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General news >> Tuesday June 26, 2007

Secret deals at the TOT?

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

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

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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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