Thai coup generals worry Singapore’s listening in

Nopporn Wong-Anan
19 Jan 07

Worried about possible Singapore eavesdropping, Thailand’s army-installed government has told telephone companies their licences will be revoked if they are found bugging calls.

After suggestions by army chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin that the military’s phones were being bugged, the government summoned fixed-line and mobile operators, as well as the country’s sole satellite company.

“We told all telecoms operators that eavesdropping is illegal and their licences will be revoked if they are caught doing it,” Telecommunications Minister Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom told reporters on Friday.

“They all insisted that they don’t have tapping devices and they never bug their customers’ phones,” he said.

The phone companies were not available for immediate comment.

Sonthi told high school students this week the military was at risk because of last year’s takeover by Singapore state investment arm Temasek of telecoms firm Shin Corp, founded by ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

“Our army has a problem now. When we make a call, the line goes to Singapore. When we talk secrets, they go straight to Singapore,” Sonthi said.

Temasek’s takeover of Shin Corp gave it control of Advanced Info Service, Thailand’s biggest mobile phone firm with a 45 percent share of a market in which more than half of the 64 million population has a mobile phone.

It also got control of Shin Satellite, Thailand’s only satellite firm and the takeover prompted immediate charges that Thaksin’s family — which received a tax-free $1.9 billion for its controlling stake — had sold out national security.

Spat Bubbling

Amid an escalating dispute with Singapore over the Temasek deal and a visit to the island state this week by the exiled Thaksin, Sonthi said the army and government would be working out how to make networks less susceptible to foreign snooping.

“As long as our telecoms industry is in foreigners’ hand, our national security is at risk,” Sonthi told ASTV, a satellite television station owned by one of Thaksin’s leading foes.

“This is an urgent matter on which we would like the government to take action.”

Temasek’s acquisition of Shin Corp, which cost it $3.8 billion, added fuel to anti-Thaksin street protests that led ultimately to political deadlock and the Sept. 19 coup.

Singaporean companies are among the biggest foreign investors in Thailand, with stakes in banks, property firms, hospitals and hotels.

But relations between the two Southeast Asian allies have grown ever more sour since the Shin deal in January last year.

A spat erupted this week when Thailand called in Singapore’s ambassador to protest over a meeting between Thaksin and one of the city-state’s cabinet ministers.

Thailand tore up its invitation to Foreign Minister George Yeo to attend a meeting of civil servants this month and suspended a nine-year-old exchange programme with Singapore, which said there was no reason to refuse Thaksin entry.

On Friday, coup council spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd denied Thai newspaper reports that Sonthi had ordered other coup leaders and military top brass to switch their mobile phone services to other providers from Singapore-owned AIS.

“What General Sonthi said was they should be careful of confidential information they talk about on mobile phones. They should switch to talk on fixed-line phones or in person,” Sunsern said.

Thai public backs govt’s action against S’pore, says poll
ETNA English News
19 Jan 07

The Thai public supports the Surayud Chulanont government’s decision to suspend high-level meetings with Singapore in retaliation for the island state’s decision to allow ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to travel there and meet with its deputy prime minister, an opinion survey has found.

More than 64 per cent of respondents said they agreed with the Thai government’s reaction, while 18 per cent disagreed. The rest had no comment.

Noppadol Kannikar, director of Assumption University’s ABAC Poll, said that the survey was conducted on January 16 and 17 in and around Bangkok and 1,572 persons took part in the poll.

Almost 56 per cent of those surveyed said Singapore should apologise to the Thai people for allowing Mr. Thaksin to meet its Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar and allowing him to use the island state as a launching pad to attack the Thai government. But 21.6 per cent of respondents felt that Singapore did not need to apologise while the rest – 22.5 per cent – made no comment.

Less than one-third of those surveyed expressed concern that Thai-Singapore relations would be affected by the current row. The survey also asked if the public agreed with Mr. Thaksin announcement that he would quit politics. About 60 per cent said they supported his decision for the sake of national reconciliation and coming to a peaceful solution to the political crisis. However, a fourth of respondents wanted Mr.Thaksin back at the centre of politics, saying he could still contribute to the nation and help the poor.

According to Mr. Noppadol, the survey showed public sentiment towards recent political events to be both negative and polarised.

Anti-S’pore sentiments on the rise in Thailand

19 Jan 07 Thailand.html

Adding to already strained bilateral relations, a handful of Thai demonstrators Thursday gathered at the Singapore embassy in Bangkok to protest the city-state’s perceived support for ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

“Stop interfering with Thailand’s internal affairs,” demanded Attiwat Boonchart, a Ramkhamhaeng University student who was one of five protestors who staged a peaceful demonstration outside the Singapore embassy, which was guarded by more than 50 Thai police. The students waved banners reading “Singapore Money Get out of Thailand,” recalling much larger anti-Singapore protests that were held here last year at the peak of a Bangkok-based movement to topple Thaksin from power.

Thaskin, who was ousted by a military coup on September 19, has once again become a sore point for Thai-Singapore relations. On Tuesday, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry retracted an invitation to Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo to visit the kingdom later this month and cancelled a meeting on a Thai-Singapore civil service exchange programme in response to Singapore’s “inappropriate” stance towards Thaksin.

Thaksin, who has been in exile since the September 19 coup that ousted him from power, was granted a private meeting with Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar last week, days after the Thai government revoked his diplomatic passport.
Singapore’s government on Wednesday said it regretted Thailand’s decision, noting that, “The Thai government did not notify us that Dr Thaksin has been charged with any offence,” in a statement issued by Singapore’s foreign ministry. Thailand’s diplomatic strike against Singapore has proven popular, especially in Bangkok where anti-Thaksin sentiments are still strong.

According to a survey of 1,572 people in Bangkok and its suburbs conducted by ABAC-Poll released Thursday, some 64 per cent of the respondents supported the government’s diplomatic action against Singapore, and 77.2 per cent felt that Singapore’s seeming support for Thaksin was contributing to political turmoil in the country.

“I don’t think the government overreacted,” said Kraisak Choonhavan, the former head of the now defunct Senate’s International Affairs Committee. “To allow their deputy prime minister to meet with Thaksin was extremely inappropriate. It sends a very clear signal that Singapore continues to support Thaksin for a comeback.

Relations between Thailand and Singapore have been strained since January last year when Temasek Holdings, the Singapore government’s investment arm, bought the Shinawatra’s 49 per cent holding in Shin Corp, Thaksin’s business empire, for 1.9 billion dollars in a tax free deal. Many Thais saw the purchase as selling off sensitive national assets to a foreign company.

Shin Corp’s stable includes Advanced Info Service (AIS) – Thailand’s largest mobile phone service, Shin-Sat – the national satellite network, and ITV, a television station. Although Thailand and Singapore have been close allies for decades, the foreign ownership of such sensitive services obviously still irks the Thai military, which is now running the country.

“The armed forces are currently experiencing a problem,” Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, who heads the Council of National Security (CNS), as the junta styles itself, told Thai reportes on Thursday. “We pick up the phone, and the line runs to Singapore. We talk about confidential matters, it goes to Singapore,” he said. “Although Singapore is not our enemy, we are economic rivals. They could be informed of secrets in the army and in the economic sector,” said Sonthi.

Thailand’s junta is mulling cancelling Singapore’s contract to use a military training base in Kanchanaburi province if the city-state fails to cooperate on the issue of Thaksin, according to the Bangkok Post newspaper.

Singapore has been paying 1 billion baht (27.8 million dollars) annually to use the site in Sai Yok district of Kanchanaburi for the past 20 years and plans to stage its third joint military exercise with Thailand there in July, said the newspaper, citing a “highly-placed source.” The contract is renewed every 10 years.

Thailand insists on retaliation against Singapore

Xinhua News
19 Jan 07

The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday insisted that the government had no option but to take action following the decision by Singapore to allow ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to travel there and meet with its deputy prime minister, and hoped that bilateral trade and investment relations would not be affected.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Kitti Wasinondh told a press conference that the ministry would not respond to Singapore’s statement that Thailand might have overreacted to Thaksin’s trip to Singapore by suspending indefinitely a high-level meeting with the southern neighbor and canceling an invitation to Singapore’s foreign minister, according to the Thai News Agency.

He said Bangkok felt that the action was necessary to convey Thailand’s displeasure over the island’s insensitivity to Thailand’s political situation.

During his trip, Thaksin gave two exclusive interviews to CNN International and Wall Street Journal (Asia) in which he launched strong attacks on the current administration, installed by the military after the Sept. 19 coup.

Kitti said that prior to Thaksin’s visit to the island state, both Thai Foreign Minister Nitya Phibulsonggram and Krit Garnjanagoonchorn, permanent secretary at the Foreign Ministry, had conveyed Thailand’s concerns about the deposed leader’s movements to their Singaporean counterparts on different occasions.

The fact that Thaksin was still allowed to visit and meet with Singapore Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar, though in a social and private capacity, was considered very insensitive to Thailand’s position, he said.

“We didn’t want to pressure our friend but we have carefully assessed the impact of what happened to mutual trust and understanding. We had explained our position, not once, but many times, but our explanation was not heeded. We, therefore, had to react,” stressed Kitti.

The ministry spokesman said the government’s action was not designed to set a precedent nor to send a signal to other friendly nations.

“We want to separate the issue of individual rights and freedom of movement from matters that concern national security and reconciliation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s private sector leaders said the diplomatic setback would not affect private business and trade ties between the two countries.

Chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries (FIT) Santi Vilassakdanont, who is also chairman of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ASEAN-CCI), said the issue would not have any impact on business communications because businessmen would not involve the political conflict with their business.

Mana Polpusombun, member of FBI and ASEAN-CCI, also shared the same view, but he wanted representatives of both states to reach understanding with each other as soon as possible.

Thailand’s supreme commander Boonsang Niempradit said Thursday that military relations between Singapore and Thailand remain intact despite the diplomatic strain.

“The two countries’ armed forces have had a long-lasting relationship, and several joint military-training programs, all ofwhich remain the same,” Boonsang was quoted by TNA as saying. “(There will be) no changes at all.”

Responding to Thaksin’s movements in Singapore, Thailand on Tuesday summoned Singapore ambassador Peter Chan to discuss the issue and withdrew Thailand’s invitation to Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo to visit Bangkok at the end of this month, as well as suspended a civil service training and exchange program

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