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Poaching scandal piles pressure on Thailand's construction mogul

President of Italian-Thai on bail as debate grows about privileges for wealthy

Premchai Karnasuta, president of Italian-Thai Development, arrives at the Central Investigation Bureau in Bangkok on March 20. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

BANGKOK -- It was an overnight fall from grace. The multimillionaire whose company built Thailand's largest airport and Bangkok's first mass transit railway is now drawing attention for a poaching scandal that has stirred fresh debate over the privileges enjoyed by the country's powerful wealthy class.

Premchai Karnasuta, the high-profile president of Thai construction company Italian-Thai Development, was arrested in early February for allegedly hunting endangered species, including a rare black leopard, at a World Heritage wildlife sanctuary in the western province of Kanchanaburi.

Soon after his arrest, photos of Premchai sitting in front of a camping tent in shorts and flip-flops and presenting his possession of rifles to park rangers went viral. Since then, the news has dominated both social media and traditional media in Thailand.

Further uproar was caused after it emerged that the tycoon's hunting party allegedly attempted to bribe park rangers by offering to give them anything in return for their release.

Currently out on bail, Premchai has denied all accusations, which now total 12, including illegal hunting, unauthorized possession of firearms and bribery. Some of the potential charges against him carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Prosecutors are being urged by the public to speed up an indictment in order to bring Premchai to trial. He is expected to appear at Thong Pha Phum Provincial Court in Kanchanaburi Province on March 26 to request an extension of bail.

Although the scandal remains a personal issue for Premchai, it poses risks to Italian-Thai's reputation, said Bandid Nijathaworn, president of the Thai Institute of Directors Association.

"The incident suggests that the company's code of conduct and [code of ethics] may not be observed even by its top executives," he said. "This could seriously jeopardize the confidence of investors and stakeholders towards the company's governance implementation, as well as its reputation."

Italian-Thai has declined to comment on the case, and the 64-year-old Premchai remains in his seat as president.

However, investors have reacted to the scandal by sending the company's shares down by 18% over the six weeks since the news of Premchai's arrest first unfolded. That compares with the 1% decline of the benchmark Stock Exchange of Thailand index and an 11% drop of CH. Karnchang, Italian-Thai's largest rival.

Thailand's construction sector overall has not been performing well because earnings of CH. Karnchang and Sino-Thai Engineering, another major industry player, both have reported declines in 2017 earnings.

The stock plunge was notable at Italian-Thai especially because the company, unlike others, had announced improved earnings for 2017, returning to a profit for the first time in three years thanks to new large contracts.

The company swung to a net profit of 412 million baht ($13.2 million) last year from a net loss of 109 million baht in 2016, while revenue rose 16% to 55 billion baht, according to stock exchange filings on Feb. 28.

Italian-Thai Development's distinctive orange logo can be spotted at various construction sites in Thailand. On March 20, 2018, in Bangkok. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

"While investors are cautious on the construction sector as a whole due to delays in large public infrastructure projects, the poaching scandal has added uncertainties to ITD shares," said Kasem Prunratanamala, head of Thailand research at CIMB Securities. "The corporate image might discourage potential project partners from working with the company."

Italian-Thai is the largest listed construction company in Thailand as measured by revenue. Its distinctive orange logo, designed with its initials, can be spotted at construction sites of new roads, railways and office buildings around the country.

The company was co-founded more than six decades ago by Premchai's father, Chaijudh Karnasuta, and Giorgio Berlingieri, an Italian who ran a dredging business in Vietnam. They began what became a successful joint operation in salvaging wrecked ships in Bangkok's Chao Phraya River in 1954, and the two incorporated Italian-Thai in 1958.

The business has been in the hands of the Karnasuta family since Berlingieri died in the early 1980s. Currently, the family controls more than 30% of the company's shares. Premchai is the largest holder with 14%.

Initially, Premchai's elder brother was appointed by Chaijudh to succeed their father. But he was killed in a car accident in 1979, resulting in Premchai taking the helm when he was still in his 20s.

Italian-Thai at the time was already one of the largest construction companies in the country but Premchai sought to expand its operations. He listed the company on the Thai stock market in 1994, a move that was reportedly against his father's will.

Premchai also pushed the company into winning major infrastructure projects, such as the Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Thailand's main international gateway, which opened in 2006; and Bangkok's SkyTrain, the first mass transit railway system in the country, which opened in 1999.

The company was recently awarded contracts for the second-phase expansion of the Suvarnabhumi airport and a number of new mass transit lines in Bangkok. The current military government is speeding up its major infrastructure projects ahead of general elections expected early next year, with various biddings set to open.

Italian-Thai is reportedly eyeing a Chinese technology-backed high-speed railway project and another railway project to connect three major airports in Bangkok and country's eastern seaboard industrial zone.

"He is like a bulldozer," a former aide quoted Premchai's elder sister, Italian-Thai Director and Senior Executive Vice President Nijaporn Charanachitta, as describing her younger brother.

Nijaporn, who is in charge of the company's financials, often grumbled that Premchai jumped on projects and that she was the one who had to make ends meet, the former aide told the Nikkei Asian Review. She would often joke that "it's like I'm following him around with a broomstick and cleaning up the mess he made."

In recent years, Premchai has been keen on venturing outside of Thailand, winning bids for projects such as an airport in Myanmar, railways in India and a coal rail and port in Mozambique.

"There are more possibilities and more opportunities abroad," Premchai said last April on the sidelines of the company's annual shareholders meeting.

But operating in emerging markets comes at high risk. In Bangladesh, for example, the company in 2011 won a contract valued at more than $1 billion to build an expressway in the capital of Dhaka. But according to local news media, only 7% of the project has been completed, due to difficulties in securing funding and repeated changes in construction design in order to fit land availability.

Meanwhile, a proposed special economic zone in Myanmar's southern district of Dawei is also facing delays. Italian-Thai was initially awarded a concession to develop and operate the entire economic zone in 2010 by Myanmar's former military government, but it was forced to cancel its involvement because it was unable to secure funding.

A new contract to develop the first phase of the economic zone was awarded in 2015, but the government transition in Myanmar caused further delays. The authorities have yet to give a green light, which would allow Italian-Thai to start inviting companies to operate in the economic zone.

Premchai is happy to take the risks, though. "If we go to other places, we won't be able to get the project," he said. "These are tough places that not many [competitors] will go. That is why I go."

If Premchai were to step down in the wake of the allegations, analysts said that his sister Nijaporn could take the helm. Other company sources said that his youngest son, Thoranis Karnasuta, a board member since 2014 and currently assistant to president, is a possible candidate. "I became president when I was in my 20s, why can't my son do that?" Premchai once said to the former aide.

Italian-Thai may not be the same without Premchai. He was determined to transform the company into something more than a general contractor -- with projects such as the Dawei industrial estate and a potash mine in northern Thailand -- to create "steady income," he explained to shareholders last April, so that the company's performance would not rely too much on the unpredictable supply of construction projects.

But as many of these projects are still incurring losses on huge investments, "some could lose steam if Premchai leaves," said a Bangkok-based analyst who covers the construction sector.

The former aide described Premchai as "stubborn, but loveable." However, in the eyes of the general public, Premchai is seen as just another rich businessman who could potentially get away with his wrongdoings, a common occurrence among wealthy Thais.

A fatal hit-and-run case involving the heir of Red Bull is a notable example. In 2012, Vorayuth Yoovidhya, the grandson of the energy-drink maker co-founder, Chaleo Yoovidhya, allegedly drove his Ferrari into the rear of a motorbike of a Bangkok policeman and fled the scene after dragging the body along the road for some distance. The officer died.

Vorayuth initially blamed the accident on a family driver and tried using his family's influence to sweep the incident under the carpet. He was eventually arrested but released on bail.

The wealthy scion's indictment came five years later, in April 2017, after he repeatedly ignored police and court summons while continuing a lavish lifestyle. By that time, he could only be charged for hit-and-run and reckless driving, because the statute of limitations on drunk driving and other charges had expired.

Nevertheless, Vorayuth had fled the country days before the arrest warrant was issued and he is still on the run. Many doubt that he will ever suffer consequences.

Similar rules reach the corporate world, too.

When top executives of CP All, the country's largest convenience-store chain that runs 7-Eleven stores, were found guilty for insider trading in 2014, investors called for their resignation. But the company, which is part of the powerful conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group, did not take action against them.

Chairman Dhanin Chearavanont, the billionaire who leads the CP Group, asked CP All shareholders in a statement that was read aloud at the annual general meeting to forgive the executives, as they were significant contributors in making the company large and profitable.

The executives remained in office and were merely fined by Thailand's Securities and Exchange Commission, with Vice Chairman Korsak Chairasmisak paying the highest penalty -- 30.23 million baht -- although it was not made clear how much the executives had actually profited from their illegal trading.

Premchai's scandal may, however, lead to different consequences as public rage over his alleged poaching continues to spread.

Over the past several weeks, rallies against Premchai have been organized in Bangkok by environmental and student activists wearing black leopard face masks and calling on government agencies and businesses to stop doing business with his company.

The black leopard has become a symbol for protestors against animal cruelty and impunity for the rich alike. Mural arts featuring black leopards have been spotted around the capital. At one Italian-Thai construction site, an illustration of the animal in tears was painted over the company's logo.

This piece of street art on the wall of a Bangkok animal hospital depicts panthers at the "Last Supper," a protest of Premchai's alleged wildlife poaching. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

Income disparity continues to widen in Thailand and has been an issue that the current military government, which came into power in a 2014 coup that was widely backed by the affluent Bangkok establishment, has failed to address.

Thailand was ranked the third-most unequal country in the world by a Credit Suisse report in 2016, trailing only Russia and India. According to the report, 58% of the country's wealth was controlled by just 1% of the entire population of 70 million in 2016, compared with 38.5% in 2011.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has insisted that Premchai's case will be properly investigated, telling reporters that anyone who interferes will risk being punished.

As the country approaches national elections, an earlier poaching scandal in 1973 that eventually led to the fall of a military government may have crossed Prayuth's mind. Back then, a helicopter crash revealed that military and police officers were secretly hunting in the same wildlife sanctuary in which Premchai was recently caught.

The military government at that time tried to conceal the officers' wrongdoings, which created a huge uproar that grew into mass protests demanding return to democracy.

Prayuth, whose government's popularity is ailing, appears to want to take the case seriously. He said that if the court finds Premchai guilty, he cannot be helped. "Guilty is guilty, however big he may be."

The headquarters building of Italian-Thai Development, in Bangkok (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

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