New Thai ICT minister turns to magic to sort telecom mess

02 Sep 2015

It has only been a week and I think I’m starting to love new Thai ICT minister Uttama Savanayana already.

His first task at ICT Minister was to give state telcos CAT and TOT 30 days to sort out their lawsuits with the private operators so that everyone could begin afresh in a new, licensed 4G era.

Never mind that this was roughly 30 days after Prime Minister General Prayuth Chanocha had given his predecessor the same ultimatum, one in former ICT Minister Pornchai Rujiprapa gave up and went back to the generals saying that they needed to use their absolute power as military junta to sort out the mess with the two state telcos.

CAT happily said they would comply, then launched a new $168 million (6 billion baht) lawsuit against the telecom regulator and TrueMove and DPC over lost network rental fees, adding to the mess that Uttama Savanayana had just ordered them to settle.

He told everyone that the digital economy vision was his priority, only for another of his predecessors to go on the record saying that the digital economy was now well and truly dead.

Last but certainly not least, the new ICT minister employed the services of a Chinese mystic guru to chase the ghosts out of the ICT ministry in a video that has now gone viral on social media.

Perhaps things would have been so different if he had chased the ghosts out before he had ordered CAT to sort out its lawsuits. Yes, that would have definitely made a huge difference. Silly man.

When Uttama became ICT Minister, all eyes were on the great pivot east (or was it north?). General Prayuth essentially purged his economic team, getting rid of Pridiyathorn Devakul and replacing it with Thaksin’s financial guru Somkid Jatusripitak. Most of the other changes were in line with the changing of the guard and Uttama was someone close to Somkid and largely expected to follow his boss’ orders out to the letter. Somkid and his associates are reported to be chummy with China, to say the least.

It was the culmination of a change of direction from the West to China, a pivot East. In his year in office, Prayuth has seen an order for three SU-100 luxury jets from Russia, had a meeting with Russian PM Medvedev, ordered trains and submarines from China and now there is talk of live fire military exercise with our communist friends up north.

I expect more of the same of when Somkid was Thaksin’s finance minister - an emphasis on everything in Hernando de Soto’s the magic of capitalism except the transparency and good governance bit. Last time around Somkid was very big on capitalization. Thaksin often spoke of how farmers and programmers could capitalize their buffaloes and software into shares and thus gain access to financial markets. Neither happened.

Not content with promoting rehypothecated buffaloes into the market, Somkid and his merry men were also big on privatization of the state enterprises. They succeeded with the state oil company (never mind the tiny detail whereby Thaksin’s cronies got way more than the maximum allocation of shares - questioning it would shake investor confidence) and started the process with TOT and CAT, turning the Telephone Organization of Thailand and the Communications Authority of Thailand into three companies with the Ministry of Finance holding all its shares - TOT, CAT and ThailandPost.

CAT’s labor union was even happy (a labor union and a capitalist tycoon happy? Who would have thought) with the promise of something like 8 months’ worth of shares to each and every CAT employee. Or was it 4 with an option to buy 4 more at par, or something like that.

Shorn of their semi-governmental role, their regulatory power was given to the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) and everyone lived happily ever after.

Until the 1997 constitution was torn up and a new regulator was put in place, but that is another matter entirely.

Hitherto this reshuffle, one could have said with conviction that Prime Minister, Junta leader and wielder of absolute power (yes, it actually says that in article 44 of the constitution) General Prayuth Chanocha was clearly of the opinion that deregulation is a bad thing. Very bad. He seemed to want to strip the NBTC of its powers and put it back under his thumb via the Digital Economy Commission which he would have chaired personally. The DEC would also have first dibs on spectrum before handing the scraps down to the NBTC to take care of.

But thankfully, that seems to have changed a bit.

The reshuffle was greeted by former ICT Minister Sitthichai Pokaiudom with thinly veiled contempt. Dr Death as we in the industry called him, said that Prayuth had in one stroke fired two of the most important people on the DEC (Deputy PM Pridiyathorn and ICT Minister Pornchai Rujiprapa) and had put the DEC law into a black hole. He said the Digital Economy dream had been dead and that the entire commission did not feel like working anymore.

And I believe him.

We call him Dr Death as in one infamous interview as ICT Minister, Sitthichai went on and on about how there was no god and how he had created a death machine - a mask with a carbon monoxide cylinder so that if he is ever injured in a car crash he could kill himself without feeling any pain.

His staff were very apologetic afterwards, but the point is that when Dr Death speaks is is quite probably saying things from his heart.

Actually Sitthichai would have been a perfect match for Uttama. One says there is no god and has a death machine while the other brings in chinese mystics to chase away ghosts when they get their new job as ICT Minister. The fact that both were appointed by a military junta speaks volumes as to what type of people the military think are suited to run the country.

Anyway so what is the second coming of Somkid going to do to our industry? My guess is that he will carry on with the corporatization and eventually IPO of CAT/TOT that he started all those years ago. I hope that he will also carry on the task of deregulation and that Sitthichai’s comments are good in that respect - that a bad idea is finally getting thrown out of the water.

If you thought that getting rid of an independent telecom regulator and putting control back under the Prime Minister (and not even cabinet, but the digital economy commission) was bad, the clauses in the DE laws giving him absolute power over telcos (and post) to intercept and giving his agents total immunity from prosecution were an Orwellian wet dream if it should ever be enacted.

The next few months will certainly be interesting.

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