Tesco, the supermarket group increasingly regarded by large parts of Britain as about as benign as an invading army, is finding that the reception in the more far-flung outposts of its empire is less than ecstatic, too.
A small but growing number of voices in Thailand has been speaking out against the ambitious and, they claim, aggressive plans for expansion by Tesco, which already has hundreds of stores in the country. Seemingly stung by the criticism, Tesco has taken the remarkable step of launching legal actions seeking millions of pounds in damages from its critics, one a former MP and the other a newspaper columnist. The actions have been condemned by campaigners for free speech.
"I think they want to intimidate me, to stop me speaking out against them," said the newspaper columnist and academic, Kamol Kamoltrakul, who is being sued for £1.6m.
Tesco took action after Mr Kamol wrote a column against its expansion plans for the supermarket, which operates 370 stores and hypermarkets in Thailand under the name Tesco Lotus. He claimed that Tesco did not invest in the country, minimised the taxes it paid to the authorities and had no "social responsibility".
The other person being sued is former MP Jit Siratranon, secretary general of the Thai Chamber of Commerce. Mr Jit is facing a claim for a staggering £16.4m after giving a speech to a group of activists in which he said: "The large-scale expansion of the big retailers must be exercised with great care – not too aggressively and too rapidly – to reduce the potential tension, which could lead to serious conflict." He also faces two years in jail if the lawsuit is successful.
The controversy over the expansion of foreign retailing chains in Thailand has been such that four years ago the Thai company operating with Tesco sold its stake in the operation.
"I am concerned about the 'mom and pop' stores," explained Mr Kamol, speaking last night from Bangkok. "I am worried about the millions of people who will be affected if they lose their livelihoods. I am not against Tesco but I think it should halt its expansion. I think this country should have more regulation."
Last April, Tesco's Thailand operation said it would be spending more than £100m on expansion.
Asked about the legal actions, a Tesco spokesman said: "This follows a sustained period of attacks over a number of years. It is not something we would enter into lightly." He said the company was responding to "malicious rumours".
"There comes a time when you have to defend not only yourselves but the people who work for you."Reuse content