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The road ahead

2013 will be another exciting year, with a lot of interesting issues waiting to unfold. The Nation looks at some topics that are expected to gain a lot of attention in the new year in the area of politics, telecoms, healthcare, mass transit and lifestyle, among others.

Rewriting the charter

Differences over constitutional amendment and the so-called reconciliation law will become an explosive issue in 2013.

People have already voiced concern that differences between the proponents and opponents of a new Constitution will only worsen, with the possibility of renewed political violence. Critics also suspect that the ruling coalition's reconciliation bills are aimed at granting amnesty to individuals directly linked to this government and in trouble with law.

It has become clear that the ruling Pheu Thai Party will push for an amendment of the current post-coup charter in order to make way for the setting up of a drafting assembly to write an entirely new Constitution. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has said that her government will go ahead with amending the charter on a piecemeal basis, should the planned public referendum on rewriting the charter fail to deliver majority support.

Those against the charter amendments, particularly the opposition Democrat Party and its supporters, contend that the move by the proponents, comprised mainly of the ruling party and its red-shirt supporters, is aimed at clearing legal problems faced by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin, Pheu Thai's patriarch, has been living abroad to avoid imprisonment at home for corruption. He also faces several other cases resulting from investigation by the Assets Examination Committee, which was set up by the 2006 coup-makers who brought down his government.

The proponents maintain that the entire charter must be scrapped because it is "the fruit of evil". However, the opponents suspect that Thaksin's camp only wants to do away with a particular clause - Article 309 - that recognises all legal moves against Thaksin after the 2006 coup. They are calling for the government to amend the charter on an article-by-article basis in order to ensure transparency and allow open debate on the pros and cons of the clauses proposed for rewrite.

Both sides have been campaigning relentlessly to push their cause and appear to be going all out to accomplish their goals.

This heated situation carries great risk of a flash-point for the country. - Kittipong Thavevong

Bangkok governor's election

Hopefully, Bangkokians will come out in force to choose their new governor, following the end of incumbent Sukhumbhand Paribatra's term on January 10. The election has been tentatively scheduled for February 17.

The gubernatorial poll this year will be a clear contest between the two main rival parties - the ruling Pheu Thai and the Democrats. The chance of an independent candidate winning is slim.

A victory will have symbolic significance for either party.

No candidate from any party linked to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - such as Thai Rak Thai, People Power and Pheu Thai - has been elected as Bangkok governor. Candidates from these parties, even when they were in power, failed to win the hearts of Bangkok residents.

As for the Democrats, they will feel it is important to retain their popularity in Bangkok, with their only other stronghold being the South.

Yet, despite the fact that Sukhumbhand's popularity has dropped, due in part to his hands-off approach to the 2011 flood crisis and the now-infamous futsal stadium farce, the Democrats had no choice but to nominate him. Pheu Thai is expected to field deputy police chief Pongsapat Pongcharoen.

As for Bangkokians, they will be given a chance to choose whom they want to run the city for the next four years. - Jintana Panyaarvudh

Political cases

The yellow shirts' rallies in 2008 and the red shirts' extended protest in 2010 kicked off some major political battles in court, with one of the major players in the fight being the Department of Special Investigation.

Progress is being made in some major cases against the yellow shirts, with some red-shirt leaders also having been convicted.

DSI director-general Tarit Pengdith recently announced that his agency was charging former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban with the murder of people killed in the 2010 crackdown. Obviously, the setting up of a centre to receive complaints from the victims, most of them red-shirt supporters, opened the floodgates of political anger.

Even though the red shirts declared victory when Abhisit and Suthep showed up in court to provide their fingerprints, the two Democrat leaders refused to bow to any negotiation for fear it would lead to rules being bent to benefit fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

While legal cases faced by the red-shirt leaders will be slow and time-consuming, as many of the protagonists are now MPs and enjoy parliamentary immunity, the many legal cases against the yellow shirts are definitely moving forward.

Public prosecutors last week finally submitted the cases against yellow-shirt leaders, including Sondhi Limthongkul and Chamlong Srimuang, for besieging Government House and blockading the Parliament in 2008. This was after the defendants had postponed their court appearances so many times that officers threatened to seek their arrest.

Prosecutors are scheduled to announce on February 7 whether they will file charges against the yellow-shirt leaders for the Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airport closures.

No matter how the defendants and plaintiffs fight it out in court, 2013 is bound to be a year full of political cases to watch. - Kornchanok Raksaseri

Minimum daily wage

Thanks to the implementation of the Bt300 minimum daily wage, 2013 should be bright for workers across the country.

No matter where they are or whether they are skilled, workers will be earning at least Bt300 per day.

For workers in Phayao, this is a boon - their daily wage will leap from just Bt222 to Bt300. Though the price of commodities will go up in kind, they can still expect a better quality of life. Plus, they should have more money to spend on their children's education as well as being better able to support their ageing parents.

Thrifty people might be able to save up and maybe even put some money down for a home of their own - something they did not dare dream about in the past, when employers were successful in blocking wage increases in order to keep their costs down.

Yet, the government's policy to grant a huge wage hike to workers is controversial, and its impacts have yet to be fully understood. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs), especially those in labour-intensive industries such as clothing and footwear, will be hit badly. Their costs will rise and some may not be able to survive, let alone compete in the international market. Hence, some workers might be laid off, while others might lose out on overtime wages.

Though some businesses might continue to prosper, this does not mean that the owners will stop seeking other ways of cutting costs. Workers may need to watch out for what they will lose in exchange for the big wage hike. - Chularat Saengpassa

Mass transit expansion

2013 kicks off with some very good news for Bangkok commuters - they may no longer have to spend hours stuck in traffic.

The Mass Rapid Transit Authority (MRTA) will call for bids for some parts of the MRT and BTS systems. With a budget of Bt59.91 billion, the BTS's Green Line extension will stretch from Mor Chit to Saphan Mai and onward to Khu Khot. The MRT's Pink Line extension, for which Bt38.73 billion will be set aside, will run east-west across the city as an elevated railway, from Kae Rai to Pak Kret and then to Min Buri.

In a bid to ease commuter congestion further, the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning will be seeking bids for at least seven new electric-train projects. This means that the electric-train system linking the capital with nearby provinces will expand, and the new routes will cover a combined stretch of Bt118.4 kilometres.

Further convenience can be expected when the electric-train system becomes even more comprehensive. The Light Red Line, for example, will run down Bang Sue-Phaya Thai-Makkasan route, and will also provide services between Bang Sue and Hua Lamphong, as well as between Siriraj and Taling Chan. The Airport Rail Link's route, meanwhile, will extend from Don Muang to Bang Sue.

A vast city like Bangkok is in desperate need of a comprehensive mass-transit system, especially since roads in the heart of the city cannot be widened or improved. Also the number of vehicles on the road has shot up due to the government's first-car initiative, which has also made 2012 a golden year for the auto industry, with more than 1.2 million vehicles sold.

Let's hope that the mass transit system develops quickly enough to stop Bangkok from plunging into deeper traffic crisis. In the meantime, we can only hope that the construction of the rail projects won't block the roads at rush hour. - Urisara Kowitdamrong

Healthcare budget

In 2013, the government will likely launch strong measures to control the healthcare budget for the three national healthcare schemes.

Over the past three years, the government has tried to limit the budget for national health insurance funds - namely the National Health Security Fund (NHSF), Social Security Fund (SSF) and Civil Servant Medical Benefit (CSMB). However, the costs of these funds have risen drastically, and no attempt to curb them has been successful.

The government is trying to cap the three schemes' cost at Bt200 billion a year. Of this, about Bt109 billion will be allocated to the NHSF to service 48 million people (Bt2,500 per head), Bt27 billion to the SSF to cover 11 million members (Bt2,500 per head) and Bt60 billion to the CSMB for 5 million people (Bt12,000 per person). Among the three schemes, CSMB seems to need the most funding.

In 2012, the government issued a regulation to limit the money spent for CSMB by controlling reimbursements for glucosamine sulphate, a dietary supplement used for the treatment of arthritis. Under this measure, government could cut spending on glocosamine from Bt600 million to Bt10 million.

During 2013, the government will implement four measures to cap the CSMB budget at Bt60 billion. The government will also freeze the per-head budget for the NHSF at no more than Bt2,755.60 from 2012 to 2014. - Pongphon Sarnsamak



Border dispute

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is set to hold a final public hearing on the Preah Vihear territorial dispute on April 15-19 at The Hague, before delivering its judgement on the issue at the end of the year.

In their testimonies, the Thai and Cambodian delegations will offer their respective interpretations of the 1962 ICJ ruling.

Cambodia is focusing on the clause in the 1962 ruling that says, "the Preah Vihear temple is situated in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia". The ruling was based on the prior existence of an international boundary established and recognised by both countries. The boundary had been demarcated according to the Siam-Franco treaties in 1904 and 1907 as well as a French map.

Thailand, however, argues that the 1962 judgement did not rule on the boundary line.

The two countries have never disputed the scope and meaning of the judgement. The old Hindu temple and its vicinity as handed over by Thailand to Cambodia in 1962 was recognised and accepted by Phnom Penh. However, a dispute broke out recently when Cambodia said it wanted more space adjacent to Preah Vihear to use as a buffer zone for the site's world-heritage inscription.

The court will consider both sides' cases and seek more evidence if necessary before making a final decision at the end of 2013. - Supalak Ganjanakhundee

3G

Users of mobile phones and other Web-enabled devices will have a lot of new options for broadband Internet service by the second quarter of 2013 when the three 2.1GHz licence holders are expected to launch their service in most major cities.

Of course, this scenario depends very much on whether the licence holders - Advanced Wireless Network (AWN) of Advanced Info Service (AIS); DTAC Network (DTN) of Total Access Communication (DTAC); and Real Future of True Corp - can honour their commitments.

Shortly after obtaining the licences on December 11, 2012, the companies' executives said they would not rush to introduce the service until they could ensure the best possible quality.

The operators' networks are required to cover 50 per cent of the population in the first two years and 80 per cent in four years. The licence holders' parent firms will also deploy their existing huge bandwidth to back up the 2.1GHz service offerings of their subsidiaries, especially during peak data consumption periods. They have already asked for 20 million phone numbers with the 091 prefix from the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to provide the service in the first year. Their request is being considered.

Businesses ranging from banks to media outlets are also eager to ride the new 3G trend so as to market their products and services as well as expand their customer bases. 2013 should see about 20 million 3G mobile-phone subscribers on all platforms, from 850MHz to 900MHz and 2.1GHz, against about 6 million this year. The wide availability of 3G should also help spur the growth of e-commerce and mobile applications. - Sirivish Toomgum

Social TV trend

2013 will see a significant shift in the way consumers watch television, as Thailand will be joining the rest of world in embracing the "social TV" phenomenon.

Thailand will witness a rise in the number of smart-phone and tablet owners, fuelled by the arrival of 3G/4G, which will also encourage people to bring television and social media together. An increasing number of viewers have several screens open at the same time when watching television, and many engage in simultaneous discussions about what is showing. For instance, shows like Channel 3 soap "Rang Ngao" and talent show "The Voice Thailand" have been hot topics on Facebook and Twitter.

Also, social media is often humming during live broadcasts of English Premier League football games or when the Thai national team is playing. It is this live exchange of views that has coined the term "Social TV", which has become a new opportunity for marketers and research companies to keep tabs on changing behaviour.

Thanks to this multi-tasking audience, the television industry has not lost its viewers to the Internet, but social media is making producers more sensitive to consumer opinion about what is good or bad about certain popular shows.

Nielsen, a leading US consumer research firm, has decided to introduce the Nielsen Twitter TV Rating in the United States after recognising that Twitter is an important source of real-time television engagement data. Thailand has yet to welcome the arrival of this new measurement method, but TV producers and operators have already acknowledged the importance of social TV by challenging the conventional rating methods. - Veena Thoopkrajae

Electronic readers

Newsweek's last print edition hit the shelves recently, providing a resounding wakeup call for the local media. This year will see many other publications giving up on their print editions and going online. In fact, the pace for digital transition has been frantic in the West.

Newsweek has cited speed, efficiency and vast cash savings as reasons for the move, but the reality is that readers prefer "sophisticated" digital content. In other words, many more people would rather snuggle up to an e-reading device like Kindle or the iPad.

Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad e-book have caught consumers' imagination in the West, and should eventually catch up elsewhere as well, especially if the trend toward "open" format continues. This format allows people to read their downloaded e-books on any device - Kindle, PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry or Android - rather than only being able to read an Amazon book on a Kindle, as is the case in the "closed" system.

However, it doesn't look like book-shy Thais will be jumping on the digital bandwagon any time soon. Yet, publishers are actually upbeat about the future. At present, an estimated 1.5 million Thais flip pages electronically out of a population of 60 million. Hence, it might be years before more Thais start taking pleasure in reading online rather than socialising on the Internet. At best, e-books command 1 per cent of the overall book market here. (The AIS chain is currently the leader in e-book sales in Thailand, with more than 300,000 downloads per month.)

Though the potential is there, we will have to wait for global interest in e-books to mature and for e-reader devices to become more affordable - and more convenient. - Manote Tripathi




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