Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bangkok Post Editorial: General "The Junket" Saprang and TOT


Bangkok Post

The military-appointed chairman of the nation's leading telecommunications company has fired the acting president he himself appointed, amid highly disturbing allegations.

The question hanging prominently in the midst of this continuing drama is whether the main actors have TOT and the country at heart, or whether power and money are the motivations.

At a time the country is debating a draconian internal security act, troubling events at the TOT have raised the level of suspicion.

But hey, a coup is no problem, and a coup appointed legislature writing these laws seems to be no problem for the Bangkok Post.

Why is a general running a corporation in the first place?

Gen Saprang Kalayanamitr, a top military officer as well as head man at the TOT Corporation, is angry that acting TOT president Vuthiphong Priebjrivat leaked the telecoms firm's business to the public.

I love the fact that Vuthipong cares about the national good only after he was ousted by Saprang.

That is backwards. The public has the right to call on the TOT to tell its stakeholders what is going on. The facts that have emerged in this case so far are not pretty. Mr Vuthiphong claims that the military has tried to shake down TOT to the tune of 800 million baht to purchase some rather mysterious equipment.

The public has a right to know how their assets are being managed. Unfortunately, Thai history is full of bureaucrats and generals who believed that state assets were their personal assets to do with as they wished. Of course, all the Thaksin haters seem dismiss this fact, and give the generals a free ride just because they got rid of Thaksin.

Gen Saprang said he fired Mr Vuthiphong _ the second president he has dismissed in a few months _ for insubordination to the minister of information technology and communications.

Personally, I consider anybody who acts insubordinately to MICT minister Sittichai a national hero.

What is General Saprang's track record? He is the prince of unnecessary luxury junket and secret slush funds that benefit his family.

Mr Vuthiphong's story has two parts. A strong anti-Thaksin advocate last year, he was appointed acting president of TOT after the military takeover. The post-coup board of directors under chairman Gen Saprang moved president Somkuan Bruminhent to an inactive post based on allegations of corruption at Thai Mobile company, TOT's struggling cellular service. Mr Vuthiphong, however, proved to be no yes-man to Gen Saprang's board. He strongly advocated a shakeup of the entire telecoms industry, including putting all state enterprises and private companies under the authority of TOT Corp, which is to say under his orders. According to a TOT director, the ICT Minister Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom strongly opposed that effort, saying the only way such a reorganisation would occur was over his dead body.

I don't know if an industry shake-up would have been good or bad. But it sounds to me, if this story is to be believed, that Vuthipong was power mad himself. However, if Sittichai is for or against something, the opposite of his position must be good considering what an idiot he is.

Mr Vuthiphong, in a strong speech to TOT employees at a southern seminar last month, reportedly said: "If he really wants it that way, I can grant his wish," the director quoted Mr Vuthiphong as saying.

Lazy reporting and editing by the news desk. This statement could have been easily verified by one of the participants at the seminar.

Mr Vuthiphong, whose version of events has not been challenged, says at about the same time, Gen Saprang ordered him to sign an order for 800 million baht worth of telecoms apparatus for national security.

Look at the verb. General Saprang "ordered" him to sign.

Mr Vuthiphong has not detailed this order, but has indicated it was mainly wiretapping equipment.

Who are they wiretapping?

Gen Saprang and his board fired Mr Vuthiphong from the presidency. The chairman, who is also assistant army chief and deputy secretary-general of the Council for National Security, cited Mr Vuthiphong's reported inappropriateness against the ICT minister.

I think it is fascinating that the military's reason for firing Vuthipong was because he dissed a senior. How many times has General Sonthi contradicted General Surayud? And Saprang has been a general embarrassment to entire junta with his shenanigans.

Mr Vuthiphong disputes that, and said he was fired because he refused to sign the order for the military equipment. He has said the military has its own budget for national security purchases, which is true, and that Gen Saprang had no business trying to take money from TOT, let alone in a so-called secret, off-the-books deal.

Yes, but Vuthiphong should have come forth before being fired.

This is one of the most serious cases to come to public attention since the Sept 19 coup. It makes Gen Saprang's junket to Europe look almost transparent by comparison. Clearly, the Finance Ministry, which is supposed to oversee the TOT and other state enterprises, must conduct an urgent and thorough investigation into the matter. The military has already instituted massive increases in the state budget for its own purposes. It also has introduced the most dubious internal security act in Southeast Asia since the end of the communist threat. Indeed, the claim by coup chief Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin that Singapore and Malaysia have similar laws almost sounds like nostalgia for the days of the cold war.

Who knows what else has happened since the coup? The Thai media has been worthless as usual. It hasn't done any investigative reports. And what little we do know comes from insiders who tell their stories to PTV and other pro-Thaksin forces that are hostile to the junta. I think it is disgraceful that we have to get our news from political actors with grudges rather than an independent news media.

The TOT case is also a clear example of why the country must rush back to a democratic system as quickly as possible.

What will happen after the restoration of democracy? Nothing. Because the Thai news media will continue to be lazy and worthless. The newpapers and broadcast media will continue to allow the politicians and generals to get away with their crimes by doing what they always do: nothing.

The allegation that Gen Saprang actually tried to squeeze secret payments out of TOT coffers will be widely believed. Nor can the alleged threat by Mr Vuthiphong against a government minister pass unnoticed. A democratic government could be held accountable, and forced to report to the corporation's stakeholders, who are the 63 million people of Thailand.

Well, Thaksin administration was democratically installed and the Bangkok Post thought it wasn't accountable so it backed a military coup. What makes the Bangkok Post think the next government will be any different? The fact is that the only major institution in the country that can hold the government accountable is the press. But for some reason The Nation and the Bangkok Post think somebody else should be doing their duties.


sooksiam said...

I would love to see Fonzi establish a new English newspaper in Thailand seeing that s/he seems to be far more capable than other bloggers or Thai journalists of articulating critical opinions on Thai politics.

I did not see Fonzi making a fuss when Thaksin tried to buy The Bangkok Post via a third party. This is, again, just one more hypocrisy from Fonzi.

Kahve said...

sooksiam: or maybe that is because this website did not exist back then? Doh