Thai coup generals worry
    Singapore's listening in

January 15, 2007

By Nopporn Wong-Anan

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 monitored, 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.

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 (AIS) , 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.

AIS said its never tapped client phones nor had shareholders asked staff to do so.

"Our policy is we will not do anything illegal or immoral, or which threatens our national security," AIS chief executive Somprasong Boonyachai told reporters.

"Even if our shareholders ask us to do so, we will not do it and will inform the authorities."


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.

-Additional reporting by Saranya Suksomkij