Buddhist monks protest beer IPO

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Nearly 2,000 saffron-robed Buddhist monks chanted prayers outside the Stock Exchange of Thailand on Friday to protest the planned listing of the company that produces the country's best-selling Beer Chang, or "Elephant Beer."

Thai Beverages - part of the business empire controlled by liquor baron Charoen Sirivadhanbhakdi, a strong political supporter of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra - intends to sell around one-third of its shares, raising up to $1bn in what would be the biggest listing in the history of the Thai market.

Investors have long anticipated the initial public offering which would significantly boost the market's capitalisation to gain exposure to Thailand's Bt82bn beer market. Nearly 80 per cent of the domestic market is low-price brews produced by market leader Chang Beer, and rival brewer Leo.

But the proposed sale share has raised the hackles of cultural conservatives, who contend that funding Thai Beverage's further expansion violates Buddhism's core prohibition against drugs and alcohol. In their statement on Friday, the Buddhist monks denounced the listing as "a grave threat to the health, social harmony, and time-honored ethics of Thai culture.

Their protest comes against the backdrop of persistent concern by Mr Thaksin's own government about the drinking habits of Thailand's famously fun-loving, and hard-drinking, population especially its youth.

According to the Stop Drinking Alcohol Network - a group of teetotalers advocating tighter restrictions on alcohol sales, the average Thai currently drinks 14 liters of pure alcohol per year, higher than anywhere else in Asia and more than the 13 liters a year consumed by the average European.

But Mr Thaksin's government has been trying to bring its' dissolute population to heel. Bars and nightclubs once open until dawn are now required to shoo away revelers and close their doors at 1am, as part of a social order campaign that began soon after Mr Thaksin first took office.

In its newest stricture, the government banned retail outlets, including supermarkets, from selling alcohol between 9 am and 11am and from 2 pm to 5pm, a rule that has uncertain impact on overall alcohol consumption levels, but causes inconvenience to grocery shoppers.

Yet given the close relations between Mr Thaksin and Mr Charoen - one of the largest financiers of the ruling Thai Rak Thai party, the massive deal is unlikely to founder on the isolated protests. Still, if the protest gains momentum, delays could ensue. Says Vikas Kawatra, head of institutional sales for Kim Eng Securities, says "when you get religion involved, it becomes a very sentimental issue."

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