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A besieged Thai government targets its anger on iTV and Singapore

Updated On: Jan 26, 2007

Judging from a renewed public relations (PR) “blitz” to improve the government’s profile, and further quibbling with Singapore over alleged wire-tapping, PM Surayud’s criticism of Thaksin’s interviews in Japan and the heavy fines slapped on iTV to be paid immediately, the Thai authorities must be at the end of their tether.  

Domestic criticisms against and pressures on the interim government are intensifying.  For one, the Nation has noted that despite having been in office for a third of its one-year term, the Surayud administration has not quelled political, social and economic instability. If anything, the situation seems to have gotten worse while “the legacy of the Thaksin Shinawatra regime still grips the nation like an incurable disease”. Although work is underway for charter amendments, corruption probes and economic development, the government still has to contend with the pro-Thaksin factions trying to stir up public dissent. The Nation observed, “Something is seriously wrong as farmers from the Northeast organised a march for debt-relief when the government had already outpaced the previous administration in resolving farm debts.” The paper puts it down to the government’s aloofness “on its path of righteousness” when it should be trying to relate with the people, adding that “if Surayud and his ministers are unable to bond with the people, they should recruit someone who can –to win the crowd on their behalf”.

The government is now taking notice and going on a PR-offensive to rectify the problem. PM Surayud wants ministers to “publicise their accomplishments as the government was still seen as failing to do enough”. At the Cabinet meeting this week, he said, “Ministers must try to highlight their work and I just expect to keep the public informed in a straightforward manner and not exaggerated hype.” A forthcoming publicity blitz is planned by PM Office Minister Thirapat Serirangsan “to communicate directly with the people [and may] include measures to neutralise subversive activities”.

The Thai News Agency has reported that PM Surayud has promptly refuted Thaksin’s remarks made during an interview with the Japanese Asahi Shimbun newspaper –that Thailand had lost international credibility. PM Surayud said, “That's simply a viewpoint expressed by a single person. We must carefully look at all aspects regarding how the world community is watching us.” He added that “Thaksin' s remarks would not significantly damage the credibility of the interim government or the Council for National Security …”.

In the ongoing row with Shin Corp’s iTV, Surayud’s government seems to have lost patience and in a hardline stance have “decided to seek a court order to force the television station to hand over about 100 billion baht”. iTV chairman Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisal had sought to reach a compromise with the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday to “find some sort of deal to settle the issue of outstanding concession fees and fines, plus interest, as the Jan 29 deadline for the payment draws near”, the Bangkok Post reported. Instead, permanent secretary to the Prime Minister's Office Chullayuth Hiranyawisit said “ iTV had to honour all money owed”. iTV has admitted to “having difficulties in securing loans for the payment” of 2.21 billion baht in concession fees, fines of 97.76 billion baht and interest, now 464 million baht.

Meanwhile bilateral ties with Singapore have deteriorated after Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended the city-state against allegations of wire-tapping on Monday. The Singapore Foreign Ministry had issued a statement that Singapore did not “understand Gen Sonthi’s remarks” about calls being routed to Singapore, and added that it does not make “business or technical sense to route domestic calls in Thailand via Singapore [as] doing so would incur additional and unnecessary network resources and degrade the quality of service”. Additionally, “being an international telecommunications hub, Singapore maintains a strict and professional operating environment to safeguard the integrity of all communications which terminate in or transit through Singapore”.

On Wednesday, Thai Foreign Ministry's spokesman Kitti Wasinondh retorted, “I am puzzled by the statement from Singapore's Foreign Ministry that they do not understand the remarks of Gen Sonthi. It is not appropriate for Singapore to issue such a statement…If Singapore wants clarification of the remarks, Singapore can send its ambassador to Gen Sonthi.”  And as a sign of the spiraling spat, the Thai minister responsible for information and communication technology (ICT) announced the creation of a special committee to probe the eavesdropping claim.

Even if the Thais are not fully comprehending or supportive of its government, they are fully behind the administration in this instance. As preposterous as wire-tapping sounds, Australian defence expert Desmond Ball has come out to add oil to the fire by telling the  the Thai media in Bangkok that, “It's not in Thailand's interests to allow Singapore control of such a critically important communications system, through the satellite and mobile phone company.” He accused Singapore of abusing friendships, saying, “Singapore has a track record of taking advantage of information for commercial and political purposes… listened to and photographed Australian military facilities [and] have a history of abusing their access to training in other facilities abroad… That is not what friends are supposed to do.” He labelled the Shin deal as a “tragedy” that handed Thai “military and very sensitive [data] traffic to Singapore on a plate”.

If one man can cause so much acrimony between two states, the Nation may be right in saying that countries are now hoping to avoid Thaksin like the plague, even as he employs famous lobby firms –Barbour Griffith & Rogers (BGR) and Edelman –“in his capacity as private citizen [for] media outreach to support his efforts to return to Thailand”.

Sources:

Public sentiment low despite progress on new charter and corruption probes (Bangkok Post, 25 January 2007)

Singapore bugged by Thai criticism (Bangkok Post, 25 January 2007)

PM's Office turns down iTV offer (Bangkok Post, 25 January 2007)

No encounter with Thaksin in China: Sonthi (Nation, 25 January 2007)

Thaksin's calls for democracy growing louder (Daily Yomiuri, 25 January 2007)

Leaders fear the 'Thaksin Curse' landing on their doorsteps (Nation, 25 January 2007)

MFA issues second statement to address concerns about integrity as telecoms hub (Channel News Asia, 24 January 2007)

FM hits back at Singapore over telephone tapping (Nation, 24 January 2007)

Surayud lashes back at Thaksin criticisms (Thai News Agency, 24 January 2007)

Thais mum as Thaksin talks to Japanese media (Today, 24 January 2007)

Surayud tells ministers to step up PR campaigns on achievements (Nation, 24 January 2007)

Publicise your work: PM (Nation, 24 January 2007)

Interim government needs some crowd support (Nation, 24 January 2007)

Singapore denies eavesdropping on Thai junta (Nation, 24 January 2007)

S'pore denies wiretap claims (Nation, 24 January 2007)

Domestic calls within Thailand not routed through Singapore: MFA (Today, 23 January 2007)

ShinSat sale 'tragic blow for defence' (Nation, 23 January 2007)

Thais Back Government Stance on Singapore (Angus Reid Global Monitor : Polls & Research, 23 January 2007)