A comprador’s life

Matichon weekly news magazine has a great cover story this week on the relations between the government, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the men behind the military coup, and Thailand’s biggest multinational, the conglomerate Charoen Pokphand. The company is also known (from its initials and its main business) as the Chicken People. (Access to articles at the Thai-language magazine’s website is only by subscription. The magazine costs 40 baht on the stands.)

That’s the head Chicken Person himself on the cover of the magazine, Dhanin Chearavanont. In addition to dead chickens and eggs, CP deals in the Lotus hypermarket chain everywhere but Thailand, and, in Thailand, the single most ubiquitous brand name of them all — the 7-Eleven stores. It owns the True-brand phones and Internet services. CP has set up an Arkansas animal-feed plant and a Shanghai motorcycle factory. It controls pretty well all chicken and egg sales in Thailand, virtually the entire (huge) chicken export market, and most of the milk industry. That is just to give you a quick and very shortened rundown on Mr Dhanin’s interests in recent years. To call him rich is an understatement. No big public charities or donations carry the CP name, either.

Dhanin spoke on business to the big-shot Thai Office of the National Economic and Social Development Board on March 6. In a huge, shock surprise, the news channel of the CP-owned True Visions pay-TV service have played the speech and a number of praising, talking-head shows about it over and over. As Matichon says, the speech has become a big topic of discussion.

Dhanin played the unsympathetic, big-shot capitalist in the speech, which at least is a role he knows well. Basically, he said the economy is an opportunity, not a problem. He wants a policy of what he calls in a Maoesque reference, the “two highs”. This he means as high salaries for civil servants and employees, and high prices for agricultural exports.

He shamelessly plugged only CP projects. He wants the government to collude with other countries to jack up world prices for rice and rubber. (Thailand already is a rubber price-fixer.) He wants land seized, cleared and made available for three crops: rice, rubber and palm oil.

By an amazing coincidence, the Thai rice trade is controlled by his son-in-law, the Thai rubber trade is controlled by CP, and the Chicken People are planting palm plantations as fast as they can get saplings, because Dhanin sees huge profits from the biofuel fad.

If this personal lobbying isn’t enough, the magazine looks at Dhanin’s politics, or rather lack of them. When Thaksin Shinawatra came to power, Dhanin praised him as “a smarter businessman than me.” When the military took over, Dhanin stood firmly with Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, known variously as the coupmaker and the invisible hand against Dhanin’s old buddy Thaksin. The day Samak Sundaravej was appointed as prime minister in a pro-Thaksin government, Dhanin sent over a CP food tent to put on the new premier’s lawn to serve the guests — no charge, of course.

A few days after Dhanin’s “two highs” speech, the government announced raises for civil servants, followed by pressure on the private sector for raises for every salaried employee in the country.

The article is an excellent look at the way old compradors do business, how influential they are, and how the government sets policies.

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