Economy

Russian premier visits Thailand: More rubles rolling into Prayuth's regime?

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 10, 2015

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Thailand this week was a rare and convenient foreign policy opportunity for the junta, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

It’s been a while since the red carpet has been rolled out at Bangkok Government House for a foreign leader who isn’t from an Asian country. That hiatus ended mid-week with the visit of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday.

The timing couldn’t be better for Thailand’s military junta, still yearning for some international recognition. Relations with most Western countries cooled significantly (we reported) after last year's military takeover, led by then-army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has since installed himself as the country's prime minister.

Since the coup, foreign criticism has been met with petulant and indignant rebuttals by the junta - more often than not from Gen. Prayuth himself - as seen with the most recent backlash against the military government’s revoking of martial law and the subsequent invocation of Article 44, which gives junta leader Gen. Prayuth nigh-absolute power.  In the latest development, soldiers have been granted permission to effectively act as law enforcement officials.

So it comes to no surprise that the junta is looking for new (and/or) old friends elsewhere, so far finding them in neighboring Cambodia and Burma (Myanmar), and - more strangely - in North Korea. Most important, though, is Thailand's pivot towards China (we reported). Ties between the two countries - especially between its armies - have strengthened significantly with Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan traveling to Beijing for the second time since the coup this week, not only to deepen ties but also do some window shopping for military equipment.

Back in Bangkok at Medvedev’s visit, things seems to be going smoothly as well.

"When a friend is in trouble, moral support from allies is needed. Russia still chooses to be friends with Thailand today and we will ensure the bond of friendship remains tight," Gen Prayut said. He thanked Mr Medvedev for his understanding about Thai political developments and vowed he would strengthen ties between the two countries. (…)

The two leaders witnessed the signing of 10 MOUs at Government House. Five were signed between state agencies, including energy, tourism, cultural exchange, anti-narcotics and investment.

Thai and Russian private companies signed five MOUs to strengthen cooperation in machinery engineering, navigation technology, rail infrastructure, fibreglass production and educational exchange between Moscow State Regional University and Siam Technology College.

Prayut reaches out to Moscow”, Bangkok Post, April 9, 2015

While Russian-Thai relations go back to when Tsar Nicholas II welcomed King Chulalongkorn in 1897 (more can be read here and here), ties between the two countries have not been a priority for either party over the years, especially because of the Cold War and the United States being Thailand’s long-standing ally. And despite a rather turbulent episode with the extradition of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to the US, which left Russia fuming at the then-administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Russian ruble has been steadily rolling into Thailand since the fall of the Soviet Union.

That is mostly thanks to an influx of Russian tourists and expats, who are now ranked third as the country with the most tourists to Thailand, behind Malaysia and China. However, in 2014 the number has dropped to 1.6m tourists - a decrease of 8.6 per cent (source). But that has less to do with the Thai political crisis and more to do with Russia’s own economic woes and its tumbling ruble (partly as a consequence of international sanctions for its meddling in the Ukrainian conflict). The fall in Russian visitors has had a significant economic impact, especially in the Russian stronghold of Pattaya.

Nevertheless, both countries are optimistic about their economic outlooks, with a bilateral trade volume (officially) estimated at almost $4bn and about many potential lucrative deals: Russia could, as Trade Minister Denis Manturov told Reuters, buy 80,000 tonnes of rubber from Thailand, thus alleviating one of the junta's biggest commodity headaches. Also, the prospect of a Russian-Thai free-trade agreement could fill void left by the suspended talks with the European Union, much to the disappointment of European trade lobbyists in Thailand.

But more importantly, the Russians also have this to offer:

"We are feeling out the interest on the Thai side to purchase military equipment," Russian Trade Minister Denis Manturov told Reuters in Bangkok on Wednesday. "Our friends from the Western part of the world are ignoring Thailand." (...) Talks on defence-related sales were focused on military aircraft and related training and services, Manturov said. He declined to give details of specific deals under discussion.

"Russia eyes military sales to Thailand, rubber deals", Reuters, April 8, 2015

Unlike its direct neighbors, Thailand's Air Force is mostly equipped with American F-16 and Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets. But in the current situation, Russia could bundle an attractive package for the Thai generals, which could also cover their long-held wish for submarines.

It should be by now obvious that a rapprochement between Russia and Thailand could - despite denials by both countries - be of geo-strategic benefit for them, given how the two are internationally spurned (albeit at completely different levels of severity and significance). The Thai military junta could always use a big country at its side for international legitimacy, that is also willing to do business and not ask pesky questions about democracy and human rights, while Russia can continue to develop its trade relations in Southeast Asia.

That said, Western countries won't be giving up on Thailand just yet. Not if if they don't want to leave the playing field to a geo-political rival.

While Thailand is not likely to be welcoming many foreign leaders from the West, the red carpet at Government House may be rolled out for new guests more often - although at what cost?

Thailand’s new cyber laws – Part 5: Admin error

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 26, 2015

In the last part of our Siam Voices series examining the new cyber laws, we chronicle the criticism against and the defense for the controversial bills - and what’s behind the military junta’s motivation to push these into law.

In the past two weeks we have analyzed the cyber law bills for its potential impact on policies, censorship and also business. More often than not we found that the flaws outweigh the benefits and, if signed into law without large-scale amendments will have very serious implications of the civil liberties, free speech, personal privacy and even e-commerce of every Thai internet user - except for those in charge of the law.

So it is no wonder why there has been a significant amount of criticism against the cyber bills. Here’s just a small selection:

"Proposed cyber-security legislation in Thailand represents a clear and present danger to media freedoms," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "If Prime Minister Prayuth is sincere about returning the country to democracy, he should see that Parliament scraps this bill, which is reminiscent of a police state, and instead enact laws that uphold online freedoms."

Cyber security bill threatens media freedom in Thailand”,  Committee to Protect Journalists, January 20, 2015

"The consumers will feel that they are being watched when they go online,” said Arthit Suriyawongkul, an expert on cyber and computer law from the Thai Netizen Network. (…)

“They'll feel unsure about sharing their private information fearing that officials could abuse their privacy,” Mr Arthit said. “If consumers are not confident then online businesses will suffer."

"Fears over Thailand's online freedom, as junta drives towards digital economy”, Channel NewsAsia, January 29, 2015

Six civil organizations [Thai Netizen NetworkFTA WatchFoundation for Community Education Media (FCEM)Green World FoundationPeople’s Media Development Institute, and Thailand Association for the Blind (TAB)] denounced the eight Digital Economy bills recently approved by the junta, saying they are national security bills in disguise and that the bill will pave the way for a state monopoly of the telecommunication business.

"Thai junta’s Digital Economy bills are national security bills in disguise: rights groups”, Prachatai English, January 14, 2015

Also, almost 22,000 people have signed an online-petition against the bills, calling for them to be stopped.

At the moment the right cyber bills are in the military junta’s all-appointed ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) - dominated by active and former military officers - and are awaiting deliberation. It is not expected that the rubber-stamping body will be making any fundamental changes to the drafts.

Nevertheless, the military government’s response to the criticism is - like with any other criticism out there - aggravated and irritated. Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha responded in his usual style:

“We will develop software for goods and services. If there is private [online] content, no one would mess with it. But if [some people] commit crimes [such as lèse majesté], we have to investigate the matter. The accusation that the government is not taking care of Article 112 [of the Criminal Code, known as the lèse majesté law] is because those lèse majesté websites operate from overseas.

"Junta leader admits controversial digital economy bills target lèse majesté”, Prachatai English, January 22, 2015

And when pressed by another reporter…

"Today, have I ever restricted anyone's rights? Have I ever done that?" asked Gen. Prayuth, who imposed martial law after leading a military coup on 22 May 2014, and has banned any political protests or public criticism of his regime.

The reporter pressed Gen. Prayuth to justify the sweeping nature of the bill, prompting Gen. Prayuth to lose his temper and shout, "I don't have to answer why! I will pass it. You have a problem with that? Otherwise, why the hell am I the Prime Minister? Why am I the Prime Minister?"

Gen. Prayuth then walked away from the reporters and said angrily, "I'm in a very bad mood."

"Thai Junta Leader Deflects Concern Over Mass Surveillance Bill”, Khaosod English, January 21, 2015

This incident at a small activist symposium shows how much the military government is trying to claim its narrative over the bills:

Also present at the Bangkok symposium was an Army Lieutenant who arrived uninvited with three other soldiers in an armoured Humvee and "asked" to be allowed to defend the draft bills. (…)

Army Lieutenant Kittiphob Tiensiriwong (…) urged the 35-strong crowd to accept the bills, saying that the NLA had good intentions but acknowledging that the bills must have more positive than negative aspects.

When asked to explain, Kittiphob, who did not remove his footwear like the other participants, said there were times when speedy access to the Internet was needed.

He said the bills aimed "to control those who think unlike others - those who have their own mind and are not considering the thinking of the collective."

"Calls to hold cyber bills until democracy is restored”, The Nation, February 2, 2015

While this should come as no surprise to anyone, that right there is actual main motivation of the military junta for the cyber law bills and for the way it was written! Ever since the military coup in last May, one of the key elements of its tight grip is the massive monitoring of the media, including online, to curtail any signs of criticism and dissent.

Even without the cyber laws and thanks to the still ongoing martial law, the military junta has already taken steps for wide-spread online surveillance as we have previously reported, as well as ordering Thai internet service providers to preemptively block websites. Since then, there have been further developments that are in line with the authorities' efforts to scrutinize online traffic: the development of software to intercept secured SSL-connections, mandatory sim-card registrations (in a country that predominantly uses their phones with pre-paid subscriptions) as well as for free wifi and the reported creation of a "cyber warfare" unit by the Thai military.

The desire by Thai authorities to control the flow of information online is not new and was evident in past governments (see hereherehere and here), but under the authoritarian rule of the military junta, it can operate with no checks and balances - and thus also legalize its unprecedented powers to monitor, spy, filter, censor and collect anything online.

The main purpose of an army is to protect the country from external threats, but history has shown that the Thai army has mainly acted against the Thai people. Now with the new online surveillance measures and the cyber law bills, the Thai military and the junta is expanding its fields of operations (or rather battlespace) to the cyberspace - and thus not against an external force, but again against every Thai internet user.

THAILAND'S NEW CYBER LAWS: Part 1: Introduction - Part 2: Changes to Computer Crime Act - Part 3: Far-reaching and all-encompassing cyber security - Part 4: Bad for business, too! - Part 5: Admin error

Thailand’s new cyber laws – Part 4: Bad for business, too!

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 25, 2015

In the fourth part of our series examining Thailand's new and controversial cyber laws, we look at the impact it can have on business - and it doesn't necessarily look very profitable.

In the last couple of instalments of this series, we have highlighted the pitfalls, flaws and loopholes of some of the new proposed cyber laws of the Thai military government. Obviously, since this blog mainly focusses on politics and media freedom, we have so far examined the bills with regards to cyber security, surveillance and its implications on censorship, civil liberties and privacy.

However, for some people and entities these aspects are simply not on the top of their priority list - and we’re not talking about the junta this time! No, this time we mean the economic sector. And it is often said from that direction that an effective, stable political situation is preferable - cynics would argue that democratic values are not economic factors.

The main selling point by the current military junta of the new cyber laws is to lay out the legal groundwork to improve the conditions for Thailand’s ”digital economy” and thus position the country more competitively, especially with the ASEAN Economic Community lurking just around the corner. Another objective is to integrate governance and state business better in to the ”digital economy” as well.

And there are some very good reasons to focus on that: With an internet penetration of 35 per cent (roughly 28.3m people) and an even higher percentage of mobile phone users (125 per cent or 84m people, in fact more than the actual Thai population!), there are a lot of opportunities to be made digitally (source and more stats here).

But when you take a closer look at the eight different cyber law bills, there are many passages that also potentially can spell bad business as well. As usual, the devil is in the details.

Let's start off with the Personal Data Protection bill (full translation available here). As the name of the bill implies, it is initially set up to (supposedly) protect personal data of every Thai online user and for that reason a committee overseeing that would also include representatives of three consumer protection NGOs on board. According to Article 7 of the new bill however, they are now gone and have been replaced by the Secretary of the National Security Council instead.

And it doesn't get any better as we encounter yet another example of a typical problem when it comes to Thai legalese:

The draft bill also imposes significant legal burdens on foreign tech companies as responsibility falls solely on the data controller. Such companies would also run a greater risk of being subject to legal action, said Dhiraphol Suwanprateep, a partner at Baker & McKenzie. (...)

He said the bill posed a challenge for the government's digital economy policy, as there is no clear distinction between "personal data processor" and "personal data controller"The draft only identifies a data controller as the person with the authority to control and manage his or her personal information.

"Data processor" typically refers to a third party that processes personal data on behalf of a data controller, Mr Dhiraphol said. In the absence of such identification in the bill, data processors such as internet service providers, web hosting providers, cloud service providers and content hosting platforms could be broadly interpreted as a data controller. (...)

"If there is no separate definition between data controllers and data processors, it will be difficult to enforce the law, as most technology businesses are dwelling on cloud-based services which are physically located outside the country," Mr Dhiraphol said.

"This will not attract foreign investors into Thailand, as stringent legislation would rather hamper businesses' innovative technology instead of promoting Thailand as a digital economy hub for the Asean Economic Community."

"Legal expert shreds data security bill", Bangkok Post, January 26, 2015

Another passage at Article 25 would affect a lot of different sectors as well:

Section 25: Any collection of personal data pertaining to ethnicity, race, political opinions, doctrinal, religious or philosophical beliefs, sexual behaviour, criminal records, health records, or of any data which may upset another person’s or the people’s feelings as prescribed by the Committee, without the consent of the Data Owner or the person(s) concerned, is prohibited, (...)

Following the words of the law, it would make it very difficult to use somebody's yet-to-be-defined "personal information" for any kind of work without their permission. For example, journalists wouldn't be able to use these sources for any critical investigation or marketing campaigns and wouldn't be able to implement social media posts (unless they write some crafty terms of services that nobody reads anyways).

Another crucial point of contention for many critics is the upcoming allocation of new frequency spectrum that would bring 4G mobile connection to Thailand (and hopefully soon and not as drawn-out as the farcical 3G auction was). However...

It also empowers the [Digital Economy Commission chaired by the Prime Minister] to order any private telecommunications operator to act or refraining from acting in any way and also compels companies to provide information on request as well as hand over executives for questioning.

The portfolio of digital economy laws also has a new frequency act that gives the final say in spectrum allocation to the Digital Economy Commission and emancipates the telecommunications regulator, leaving it in charge only of commercial spectrum and imposing strict budget controls on the former autonomous agency. (...)

But while on the one hand [the government] are signalling compromise with the aforementioned committee, the junta are also threatening that 4G will be delayed unless the laws are passed quickly, and of course everyone loves more bandwidth.

"Thai spying law controversy rages on", Telecomasia.net, February 6, 2015

And generally one of the biggest problems is that the cyber law bills are creating a bureaucratic monster:

Paiboon Amornpinyokait, an expert on cyber and computer law, said (...) they gave too much power to the new Ministry of Digital Economy and Society by allowing it to oversee too many areas.

They include areas currently under the jurisdiction of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) Bill, the Cyber Security Bill, the New Computer Crime Bill, the Personal Data Protection Bill, the Digital Economy Promotion Bill, and the Digital Economy Development Fund Bill.

Paiboon said the bills would result in too much centralised power and will give too much authority to officials or authorities, which could easily lead to abuse of power.

"Digital economy bills 'need to be amended'", The Nation, January 19, 2015

These passages and many other legislative pitfalls that we haven't covered yet show that this is not only a matter of human rights, free speech and personal privacy, but it also could have potentially serious implications for the economy and scare away potential foreign investors.

Just as the military junta tries to fix the economy and could be doing more harm than good, these batch of cyber bills could have the same effect as well if they're not being thoroughly amended or rejected by the junta's ersatz-parliament. As we explain in the next and last past of our series, there is definitely not a lack of criticism from all sides but a severe lack of justification from Thailand's military junta.

Translated sections of draft bills by Thai Netizen Network. You can read complete translations here.

THAILAND'S NEW CYBER LAWS: Part 1: Introduction - Part 2: Changes to Computer Crime Act - Part 3: Far-reaching and all-encompassing cyber security - Part 4: Bad for business, too! - Part 5: Admin error

The Thai junta's 2015 draft budget, explained in 4 graphs

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 19, 2014 Thailand's National Legislative Assembly (NLA) approved the draft for the 2015 budget in its first reading on Monday. The body, whose members were all picked by the military junta and is thus dominated by active and retired military officers, rubber-stamped the budget bill with 183 votes and three abstentions (assumed to be the assembly president and his two deputies). Noting the lack of votes against the bill, junta leader and army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha quipped: "Nobody had any problems. Nobody disagreed."

An ad-hoc committee will screen the budget bill and it is expected to be completed by September 1 and put to a vote on September 17, all well before the start of the new fiscal year on October 1. By then a new cabinet is expected to be in charge of the interim government.

The proposed 2015 budget sees a total allocation of 2.58 trillion baht (US$81.08bn) - 50bn Baht ($1.57bn) or roughly 2 per cent more than the previous budget. According to the Budget Bureau's published draft (translated spreadsheet) from last month it breaks down like this:

Not only are ministries listed, but also civil servants, the bureaucratic system, provincial funds, the so-called "independent" government agencies (e.g. the obstructionist Election Commission) and many others.

As is evident above, education set to get a big chunk out of that pie chart with 498.16bn Baht ($15.66bn) being allocated to the Education Ministry, but more on that later.

But not only the Education Ministry can look forward to an increased budget as the next graph shows:

The increased budgets for the ministries of transport, interior and agriculture are not surprising.

On the transportation front, the junta has recently approved 741.46bn Baht ($23.3bn) for the construction of two high speed train routes from Thailand's industry belt on the eastern coast up to the north and north-east to Chiang Rai and Nong Khai respectively. The main goal seems to be to improve freight links with China, as evidenced by the fact that neither or fthe routes will pass through the capital Bangkok.

The Interior Ministry is also in charge of many administrative issues down to the local level  (e.g. appointed provincial governors). Whether that money will be used for any decentralization efforts has yet to be seen, even though that looks very unlikely at the moment.

And with the military junta pledging to help rice farmers get the money that the toppled (elected) government's rice subsidy scheme couldn't pay out, the rise of the Agriculture Ministry's budget is unsurprising. On the other end of the spectrum, the massive cut for the Finance Ministry could also be related to the rice scheme and thus a punishment of sorts by the military junta.

The loss of almost a third of the Tourism Ministry's budget appears to be counterintuitive, as tourist arrivals are currently down 10 per cent compared to this time last year - unsurprising, given the prolonged political crisis and its (politically) violent resolution.

The next two graphs are by ThaiPublica and focus on a trend of government spending in the past decade, regardless of who is in power. Let's start off with the education spending between 2008 until today:

As regular readers of this blog know, Thailand's education system leaves muchto be desired and is a serious concern not only when it comes to regional competitiveness, but also - in the opinion of this author and others - one of the root causes of why Thailand has a prolonged political crisis in the first place.

Previous governments in Thailand were already spending a sizable amount of its national budget for education, but ultimately more money was thrown at the problem rather than a complete and long overdue overhaul of the curriculum.

Noteworthy is the repeated emphasis by junta leader and army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha to re-examine and thoroughly reform Thailand's education system. The 498.16bn baht ($15.66 billion) are more likely to be spent to teach Thai children about the "Thai values and morals" that Gen Prayuth has been preaching and to re-enforce the archaic, militaristic attitude at Thai schools, rather than critical thinking and individuality on the part of the students.

The last graph is on military spending in the past 10 years and the trend should be quite obvious:

After the military coup of 2006 (or 2549 in the Buddhist calendar) the defense budget rose annually between 25 to 33 per cent until 2010, before levelling off in 2011-2012.

However, in a bid by Yingluck's government to appease the military, the defense budget increased again gradually - we all know by now how well this worked out for her and her government...

Thus, it comes to no surprise that military spending has grown over 100bn Baht ($3.14bn) or 135 per cent over the last 10 years and with next year's budget draft, the junta is adding another 5 per cent, or 193.07bn baht (US$6.07bn).

While these graphs are a good indicator about where Thailand's military junta is putting its emphasis, what they cannot directly visualize is the character of the junta and its leader Gen Prayuth, who said that if Thailand doesn't "purchase new weapons, then nobody will fear us".

Prayuth also stressed that the junta only has "limited time" to govern before an eventual promised return of civilian power sometime later next year, but as stated in the interim constitution, Gen Prayuth and the junta will be calling the shots until then - and most likely beyond that, including complete control over the country's finances and an assembly to rubber stamp it.

The month in Thailand: Reshuffles, coup rumblings and the 3G farce

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 1, 2012 October is normally a politically heated month in Thailand, as seen in the numerous street protests, military shenanigans and other political developments in the recent history and in the more distant past. However, the events in this month were less controversial, or the changes were in the detail, or both. Here are some of the stories that show that.

Military promotions and cabinet reshuffle: look who's talking now?

Normally, the annual reshuffle and promotions of countless military officers and civilian ministers is enough source for discord between the government and the armed forces and for both groups within themselves. This year's military merry-go-round has been largely unsurprising - apart from the removal of Defense Permanent Secretary Gen. Sathien Permthong-in - and reassures the ongoing truce with the government. Also, the promotion of Yingluck's nephew is seen by some as a good sign.

The new cabinet of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on the other hand has some interesting changes. Yongyuth Wichaidit has resigned as deputy prime minister and Pheu Thai Party leader, some saying to evade a potential corruption case, while the rest of the Yingluck cabinet has the pundits reaching for very different conclusion. Some are saying Thaksin is slowly reclaiming the party, while others say Yingluck is holding her ground.

Sleeping hawks are awake, confused

One more thing that normally comes up during this time of the year (mostly as a negative outcome of the two issues above): rumors and calls for a military coup - since that is apparently the only time-proofed method to bring in stability and democracy in Thailand, according to some.

Last Sunday saw yet another rally that calls for the current government to be ousted by nothing else but a military intervention. The  group calls itself Pitak Siam (Protect Siam) and their main organizer is Ret. Gen. Boonlert Kaewprasit, chairman of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School (AFAPS) Foundation and Class 1 graduate. He's also been consistent in demanding coups on a regular basis (and having participated in the failed coup attempt of March 1977), citing the cause of protecting the monarchy from lèse majesté. No change this time:

"I'd love to see a coup because I know this puppet government is here to rob the country. Several sectors of society can't take it anymore. If I had the power a coup would have been staged by now," he said. (...)

Over the past year the government has not only stood by as offensive criticism has been hurled against the monarchy, but it has appeared to encourage it, he said. The government has showed itself to be Thaksin's puppet, he said, adding that by installing his sister Yingluck as prime minister, Thaksin had insulted the entire nation.

"Pitak Siam rally hopes to oust govt", Bangkok Post, October 24, 2012

The rally itself was joined by groups (many are PAD-aligned) that can be generally described as ultra-royalist, anti-democratic and nationalist, but also some that are just fed up with the current government. Attendance figures varied wildly between 3,000 (police estimate) and 30,000 (organizer's estimate) - but it's safe to say that they were able to fill the main grandstand at the Royal Turf Club, which holds about 20,000.

What all the coup demands in recent years have in common (apart that it is potentially illegal) is a relentless contempt against Thaksin and the willingness to accept the damage of a military coup with the disregard for the democratic system. The upper echelons of the army at the moment are siding with the government - for now. Gen. Boonlert has announced that there'll be another rally soon and is even more hell-bent to topple this government no matter the costs. However, he and like-minded people should also take into account that another military coup will be even less well-received by the general population than at the last one.

Thailand's eternal 3G farce - the last chapter?

After an almost eternal and tedious waiting period Thailand will finally upgrade to 3G mobile technology making it the second-to-last country in Southeast Asia to do so. It's been a long and painful process but now Thailand's citizens, especially smartphone users, can look forward to finally get wide 3G coverage even before the end of year - or may be not...?!

See, the issue with the 3G implementation in Thailand is a neverending story and - admittedly - much more complicated to explain than the government's rice pledging scheme! The last auction attempt in 2010 was stopped by a last-minute court order after a complaint by a state-owned telecommunications company that the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) was not authorized to hold the auction - a mess created by the 2007 constitution.

Now, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) which had the authority to hold this auction. There were in total 9 slots of 5 MHz bandwidth each, three bidders who cannot get more than three each and the results were underwhelming for some.

Thailand has raised 41.6 billion baht (US$1.4 billion) from its long-awaited auction of 3G mobile licenses, with the three bidding operators said to have paid "only a small premium".

[...] the three bidders - AIS, Dtac and True Move - managed to secure 3G licenses. The NBTC noted that AIS submitted the highest bid at 14.6 billion baht (US$ 475 million) for three slots of 5 MHz bandwidth. The other two operators each submitted the minimum bid of 13.5 billion baht (US$439 million) for the three slots of bandwidth, it added.

"Thailand nets $1.4B from 3G auction", ZDNet, October 17, 2012

Dtac was the only one to bid slightly above the starting price and overall the auction only gained a plus of only 1.125 bn Baht ($36m) or 2.78 per cent above the reserve price. Amidst that meager profit from the bidding a torrential flood of criticism poured down on the whole event, especially on the NBTC. Most fault them for missing out on a lot of money during the bidding and thus the 'damaging the country' (even leading The Nation to draw up the most ludicrous conspiracy theory or a poor attempt at satire). On the other hand considering that this was a bureaucratic mess almost a decade in the making and the resistance of state companies, one has to wonder what is still left of the real price of infrastructure progress in Thailand.

And meanwhile across the border, Laos is preparing to launch 4G...!

Lèse majesté update: Judiciary upholds constitutionality while suspect is acquitted

Thailand's Constitutional Court has ruled the Kingdom's draconian lèse majesté law unanimously and unsurprisingly as 'constitutional', after Somyos Prueksakasemsuk and Akechai Hongkangwarn (both accused and detained on lèse majesté charges) have contested Article 112 of the Criminal Code in a landmark legal challenge.

Meanwhile, some good news: A 41-year-old programmer has been acquitted of lèse majesté charges. The court ruled in doubt for the  defendant after it was not clear whether or not he was the author of defamatory Facebook messages and that computer evidence could have been even forged.

The best article by The Nation - EVER!

And finally, I present you the best, most coherent article The Nation has written - EVER!

Thailand: What we missed in September 2012

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 27, 2012 We look back at some news stories that made the headlines in Thailand this month.

Rich kids, fast cars, solid impunity: Social injustice on the roadside

At the beginning of this month, Central Juvenile and Family Court in Bangkok sentenced an 18-year-old girl to two years in jail for reckless driving, resulting in a crash with a van in which nine people were killed in December 2010. The sentence was suspended and the girl is banned from driving until the age of 25. What caught the attention of the public eye in this case is that not only was the driver 16 years old at the time of the accident (thus not legally old enough to drive a car), but also the daughter of a well-connected, high-society family, or "hi-so" in common Thai slang. That fact and that she survived almost unharmed made her the target of a relentless online witch hunt (we reported).

Just a few days later another lethal traffic accident involving an heir of a wealthy and influential businessman occurred in Bangkok when a police officer was hit by a sports car and dragged down the road for some distance. The drunk driver fled the scene and was later to be revealed as Vorayuth Yoovidhaya, the 27-year-old grandson of the recently deceased founder of Red Bull. However, since this is a wealthy and well-connected heir, the Thong Lor district police inspector initially attempted to cover up the hit-and-run case by detaining the family's caretaker as a scapegoat. This did not work and the inspector got suspended and Vorayuth will be brought to court. In the meantime, his family has reached a settlement with the siblings of the victim: a meager sum of 3m Baht ($97,000).

There have been countless incidents in the past were the offspring of the rich and powerful have gotten away after somebody else was killed (*cough*Chalerm's son*cough*) and these two incidents have yet again spurred some widespread outrage - but also, as usual with such widespread public outcries, quickly died down. Ironically, days later after Vorayuth's incident,  a female pop singer was caught drunk driving at a police control, but - showing her total obliviousness to recent events - initially refused the breathalyzer test because - according to herself - she "is a celebrity and knows many senior police officials" and felt "not in an appropriate condition. And when I'm sober, I'll blow into it."

2012 Flood Watch: Waiting for the deluge?

After last year's flood crisis swept through Thailand and had most of central Bangkok spiraling into panic, many were wondering if such a large deluge can happen again this year. According to the numbers, this is unlikely to repeat, as there weren't heavy rainfalls that raised the water levels at the nation's dams like in 2011. Nevertheless the question that has been often raised is whether or not the country is ready for a big flood again and the if lessons were learnt from last year's failures. The problem that appeared this month though is that the heavy rainfalls that are falling directly over Bangkok are flooding the streets, prompting a deluge of pictures from sois under water on social media. The reason is the city's drainage system is struggling to cope with the downpours.

ASEAN Economic Community: Coming soon-ish

One of the big upcoming projects for Southeast Asia is the common ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). That is supposed to launch in 2015, but concerning Thailand there are some doubts whether or not the country is ready for the regional economic changes as many areas are still in dire need of improvement - education and English proficiency would be two right off the top of my head. It looks like that the other ASEAN countries have similar issues in the run-up to the AEC and thus the economic ministers have agreed to delay the launch from the first day of 2015 to the very last day of the year. However, ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan has a rather interesting take on the issue:

"However, there was never an agreed, exact date as to when in 2015 we should all work towards -- should it be 1 January?  Mid-year?  Or year-end 2015?  The AEM (asean economic ministers) agreed on 31 December 2015," he said in the statement.

"Surin: AEC still on track", Bangkok Post, September 12, 2012

Ah yes, so we also learn that the launch date of "2015" was apparently just meant as a general guideline and they expected to set this off somewhere in those 365 days...!

Reading: World Book Capital of a non-bookish country 

A recent story in the Bangkok Post revealed this:

About 60% of Thai children never even get to see a book in the first three years of their lives, according to the former president of the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (PUBAT).

Citing a study conducted in 2008, Rissawol Aramcharoen said the parents of over five million young children never read any stories, or fairy tales, to their children when they are young.

These children had also never been involved in activities that could develop their intelligence, she told told a seminar to mark International Literacy Day on Sunday.

"60% of preschoolers never see a book", Bangkok Post, September 10, 2012

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised by the numbers, since we have often reported on the dismal state of Thai education (see above) and that also correlates to a much cited study that says Thais on average read seven or eight lines per year - yes, you read that right: not eight to seven pages, let alone books, but lines! However, not much else is known about the source of this study. Regardless, it does not hide the fact that Thais are not very bookish. The reasons for a lack of reading culture are very clear as mentioned over at Bangkok Pundit.

Note: The release of the final report by the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) into the deaths during the anti-government red shirt protests of 2010 will be addressed in a future column.

Tongue-Thai’ed! Part XVII: The difference between lies and 'lies'

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 26, 2012 “Tongue-Thai’ed!” encapsulates the most baffling, amusing, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures – in short: everything we hear that makes us go “Huh?!”. Check out all past entries here.

Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong has been so far one of the deputy prime ministers in the government of Yingluck Shinawatra that has not stood out with the blow-hard attitudelofty ideas or brain farts demonstrated by some of his peers - that was until this week when Kittiratt had an ill-judged epiphany: to admit that he sometimes lies just to boost confidence in the financial market. Here's the money quote:

"The finance minister can lie about some things, such as export targets. But these are white lies,” he said yesterday. “If I said from the start that we couldn’t grow, what would be the impact on confidence?

Mr Kittiratt acknowledged that his pledge earlier this year that exports would grow 15% this year was a "white lie”. On Tuesday, the government officially cut its export target for 2012 to 9% growth.

"Kittiratt: I tell 'white lies'", Bangkok Post, August 24, 2012

Like fellow blogger Bangkok Pundit noted in his post, we're hardly shocked to catch a politician lying, let alone admitting it. Nevertheless, PR-wise, his comments would appear unwise - not only will every economic target projection be taken with a huge grain of salt (if they haven't been already), Kittiratt has instantly put himself out there to be ridiculed (as usual, the opposition was quick to criticise) nationally, but also internationally since such a catchy headline á la "Thai Finance Minister Finds Nothing Wrong with Lying". It was a welcome light news item for editors abroad (for example here in Germany).

In the end, it was an unwarranted gaffe by a Thai politician and minister who had acquitted himself well until now. All by admitting to the truth at a decisively wrong moment for seemingly a greater good - whether it pays off has yet to be seen. The more important issue will be whether or not Kittiratt will own up to his own lies later down the road.

If you come across any verbosities that you think might fit in here send us a email at siamvoices [at] gmail.com or tweet us @siamvoices.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.

Dawei: Thai-backed mega project in Burma hits a snag

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 11, 2012 Almost a year ago, we have reported about a large industrial estate and port built in Dawei Burma's west coast and Thailand's involvement in the mega-project. Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun has, among other crucial factors, outlined in an very detailed essay the Thai stakes in Dawei:

The Burmese government has given a green light to a huge port and industrial estate development in Dawei, for which the Italian-Thai Development Public Company Limited (ITD) is a major contractor. The first-phase contract for the 10-year project is worth an estimated $8.6 billion. All in all, the entire project could be worth US$58 billion or more. The role of Thailand in Burma's transition is therefore crucial. (...)

For Thailand, Dawei will serve both the national interest and the private sector. There is nothing new in Thailand downplaying democratic development in Burma for the sake of Thai economic benefit. (...) the Thaksin administration brushed aside the issue of political reforms and human rights as he traded with the Burmese junta.In 2010, Abhisit followed the same course in the name of bringing change and prosperity to the impoverished nation. New Thai Premier Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's youngest sister, quickly reached out to Burma after she took office in August. Aung San Suu Kyi even congratulated her.

The Thai government has worked closely with ITD in ensuring Thailand's long-term gains from the Dawei project. (...)

The Thai government has promoted Dawei as part of the national interest, despite Western skepticism about Burma. The West is coming around to accepting that change in Burma may be real, (...)

The Thai private sector will also get rich from Dawei. The project could secure a firm source of revenue for ITD for at least 10 years. (...) More Thai companies are now in negotiation with ITD for their prospective investments in Dawei's subsequent development phase. This will intensify the Thai economic influence in Burma in the long term.

"Dawei Port: Thailand's Megaproject in Burma", by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, in: Global Asia, Winter 2011

However, there are also big environmental concerns surrounding the still quiet fishing village, as this industrial estate is projected to be about 10 times bigger than Map Ta Phut, an industrial estate in Rayong province and infamous for the negative health effects on local residents. With environmental guidelines likely being even less strict than in Thailand, the companies involved are being demanded to carry out impact assessments. No doubt it will change the landscape - politically, economically and literally. Up to 30,000 locals could be affected by this project and could face forced relocation.

But on Tuesday, the Dawei mega-project has surprisingly hit a bump - here's fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Francis Wade:

Burma’s befuddling rulers have launched another surprise attack on our (somewhat waning) ability to rationalise what is happening in Naypyidaw: four months after the shock suspension of the China-backed Myitsone Dam in the country’s north, the government’s environment minister yesterday announced that a massive, Thai-financed power plant in the south of the country has been scrapped.

The move has prompted (...) immediate questions: first, what has become of the 60-year lease awarded to Ital-Thai to develop the Dawei industrial zone (surely it has been spectacularly breached)? (...)

Like the Myitsone decision, the government has cited public opposition as the key trigger for the Dawei cancellation; also like Myitsone, its newfound fans have been quick to link the scrapping of the plant to the reformist nature of Thein Sein and his cabinet. But while it may have been China’s increasing economic influence in Burma, rather than disquiet among Burmese, that prompted the country’s nationalistic rulers to (temporarily) jump ship on Myitsone, the Dawei decision is slightly more puzzling – the government doesn’t stand to benefit, economically or ideologically, unless it has really developed a conscience and translated that into policy.

"Power plants, dams and mind games in Burma", by Francis Wade, Asian Correspondent, January 10, 2012

According to The Irrawaddy, Burma's Minister for Electrcity Khin Maung Soe says that the government will instead build a smaller power plant with an output of 400 megawatt - just one per cent of the originally projected 40,000 megawatt. However, the Thai stakeholders apparently remain confident that a power plant of the original size will be built, just with a slight modification:

Thai companies remain confident in the future of a 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant at Dawei despite Burma abruptly halting construction on Monday after a domestic outcry over the plant's environmental impact.

Italian-Thai Development (ITD) and its partner Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Plc (Ratch) said they had yet to be notified and were satisfied the power plant would proceed, perhaps using natural gas instead.

"Thais in the dark on Dawei plant", Bangkok Post, January 11, 2011

This latest episode in the Dawei mega-project illustrates the still unpredictability of doing business in Burma, with corruption and nepotism still not a thing of the past, while the country's formerly-junta-turned-civillian-government itself self is still figuring out how to push the apparent economical reforms in order to gain legitimacy from the international community. Past and present governments of Thailand have been too eager to to give that very legitimacy, even in times of brutal oppression and international condemnation, and Thailand's biggest corporations are now predicting a new gold rush in Burma. The question remains: for what price?

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist based in Hamburg, Germany again (*sigh*). He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.

The impounded Thai plane is free - but not for free

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 21, 2011 A German court has decided on the fate of a Royal Thai Air Force aircraft, belonging to Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn - or to the Thai government, depending on who you listen to - which was impounded last week by a liquidator for the bankrupt Walter Bau AG construction company. For more background, see Bangkok Pundit's posts here and here. From Reuters:

A German court on Wednesday ruled Thailand's Crown prince would have to pay a 20 million euro deposit ($28.40 million) for the return of his plane, impounded during a long running commercial dispute.

The Landshut court in Bavaria said in a statement on Wednesday the 20 million figure was based on the estimated value of the plane. It said a deposit was necessary as it had not yet decided on the ownership of the plane.

"German court wants $28 mln to free Thai prince's jet", Reuters, July 20, 2011

AFP further details the verdict:

But a court in nearby Landshut said it had received an assurance under oath from the Thai Department of Civil Aviation's director that the plane belonged to the prince, not the Thai state, as well as a 2007 registration certificate.

The vice president of the court, Christoph Fellner, said however that since these documents provided only a "presumption of ownership," 20 million euros ($28.2 million) had to be deposited in the form of a bank guarantee.

"No guarantee means no take-off," he said. "If everything goes well for the prince and we establish that the aircraft really belongs to him, than he will get his bank guarantee back."

"German court releases Thai prince's plane", AFP, July 20, 2011

In a nutshell the court gave the Thai government the benefit of the doubt over the ownership of the plane and if this assurance would be decided as wrong, it will cost the Thais 20 million Euros.

But how do the Thai media outlets report on this, given how gingerly they handled this story in the past week? The Nation goes with the headline "German court releases Thai plane", Bangkok Post writes "Royal jet released", which both wrongly imply that the plane can now leave Germany. But the biggest offender is MCOT who went with:

German court rules royal jet doesn't belong to Thai government: Thai Foreign Ministry (MCOT, July 13, 2011)

But the court said its decision was only preliminary so a bond was requires and 20 million euros (US$28.2 million) must be deposited as a bank guarantee. When the court finally establishes that the aircraft does belong to the Crown Prince, it will return the bond.

A German court on Wednesday ruled that the impounded aircraft used by Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn does not belong to the Thai government and agreed to release it on condition that a 20 million euro (over US$28 million) bank guarantee must be deposited, according to Foreign Ministry's Information Department deputy director-general Jesda Katavetin. (...)

He said the Thai legal team was working on the details of the ruling and could not reveal the details at the moment, but the ruling could be considered as a successful crucial step for the lawyers. (...)

You couldn't be further from the truth! That's what you get when you only speak to government officials: you only get opinion soundbites that aren't necessarily true - and of course they will try to sell this as a success, which clearly isn't. This whole piece is only topped by the last paragraph, which basically contradicts the whole article! Even the Thai language media, both press and TV, were more accurate in their reporting.

All in all, this is not to be considered a victory by the Thai side but the final verdict has not been delivered yet - until then, the plane will remain grounded and with it hopefully the rabble rousing by all people involved as well.

[UPDATE] The liquidator Werner Schneider has issued a statement in German through his law firm (PDF here), some excerpts:

"Even though the plane has been released, with the deposit of 20 million Euros we have achieved an important, successful interim result. It will be interesting to see who will pay the security deposit," says Werner Schneider, liquidator of the WALTER BAU-AG. Eventually, the point of the impoundment was not to turn the Thai plane into account, but to push [the Thais] for the required payments. In the point of view of Schneider, Geiwitz & Partner [the law firm], we have gone one big step ahead. (...)

Schneider sees the responsibility for potential diplomatic disturbances between Thailand and Germany only at the Thai government, because of their refusal to pay. "Thailand violated a bilateral intergovernmental agreement to protect investments for years - without any effective reactions from the [German] Federal Government," continues Schneider.

From: "Pressemitteilung: Insolvenzverwalter Schneider: Pfändungsaktion war ein Erfolg" (PDF), Kanzlei Schneider, Geiwitz & Partner, July 20, 2011 - translation by me

I think Schneider can now really forget about a holiday to Thailand anytime soon...!