Protesters call for the return of Thaicom

18 Dec 2013

One recurring theme on the nightly anti-government street protests in Bangkok is the status of Thaicom and how ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra made his billions though the sale of his telecom and broadcasting empire to Singapore’s Temasek, tax free.

The speakers regularly blast Thaksin for selling what they consider sovereignty to foreigners, Thailand’s orbital slots, effectively leaving the Kingdom with no satellites of its own.

I had a chat with one of the regulators, NBTC commissioner Supinya Klangnarong, who made her fame in being the first person Thaksin sued for libel when she questioned if state policy was benefitting his commercial empire when he was still on the ascendency.

Most of the protest leaders are former Democrat party MPs, executives and councilors, the perpetual opposition to Thaksin’s parties, whatever their names are before they are disbanded for electoral fraud. What Supinya (and myself) found interesting was that they felt it was fine to blast Thaksin for what he did with Thaicom, but did not do anything about it while they were in power.

Supinya said that the previous Democrat government refused to budge and change government policy; that Thaicom was a matter of national security and thus, like the prior and current Thaksinite governments, even the Democrats used national security as an excuse to not allow any competition with the Thaicom monopoly.

She asked, philosophically, if the protesters led by former Democrat deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban would change this policy if their dream of a people’s council became a reality. The implication was that all of this bravado was just for show and that ultimately they are all in this together.

I myself asked the same question of the military-junta appointed ICT Minister Dr Sitthichai Pokai-Udom back in 2006 when he first took the job. He said that obviously AIS and Shinsat would have their concessions revoked for the irregularities, most notably the concession amendments that were never approved by the cabinet. A year later when I asked him how revoking the concessions were going. Dr Death as I liked to call him (he carries a suicide machine with him at all times in case so he will not be in pain if he is injured in a car accident) said that the matter was with the council of state and he was waiting for instructions on how to proceed.

In other words, he threw the rulebook down to absolve himself of any tough decisions to be made.

The council of state is a fancy name for the government lawyer. Why someone would hold a coup, then ask the bureaucracy’s in-house lawyers for advice (which would take years) is anyone’s guess. The advice never came and an election saw Thaksin’s friends returned to power.

The only thing the military government back then did manage to do to Temasek’s goods was shut down their TV station, ITV. The reason was reasonable enough, that the ITV concession was bid for a news channel with minimal entertainment content and that it was amended by an arbitration committee to reduce news content (and thus increase its commercial value) because another channel had done the same. Breaking the concession because someone else broke it was not a particularly good excuse for the courts and hence ITV was terminated.

But what struck me as odd was that the way the Thaicom satellites concessions were managed was not dissimilar. Thaicom was a project for a pair of domestic satellites which later morphed into an entire fleet offering International coverage, with the amendments not receiving cabinet approval. Obviously a concession for a domestic satellite would be cheaper than one without such strings attached. So, like ITV, the winning bid was too expensive for what it was on paper, but cheaper than what it finally morphed into.

This was typical of concessions during the Thaksin years. If anyone not affiliated dared to win it, chances are the rules would not be changed retroactively and they would lose money.

The sad thing is that the people shouting on the foot of Democracy Monument did not do anything about it when they had the chance, and, many suspect, may do nothing again if they return to power again.

On a side note, it’s been more than a week since protesters allegedly raided CAT Tower and removed a power controller, wrecking equipment in CAT’s data center and crippling Thailand’s Internet connectivity. The protesters say they were outside and someone else did it. No CCTV pictures of the criminals have emerged, nor has the equipment been recovered. It is not trivial to remove and dispose of racks and racks of equipment, nor would it be easy to bypass all the security, fingerprint scanners and CCTV cameras.

It is obviously an inside job, but the question is whose side were the saboteurs on?

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