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General news >> Tuesday February 20, 2007

Wrong speech at wrong time

Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin spoke unwisely last week in his speech to young volunteers about the nation and its military. The vow to recapture national assets sold to Singapore in the Shin Corp deal was as poorly phrased as it was incorrect. Since Gen Sonthi is the army commander, coup leader and head of the Council for National Security, his words were taken seriously. The Singapore government was not the only one looking for clarification through the weekend. Thai diplomats were forced to scramble and try to downplay the general's remarks. They were clearly as much in the dark as their foreign embassies, wondering just what Thailand's most powerful political figure was thinking.

When a general speaks the way that Gen Sonthi spoke to the 1,000 territorial defence students, the audience generally thinks he is considering the use of force. In fact, the words used by the army commander certainly gave that impression. "Soldiers will not tolerate a loss of territory, not even a square inch," he said, and "It is the same with natural resources." Gen Sonthi continued about how it was his specific duty to "retrieve our assets". That is an alarming way to talk about property currently owned by an arm of the Singapore government.

In the end, Gen Sonthi left a little wriggle room for the diplomats who are trying to salvage the situation. He said that he had studied how to get back the satellites and other telecoms assets purchased by Temasek Holdings, and he could not figure out how to do it. Experienced mediators like Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram should be able to finesse this, and point out that Gen Sonthi clearly meant he was considering legal means, such as repurchasing Shin Corp assets. In no way, then, was the speech any sort of physical threat.

But it will take some time for the impression of Gen Sonthi's speech to wear off. The question remains just why he would make such a statement, and at this time. Neither the government nor the military has financed or helped in running the satellite company. And the 30-year concession it gave to the company will not expire until 2021.

The military has recently made a series of statements that it feels it needs to own or to access secure satellites for a variety of reasons.

Some of Gen Sonthi's fellow generals feel that geographic information satellites (GIS) could help them in the anti-insurgency battles in the South. Gen Sonthi and some colleagues have made the rather far-fetched claim that Singapore is bugging their telephones _ which do not operate via satellite in any case _ and that the army needs more secure telecommunications channels.

There is always a case for a well-equipped military force. All Thais respect the military. Everyone realises the importance and difficulty of their job to defend _ as Gen Sonthi put it _ every square inch of Thai territory.

If the army commander and his staff think they need a satellite, they need to make this case, and then persuade the government to set an allocation for it as part of the defence budget.

It is neither diplomatic nor politically astute for the commander of the Thai army to talk about recovering national assets from a foreign country.

The nation and all foreign countries hang on every word and action of Thailand's most powerful figure. The idea that Gen Sonthi can speak this way to pander to a certain audience is wrong; he is not a local politician, but a leader.

When a leader's words sound jingoistic, there is widespread concern. Thais and foreigners alike are alarmed when the army commander intimates in public that another country has somehow taken control of Thai land or national assets. Gen Sonthi should make it clear himself that he was not even hinting at the use of force.

It is unacceptable and neighbours fear irrational acts from this administration.

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