Thai junta holding the mother of all garage sales

10 Jun 2014

A couple of weeks into the coup and the intentions of the National Council for Peace and Order are now becoming clearer with the junta working hard at winning the hearts and minds of the people through their wallets. For farmers, the junta has arranged for long-delayed payouts for rice and has ordered a crackdown on loan sharks, while the middle class has seen food, fuel and income tax freezes or cuts. On the other extreme, investors are promised a wide menu of infrastructure projects to pick from ranging from water management to rail, but key of which for the telecom sector is the 900/1800-MHz auction pencilled in for August.

Army commander and junta leader General Prayuth Chanocha also appointed himself as the chairman of the Board of Investment and has been busy courting Chinese investors while his minions hold happiness concerts and crackdown on sandwich-wielding protesters (do not ask).

State-owned telco TOT corporation has announced it has written to the Junta asking for permission to participate in the spectrum auction.

But, what about deregulation? What of the promise for non-competition with the private sector? Well, dear reader, that was part of the 2007 constitution that was torn up by the army.

After the coup there is no more article 47 calling for an independent telecommunications and broadcasting regulator, no more article 84 paragraph one prohibiting the state from competing with the private sector and no more article 48 banning politicians from holding interests in telecom companies, not that 48 is relevant in any argument just yet.

Without 84(1) state telcos TOT and CAT are arguably free to compete with the private sector, turning back the deregulation clock by decades. Indeed, without a constitution it effectively means the auction can be held any which way they want as there are no laws to provide checks and balances.

Is that a good thing? For the people of Thailand, definitely not. Disastrous management by meek pencil-pushing bureaucrats under the control of politically-appointed boards have turned the two state telcos into a bottomless money pit, squandering spectrum, resources and creating two fat-cat rent collectors that have used their prodigious lobbying power to stonewall deregulation and reform.

But sheeple can be controlled with propaganda and psyops and hardly matter in a dictatorship. The question is what will the foreign investors think if the NCPO approves TOT’s bid? Will they cry foul and run to the WTO to call for sanctions? Or would it make more sense for them to take advantage of the lack of checks and balances the military is offering and participate in the spectrum grab before a new constitution is in force?

Judging on the stock market gains, it is safe to say that foreign investors like what they are seeing so far.

However, there is always the risk that the NCPO simply gifts the state telcos spectrum and leave scraps for Telenor, Temasek and now China Mobile (True) to fight over. Currently, TOT is only asking for permission to bid, but in the past, it has argued that the government should just hand over spectrum ostensibly for national security.

This is not an unthinkable scenario.

On the broadcasting side of the NBTC, commissioner Supinya Klangnarong has expressed her frustration and said that the regulator might as well give up on the digital transition and reallocation of spectrum as the junta was micro-managing the show and taking direct control.

Meanwhile, the telecom regulator has been given a stay of execution. A subcommittee of the National Anti-Corruption Commission had recommended that the four of the five telecom commissioners of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission be indicted for corruption following the 3G non-auction. If the full committee accepts the report and indicts the regulator, they will be forced to cease work immediately.

However General Prayuth has signalled that he will disband the anti-corruption watchdog as well as the election commission, the constitutional court and all political parties in order to create an atmosphere of unity and reconciliation in a move that has seen most of the redshirts, the pro-Thaksin supporters that the junta was ostensibly against, fall into line.

Elsewhere, in the MICT, the Ministry of internet censorship in Thailand as it is commonly called, bureaucrats are eager to please their new military bosses pushing forward plans for a single international internet gateway run by, hardly surprisingly, CAT and TOT so as to make monitoring and censorship easier.

This plan, in fairness, started before the coup, but has found a second wind since.

Sources have confirmed rumours that the MICT is at least in the vendor consultation phase of a total lock-down of the domestic internet. Under the plan, every Thai citizen will need to authenticate an internet log-on session with a smart ID card.

Earlier reports said that every citizen will have at most 6 IP addresses allocated at any one time. Asked how foreigners can access the internet, the permanent secretary answered, “I have not thought of that yet,” one vendor said.

The MICT is also pursuing the Chinese playbook and is working on what is often referred to as a Thai Facebook that would allow for easier identification of perpetrators who dare to not be happy, though plans for that seem less well developed as of now.

Telenor has confirmed that the total Facebook outage days after the coup was because Dtac has received orders from the regulator, the NBTC, to shut down Facebook access, putting end to speculation on what caused the outage.

One news channel said the shutdown was on orders from the MICT, while the official line, towed by most telcos said that it was simply a massive network failure.

NBTC secretary-general Takorn Tantasit has flatly denied issuing any such order, not that many people believe what he has to say at this juncture.

But none of that matters as everyone is happy in this country now. Farmers are happy, office workers are happy, investors are happy and even supporters of the ousted government are happy and now joining in reconciliation meals photo-ops and happiness concerts. Anyone not happy is simply called in for attitude readjustment (yes, the junta actually uses that term) until they are happy and sign a letter promising to stay out of the way, or, in just a few cases, court martialled.

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