It is the beginning of the end of deregulation of Thailand’s telecoms industry. On Friday, Thailand’s legislature, the national legislative assembly, cross-examined the cabinet about the mountains of waste, corruption and lack of good governance in the regulator, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission.
The allegations were heinous. In the 2014 fiscal year between them, the 11 NBTC commissioners made 105 overseas trips spanning 632 days at a cost of $1.9 million (62 million baht). A further $3.6 million (118 million) was spent on advisors, secretaries, assistants and drivers. Then there was a further 65 committees which ran up a tab of $1.4 million (46 million baht).
Then there was the matter of a tiny kiosk for the security guard at the NBTC’s gate which cost a staggering $13,000 (430,000 baht) - it is tiny and can only seat one - that was awarded to a subsidiary of Jasmine Telecom, parent company of major fixed line provider 3BB and also a TOT MVNO.
Because of the severity of the allegations, total lack of governance and the inability for the government to do anything about the NBTC’s spending spree, the NLA proposed that Thailand’s frequency act be redrawn to rid the country of this unnecessary independent regulator and that its powers be given back to the state telcos, by then a merged TOT and CAT Telecom.
Answering the question, Deputy Prime Minister Vishnu Krue-ngam said that the NBTC and its budget was independent by design and that there was little the government could do about it. Yes, in case that name rings a bell Vishnu was also Thaksin Shinawatra’s deputy prime minister in no less than seven cabinets.
No mention was made that the majority of the NBTC commissioners came from a military background as one does not criticise the military when under martial law. Nor was it pointed out that while the sum total of these allegations was but in the hundreds of millions of baht squandered while the two state telcos had between them manage to squander hundreds of billions, three orders of magnitude greater, each year when handling the 2G concession revenue share.
Orwell’s dictum, he who controls the past controls the future and he who controls the present controls the past, was in full force here and indeed it is at the heart of the argument going forward.
The crackdown on corruption has been a popular move by the junta. Moves to crack down on mafioso on motorcycle taxis and minibuses have been met with great applause. Indeed, this attack on the NBTC is going down well too in mainstream media.
But the last time TOT was in charge of numbering it charged everyone except AIS a numbering fee. The reason, ostensibly was that since AIS was its concessionaire, it could not charge itself. Many suspect the real reason was that it just wanted to please Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra whose wife, children, maid and driver owned the country’s largest telco.
Then there is the problem of state telcos acting as rent collector and competitor at the same time. As one wise telco CEO once told me, ultimately investors do not care if CAT and TOT squander 100 billion a year as long as everyone has to pay, but they do care if they use that 100 billion of tax to compete with the foreign telcos. Indeed, such actions are in breach of Thailand’s world trade organisation commitments.
None of that, nor a hundred and one other reasons to keep an independent NBTC, was mentioned.
Friday’s debate in the legislature was not an act of democratic checks and balances in action. The legislature was hand-picked by the junta, as was the cabinet. It was little more than a sock-puppet show to come up with a reason to reverse 22 years of deregulation and consolidate power in the executive branch.
One cannot have freedom without free speech and free media to question those in power. In turn, free media cannot exist without free spectrum; free from government control.
If a government can control spectrum, be it radio, television or 4G how much dissent will they allow before ordering the minister to pull the plug? How much freedom would telcos themselves allow on their networks before they kowtow to the powers that be to protect their business?
Thai society asked itself this question in the aftermath of the 1992 military massacre of pro-democracy protesters which led to the formation of the independent regulators to ensure free media. But all of that has been forgotten in today’s very popular crackdown on corruption.
As Senator Padme Amidala said in Star Wars Episode III when chancellor Palpatine (who was in fact the dark lord of the Sith) accepted the emergency powers and suspended the senate of the republic, “So this is how liberty dies - with thunderous applause”. One may say the same of Thailand.