AS new shopping malls push up into Bangkok skies, the city's established shopping arcades and department stores are beset by calamity. Over the past five months it has, at times, seemed as if an arsonist was at work; in rapid succession, nine fires have wreaked havoc in malls and department stores across the capital, causing millions of dollars worth of damage. This disastrous train of events began last October when a short-circuit in a shoe shop caused a 13-hour blaze and US$20 million worth of damage in The Mall shopping complex in the Nonthaburi district in northwest Bangkok. The fire that set Central Chidlom alight gutted the flagship branch of the up-market department store chain, at a cost of four lives and $40 million. Since then, there have been fires in two other Central branches. Shopping mall fires are not particularly rare in Thailand, but the uncanny succession of blazes has set tongues wagging. Some say the blazes are an attempt by anti-government agents to burn holes in Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-archa's administration. Fire safety experts, however, tend to stick to the more prosaic truth: that building safety laws in Bangkok are decades out of date, way behind those in Hong Kong and Singapore. Sutham Nathithong, chairman of the Public Works Committee, recently announced that at least half of the city's shopping complexes were potential fire traps, while nine major department stores were violating the Building Control Act. Peter Hartog, a building safety expert and founder of the Bangkok-based Building Diagnostics Society, has been lobbying the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority to update the Building Control Act for five years. Two years ago Mr Hartog was appointed to a government-sanctioned committee on building safety. The committee has yet to meet because the government has not confirmed its $250,000 budget. 'Fire escapes are badly signed or in illogical places. If there are escape routes they're obstructed because they're being used as staff changing rooms, or rented out for storage space,' Mr Hartog said. In the absence of government action, many believe the impetus for real change will come from those who potentially have most to lose: the insurance companies, which faced a bill of almost $100 million after just four mall blazes. But the insurance industry in Thailand is so competitive that even recent fires have failed to inflame premiums. Insurers say that even high premiums are not going to protect them from the sums they might have to pay out and have decided to take the law into their own hands. Two large Thai firms - Thai Reinsurance, which reinsures the majority of shopping malls in the country, and General Insurance Association - are working to establish a set of fire safety guidelines which must be adhered to if malls wish to be insured. Experts like Mr Hartog are sceptical that the fire safety laws in Thailand will receive the complete overhaul they need. 'It's a can of worms. If the government updates the laws, then they are in effect outdating all buildings in existence. Then it becomes a marketing issue,' he said.