THAI tycoon Mr Taksin Shinawatra is picking a fight with Hongkong tycoon Mr Li Ka-shing. The Shinawatra Group has fired the first salvo in a regional satellite war with STAR TV, of which Mr Li is chairman, with the setting up of an international communications subsidiary that will beam television programmes into Indochina. The ambitious technology company, which has risen almost overnight from an obscure computer broker to a major player in the high-stakes satellite business, is pursuing the same mix of broadcasting and telecommunications pioneered by Hongkong-based STAR TV - with the added benefit of generous government backing. Shinawatra was awarded an eight-year exclusive satellite launch right in 1991 in return for providing Thailand's first locally-owned transponder, beating off a rival bid by AsiaSat, the consortium responsible for STAR TV. The first of two operational carriers, aimed at breaking Thailand's dependence upon the Indonesian Palapa System, will be put into orbit in December, and the other next year. Together with a back-up satellite, they will be handed over to the Thai Government after a 30-year concession period. In Thailand, the Thaicom network will tap into programmes carried by International Broadcasting Corporation (IBC), a cable spin-off established by Shinawatra three years ago that carries a mix of American news, entertainment and sports slots. From tomorrow IBC will expand into the United States Home Box Office (HBO) pay-TV service, in what company chairman Mr Thaksin Shinawatra describes as a major push into East Asia. Promotional material distributed by Shinawatra estimates the potential HBO audience in the region to be 37.8 million households, covering Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Hongkong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Thaicom will also carry a mobile telephone network, conferencing facilities and a range of other international communications. Local competitors will be required to rent transponders from Shinawatra before they can offer comparable services. A contract due to be signed in Phnom Penh with the Cambodian authorities will give Shinawatra a tight hold on both broadcasting and basic telephone services, and from there the route will be relatively easy into Vietnam and Laos. Shinawatra International, the company's overseas vehicle announced in Bangkok last week, will operate Cambodia's first private television network in a 70-30 per cent split with a Phnom Penh consortium, and install 1,000 telephone lines for domestic use. Mr Taksin told a Bangkok press conference the two deals would cost 300 million baht (about HK$90 million) in combined investment. ''But they might need up to five billion baht for future expansion, according to demand,'' he added. The deal, remarkably flexible by satellite standards, provides 20-year concession periods for both services with no provision for royalty payments. Mr Taksin gave notice that the Cambodian foray would only be the start. ''This year will be overseas investment. We're also eyeing Vietnam and China for . . . markets,'' he said. Analysts said the next stage will be producing programmes in Thailand for broadcast over a national network of one million satellite dishes by 1997, and their eventual incorporation in overseas services. Though Shinawatra is not saying, its planning is seen as a direct challenge to the satellite supremacy of STAR TV, a competitiveness that has already been heightened by the personal animosity between senior directors of the two organisations. Communications analysts said the rivalry goes back to AsiaSat's failed bid for the Thai satellite contract and attempts by Shinawatra to block the Hongkong group from siting a transmitter in the northern province of Chiang Mai. ''In Li Ka-shing and Taksin Shinawatra you have two of the smartest and most hard-headed corporate players active in this region: a head-on clash would be interesting to watch,'' said a securities broker, who declined to be named. Mr Taksin claims Shinawatra will enter the overseas market with a definite technological edge that will quickly gain favour with audiences. In a barbed attack on the quality of STAR TV's broadcasts, Mr Taksin said Shinawatra would offer better protection for film producers worried about programme piracy, as this was more difficult to control ''when the audience is as vast as STAR TVs''. While Shinawatra is viewed as an inexperienced upstart outside Thailand, in Bangkok financial circles, its satellite bid is being taken very seriously. Analysts view Shinawatra as an imaginative, if pugnacious, leader of the new wave of technology firms attracting strong investor support on Bangkok's securities exchange. ''Mr Taskin Shinawatra has got some very powerful backers. It has become quite a stock market institution because of its liquid and it is regarded as being a very good infrastructural play on Thailand,'' said Mr Mike Stead of Union Securities. The company is about 20-per cent owned by overseas interests, mostly institutional investors, providing a steady source of off-shore finance. Its operations span the whole gamut of technology from computer services to mass communications and telecom systems, allowing Shinawatra to keep control of every stage of information networking. Its one miscalculation was a poorly-executed entry into telephone communications last year, when the Thai Government redistributed a massive contract for the supply and management of three million lines. ''They told us they were very confident of getting it, and after it became clear [telecommunications rival] Loxley were going to get it and not Shinawatra, the share price tumbled,'' said a securities broker. The news pushed the company's share price down from 290 points to 180 overnight. A year later, it is nudging 400 points.