVESTMENT PLAN BE AFFECTED IF THE COUNTRY HAS A CARETAKER GOVERNMENT FOR TOO LONG?
PTT’s investment plan doesn’t have to be approved by the Cabinet, as is the case with other state enterprises. We usually review our five-year investment plan annually.
At the moment, we are still following the same plan that was approved at the end of last year. Nevertheless, if there is a substantial economic impact, our board of directors can move up the revision schedule.
WHY HAS PTT’S HEAD OFFICE BECOME A TARGET OF “OCCUPATION” BY ANTI-GOVERNMENT PROTESTERS?
It’s now the fourth week that we can’t go to work at our headquarters. The attacking points concern “reform” of the energy sector. But I understand [the verbal attacks] have occurred only on the People’s Army stage, there has been no speech about energy reform on the main stages hosted by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee.
There are also many allegations in the online media. Many are old issues that have been repeated over and over again, with an intention to create hatred. The reason for using energy topics might be that they want to make a link to politics, and to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
As a matter of fact, we are a public company that is governed by the Public Company Act, and in other roles, a state enterprise under state-enterprise laws. Our work can be checked and investigated. It’s transparent. The names of our shareholders can be investigated. One can check and find out that the Ministry of Finance is still the majority shareholder, despite the allegation that we are owned by the former prime minister. Every PTT board member has to declare his assets [to the authorities].
THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE’S ARMY HAS CLAIMED THAT FUEL PRICES COULD BE BROUGHT DOWN IMMEDIATELY BY BT5 A LITRE ONCE THE PTT IS REFORMED. IS THIS TRUE?
Cutting fuel prices and reforming the energy sector are not the same thing. The demonstrators have been opposing the populist policies [of the caretaker government], but slashing fuel prices by Bt5 without any reason is a severe populist [act].
DOES PTT HAVE A MONOPOLY OR DOMINANT MARKET POWER IN THE OIL BUSINESS AS ALLEGED?
If you don’t drive to one of our stations to fill up your car with fuel, you still can go to Shell, Esso or Chevron stations. PTT is a publicly listed state enterprise by law. We have no special privileges.