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Wire-tapping, satellites and broken diplomatic ties: Is the Thai junta’s paranoia going overboard?

Updated On: Jan 23, 2007

It is perhaps a common trait for military junta to be paranoid as they worried about the legitimacy of their rule. 

Whipping up nationalist sentiments and portraying themselves as the “protector of national interests” is also a common ploy to take when one feels under siege.  This perhaps explains the Thai authorities’ over-reaction to Thaksin’s visit to Singapore.

Paranoia has no limits, and the Thai military government now suspects the Singapore government of listening in to its conversation. Last Wednesday, Council of National Security (CNS) head Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin announced that Singapore was possibly spying on Thailand as “mobile-phone conversations were picked up and relayed to Singapore”. This led to Sonthi’s declaration that “the military will return to the traditional mode of communication –two-way radios –amidst concerns of possible wiretapping by mobile-phone operators”, the Nation reported. The Thai Cabinet is also set to “debate whether Bt6 billion should be spent to launch a new communications satellite for military and security applications”.  Information and Communications Technology Minister Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom was reported by the Nation as saying, “The new satellite would dispel doubts about eavesdropping.” While admitting that “revoking the concession for satellite services without proof of compromised national security would be difficult and might rattle investor confidence” and that the “government has no power to confiscate ThaiCom satellite concession owned by Shin Corp”, he added that soldiers are now stationed at ThaiCom to prevent “tampering”.

Paranoia aside, perhaps the real reasons behind Sonthi’s remark is to set the stage to justify another huge investment on new communications satellite for the military, which would also effectively strengthen the military’s grip on power.

Spokesman for AIS, the telecommunications operator, has strongly denied the “tapping” charges, and now Singapore has jumped into the fray to refute General Sonthi’s remarks.  In apparent reference to the “protectionist” approach towards foreign investments in Thailand, the Singapore Foreign Ministry’s spokesman alluded to the fact that in the age of globalised and extensively networked economies, “many countries have fully liberalised their telecommunication markets and allowed foreign operators in their markets.  Appropriate licensing requirements and regulatory safeguards put in place by the host countries have effectively been able to address the national security concerns arising from foreign ownership of local telephone operators.”

As the diplomatic ties between Singapore and Thailand seem to worsen, Thai Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram has come out to stress that he impressed upon Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo at the ASEAN summit in Cebu that Thaksin’s proposed reception by Singapore DPM S. Jayakumar was “unacceptable” and “a slap on Thailand's face and tantamount to recognising the former government”. He added that repairing bilateral ties would be on a day-to-day basis on the condition that Singapore showed clear intention of mending ties. PM Surayud has also defended the Thai retaliation as “Singapore acted as if its ties with [Thailand] were a secondary issue”.

This wave of nationalism is not limited to the Thai authorities. Others have come out to criticize the wire-tapping and diplomatic episodes. The Campaign for Popular Democracy (CPD) now “wants the military-backed government to establish a fact-finding committee to investigate the suspected telephone tapping”. CPD secretary-general Suriyasai Katasila said to the Nation he believed that the Thaksin administration “ordered wire taps on opposition politicians and government critics’ telephones”, and “a fact-finding committee was needed” to find out the truth such that the cellular-service provider should be withdrawn if the results were affirmative. In addition, the Bangkok Post editorial demolished all the justifications Singapore gave regarding Thaksin’s visit. It stated that Singapore gave a “lame excuse” in allowing the meeting with DPM Jayakumar given the latter “is a high-level minister in the Singapore government”. It stated that by allowing Thaksin this privilege as well as the CNN interview, “Singapore violated international etiquette” and it was “high time Singapore reconsidered its position and tried to regain Thailand’s confidence” as mere apologies were inadequate.

Singapore, for its part, remains apologetic while sticking to its justification. Following Singapore former ambassador to the UN Kishore Mahbubani’s public criticism of Thaksin, the Today editorial has also surmised that Singapore received Thaksin on reasons of sovereignty and the confused signals from Bangkok. Another Bangkok Post editorial has acknowledged that as “a great manipulator of the media, Thaksin must have anticipated the consequences of his interviews” and “guilty of putting Singapore in a tight spot”.

A new school of thought has arisen from this aftermath. While many see Thaksin as the clear winner of this spat, hoodwinking two countries, others are coming to see that this latest media “offensive might in fact be a desperate rearguard action” as the corruption probes heat up, the Bangkok Post said. High-ranking CNS sources feel that Thaksin may be hoping to “proclaim his innocence before an international audience and is not guilty based on legal evidence but any conviction is political persecution.” This is because “conviction will shut the door on his political life and get the ball rolling on an intended seizure of his allegedly ill-gotten wealth”.

Whatever the case may be, the junta and Surayud government do not want Thaksin back, stipulating he must give up all political ambition. This is something he is not likely to do even with his public declaration during the CNN interview for there is talk that Thaksin has engaged “the services of a top Washington political lobby group”, adding another twist to the continuing Thai saga.

Sources:

Singapore refutes Gen Sonthi’s remarks (Straits Times, 23 January 2007)

Protest demands army quit politics (Bangkok Post, 22 January 2007)

Neither country served by spat (Bangkok Post, 22 January 2007)

Attack on junta or rearguard action in face of corruption probes? (Nation, 22 January 2007)

Was Thaksin a good friend after all? (Today, 22 January 2007)

ICT Minister: Govt has no power to confiscate ThaiCom satellite owned by Shin Corp (Thai News, 22 January 2007)

CPD calls for probe into suspected phone tapping (Nation, 22 January 2007)

CPD sceptical of Thaksin (Bangkok Post, 22 January 2007)

Singapore's explanation falls short (Bangkok Post, 22 January 2007)

Singapore slaps on Thailand's face: FM (Nation, 19 January 2007)

Timing critical to Thaksin's media blitz (Nation, 22 January 2007)

Military itching for secured satellite (Nation, 21 January 2007)

Military to return to use two-way radios: Sonthi (Nation, 21 January 2007)

PM: Consensus needed before Thaksin returns (Bangkok Post, 21 January 2007)

FM confirms Thaksin met US lobbyist (Bangkok Post, 21 January 2007)

Thaksin can come home 'if he gives up politics' (Nation, 21 January 2007)

Thaksin calls for amnesty (Brunei Times, 21 January 2007)

Thaksin on private visit but Tokyo to steer clear (AP/ Japan Times, 20 January 2007)