Fact, fiction and a satellite tycoon

09 Jan 2013

It is not often that a country becomes transfixed with satellite concession details. If anything, Thaicom had a very smooth ride, considering the skeletons in the closet.

Overnight that all changed, and it took the banning of a soap opera to remind everyone just what happened back in 1990.

Above the clouds 2 or “Nua Mak 2” is, or rather was, a prime-time soap opera on Thailand’s Channel 3. It features a crime-busting detective with a heavy dose of black magic thrown in.
However, the detective met his match when he investigated a certain corrupt satellite deal. The show was cancelled with three episodes yet to air, with early reports saying that it was taken down because it violated article 37 of the frequency allocation act.

The key scene that is making its rounds on social media shows the protagonist justifying why he had to stop a corrupt satellite project.

“It’s not that Thailand shouldn’t have a satellite, but not now, not under these conditions,” he said.
That the soap opera was referring to the Shin Satellite concession in all but name was clear to everyone.

The Thaicom concession was granted to Thaksin Shinawatra’s company by the military junta that staged a coup d’etat in 1991. It is, or was, a domestic satellite concession that later morphed into what seems like a perpetual monopoly without any such geographical restrictions.

On a side note, that is the typical way of doing business in Thailand - bid for something that is restrictive and cheap, then get the contracts modified later to make them much more valuable.

Thaicom 1 and 2 were not that controversial, but it was Thaicom 3 where the real fun started. The company managed to get paperwork approved one transponder at a time, thereby avoiding the public private joint investment act (the same act that is now at TrueMove’s neck) that requires projects of more than one billion baht in value to be vetted by the cabinet and the ministry of finance first. This is to ensure that the government is held responsible for large scale projects.

The first two satellites concession fees were paid only when the transponder was turned on. So when the two satellites transponders were all full, it was decided by pencil-pushers in government that they could simply continue paying for more transponders on a per-transponder basis. Never mind the fact that a transponder needs a satellite to go up on, nor that someone else might want to bid for a satellite contract competitively.

Thaksin Shinawatra is today awaiting trial for a subsidised loan his cabinet approved for the Burmese government to subscribe to satellite services from Shin Satellite. This was from a time when his wife, children, cook and driver still owned the company, before it was sold to Singapore’s Temasek.

In 2003 when Thaicom 3’s solar array failed, the ICT minister allowed the insurance money to be paid directly to Shin Satellite, rather than to concession holder CAT Telecom as was in the contract.
After the 2006 coup, the military appointed ICT Minister suggested that it was clear that the Thaicom concession should be recalled. However, all he did was send everything to the council of state - the government laywer - for advice, and nothing happened.

Since then, all of this has gone quiet. Not surprising considering that the former director of the ICT Ministry’s space affairs bureau was promoted to permanent secretary at the beginning of the 2013 fiscal year.

Well, quiet until the soap opera got pulled for touching on the issue of a corrupt satellite tycoon, that is.

The local webboards, Facebook and Twitter are abuzz about the incident. A hacker defaced the Channel 3 website, putting up a sign asking, “Where is Above the Clouds?”

Even the regulator, the national broadcasting and telecommunications commission, got involved. As the show’s cancellation was supposedly because it violated article 37 of the broadcasting act 2008 and one of the commissioners pointed out that article 37 had never been used; and that if it were to be used, it would need an NBTC order, not self-censorship by the TV station. The regulator has since asked for copies of the three banned episodes.

Channel 3 spokesperson Borisut Buranasamrit said only that the content of the soap was inappropriate. Reports later noted that he denied that the soap was taken off air because of article 37 per se.

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