THAILAND THWARTS SALE OF 25 PERCENT STAKE IN LINE GOVERNMENT CITES BIDDER'S TIES TO SINGAPORE

THAILAND THWARTS SALE OF 25 PERCENT STAKE IN LINE GOVERNMENT CITES BIDDER'S TIES TO SINGAPORE

Attempts to restructure Thailand's state-owned shipping line are again in turmoil after the government scuttled a deal to sell 25 percent to a local company.

The Transport Ministry said last week that the tentative accord with Bara International Shipping Lines Co. to buy into Thai Maritime Navigation Co. will be an

ed and new bids called.Bara "did not comply with the requirement that the firm be clearly identified as Thai-owned, so there is no other choice. Bara is free to lodge another bid if it meets the guidelines," a ministry official said.

The company was the only bidder in the latest in a series of attempts to find an equity and management partner for cash-strapped TMN.

Its bid foundered in a swirl of controversy over its ultimate ownership,

because of links to Neptune Orient Lines Ltd. of Singapore, in which the government there has a stake. Bara also acts as NOL's agent in Thailand.

As reported, Bara said NOL holds only 30 percent of its equity. Stock exchange records in Singapore indicate the figure is more than 49 percent, and critics of the deal said this would be akin to handing over Thailand's main steamship line to a foreign state and rival carrier.

Deputy Transport Minister Chaipak Siriwat said even a 30 percent foreign holding in Bara was unacceptable. He suggested 10 percent to 15 percent might get by.

A brief statement this week from NOL Chief Executive Lua Cheng Eng said the line is unlikely to reduce its stake in Bara "from the current 30 percent to 10 percent-15 percent."

The Thai ministry spokesman said the terms of reference will be changed before new bids are called, to clarify the rules on overseas shareholdings. Bara Chairman Yodjin Uahwatanasakul said he would await the new guidelines before deciding on another bid.

TMN, which has no ships of its own, does have foreign shareholders, but their aggregate stake is less than 15 percent, company records show. The line's management backed Bara's bid, saying it would bring badly needed money and expertise.

About 95 percent of Thailand's international trade depends on shipping, and 90 percent of the vessels carrying it are foreign owned. An increasing number of private Thai companies with big export markets are moving to establish their own fleets.

Data from the Office of the Maritime Promotion Commission show that in 1987 the total volume of seaborne trade carried by Thai-registered ships was 4.6 million metric tons, or 10.6 percent, of the total 43.86 million tons. By 1992, this had fallen to 7.19 million tons, or 9.5 percent, of 84 million tons.

The figure of 84 million tons for that year was nearly double the volume in 1987, showing annual growth of 14 percent. Seaborne trade is projected to expand 15 percent a year between 1997 and 2001.

Bara proposed over five years to purchase a minimum seven vessels totaling at least 100,000 deadweight tons.