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Somkid says it's 'the best ever'

October 6, 2001

The new board of |Thai Airways International (THAI) has a big brain - a record seven PhDs - yet the key question is whether it can really turn the sagging airline around amid the negative sentiment in the commercial airline industry.

Shareholders of THAI yesterday approved 14 members of the 15-member board of directors, pending the appointment of the airline president. The board's credentials look rather impressive, but seem more suited to looking after the Thai Asset Management Corp.

Yet Finance Minister Dr Somkid Jatusripitak described the board as "the best ever in the history of the airline". Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had a hands-on role in picking the new board, raising the number of directors back to 15 after Somkid had tried to downsize it down to 11.

Financiers dominate the new board, which does not have a single expert on commercial aviation. The board is a mixture of bankers, financiers, academics, bureaucrats and only one businesswoman.

Dr Virabongsa Ramangkura was voted board chairman and belongs to the academics' group. The well-known economist, famous for his call for a baht devaluation in early 1997, is an economic adviser to the prime minister. He has a deep insight of macroeconomics, yet it is his management ability that will be put to the test.

The second PhD among the academics is Dr Chai-anan Samudavanija, the former chairman, who managed to make a comeback as a director with the support of the finance minister. He could not chair the airline again because that would be a snub to Deputy Transport and Communications Minister Pracha Maleenont, with whom he crossed swords until the entire board had to be fired. Chai-anan, now a headmaster at Vajiravudh College, is a political scientist.

Dr Bovornsak Uvano, the thirdPhD, is a legal expert, particularly in constitutional law. It is not clear why THAI needs a constitutional law expert on its board, yet he is expected to be welcomed aboard by the Thai Rak Thai government.

Among the group of directors made up of bankers and financiers, Dr Thanong Bidaya is a man for all seasons. He was formerly deputy chairman of THAI and, as Thaksin's closest aide, would be the PM's ears and eyes at the airline. Apart from chairing the National Economic and Social Development Board, Thanong, who as finance minister floated the baht in 1997, is also executive chairman of the Thai Asset Management Corp. A banker by profession, he is good at making deals.

Another PhD in this group is Dr Olarn Chaipravat, a former president of Siam Commercial Bank. A top macroeconomist, he got into a debate with Virabongsa over the foreign exchange policy in 1997 and lost out. He is now adviser to the finance minister.

The third PhD banker on the board is Dr Vichit Suraphongchai, the executive chairman of Siam Commercial Bank. A former transport and communications minister in the first Chuan government, Vichit is a deal-maker, keen on the international banking business. He is playing a key role in restructuring Siam Commercial Bank and the Crown Property Bureau.

The two other members of this group are Chartsiri Sophonpanich, the president of Bangkok Bank who managed to make a comeback to the board, and Viroj Nualkhair, the president of Krung Thai Bank.

The last group is made up of bureaucrats, who have long dominated the management of the airline: Somchainuk Engtrakul, the permanent-secretary of finance, Srisook Chandrangsu, the permanent secretary for transport and communication, ACM Terdsak Sujjaruk, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Air Force who is tipped to take over as governor of the Airports Authority of Thailand. Dr Vishanu Krua-ngarm, the Cabinet secretary-general and the seventh PhD on the board, got the directorship of the airline because it is a state enterprise of strategic importance. Pol General Sant Sarutanond, the commissioner-general of the Royal Thai Police, also made it to the board.

The biggest surprise on the board is Khunying Sasima Srivikorn, chairwoman of Golden Land Property Development. She is the mother of Phimol Srivikorn, a Thai Rak Thai MP and a secretary to the finance minister.

As of yesterday, the new board could not decide on who would succeed Bhisit Kuslasayanon as president. Bhisit was sacked last month along with the entire board amid an internal conflict that hurt the airline's reputation.

Analysts said investors had already downgraded THAI stocks after the September 11 attacks on America, which has created global economic uncertainty and depressed sentiment in the airline industry.

Thanong Khanthong



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