Analysis: Neither country served by Thailand-Singapore spat

  Bangkok Post
January 22, 2007

Veera Prateepchaikul,
Deputy Editor-in-Chief,
Post Publishing Co Ltd

THE fallout from the Thai-Singaporean diplomatic spat has yet to be settled peacefully. The Council for National Security (CNS) now has trained its guns on Shin Corp - more generally on Singapore, because Shin Corp is now controlled by Singapore's investment arm, Temasek Holdings.

The CNS generals now suspect that their mobile telephones and those of members of the Assets Scrutiny Committee - which is investigating corruption cases against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his cronies - may have been tapped.

They worry that some confidential information, unwittingly let out during their conversations over the cellular phone network, might have been passed on to Singapore.

A sign of paranoia by the generals? Perhaps so.

CNS chairman Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin was reported to have confided to some reporters that he had changed his mobile telephones several times since the Sept 19 coup to prevent illegal eavesdropping.

All CNS generals have reportedly dropped the AIS service in favour of other service providers because they suspected their phones may have been tapped.

Responding to the CNS concern, the Information and Communications Technology Ministry quickly launched a probe and ordered all cell phone operators to report to the ministry. The order was accompanied by an unveiled threat that those who did not cooperate faced having their operating licences revoked.

Obviously, the probe appears to target Advanced Info Service, or AIS, the flagship subsidiary of Shin Corp.

Whether the probe will find a culprit remains to be seen. But the guess is that the ICT Ministry is likely to come up red faced and empty handed.

The CNS may not be happy with Singapore's mishandling of Mr Thaksin by letting him meet its deputy prime minister, Shunmugam Jayakumar, and for allowing him to use the island-state as a platform to bash the government via CNN and the Asian Wall Street Journal. But going after Shin Corp or Singapore for suspected phone tapping with a threat of withdrawing its operating licence may be a bit too much. Such actions could unnecessarily worsen the strained relations between the two countries.

If Singapore was guilty of not being sensitive enough to the feelings of the Thai people and the Thai government about Mr Thaksin, the former prime minister himself was also guilty of putting Singapore in a tight spot as noted by veteran Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani.

A great manipulator of the media, Mr Thaksin must have anticipated the consequences of his interviews.

Then, what's next? Continuation of the diplomatic row will not serve the interests of either Thailand or Singapore. Mr Thaksin is probably the only person who might have a good laugh.

What the two countries should do is to bury the hatchet, mend fences and move on to improve their relationship.

But, of course, the Thaksin debacle should serve as a lesson for Singapore and the friends of Thailand.

As for Mr Thaksin, he can continue bad-mouthing the CNS and the Surayud government as he wishes while globe-trotting. He is free to to speak and no one can stop him.

But if he really wishes to come home and to live a non-political life as an ordinary man, as he told CNN he did, he should for his own sake keep a low profile, be more discreet with his words to the media and avoid all the movements which can be deemed political. Then, perhaps, the CNS and the government will feel a bit more comfortable to let him in.

Mr Thaksin should also realise that Thai people, after all, are always ready to forgive anyone who is prepared to admit their guilt or who is ready to apologise for past mistakes, even though they may not forget the past.

And we have yet to hear a formal apology from Mr Thaksin for the mess that he and his regime left behind for us.