Thai junta chief wants to buy
    satellite firm from Singapore

  Agence France Presse
February 21, 2007

THAILAND'S junta leader said that the kingdom wants to buy back satellite operator ShinSat, which was purchased by a Singapore firm last year, but insisted the military would not seize the company.

"The only likely and possible way is to buy it back, but we have not yet decided on the matter," General Sonthi Boonyaratglin told reporters.

He said the military would not seize control of Shin Satellite, a unit of telecom giant Shin Corp, which was bought by Singapore's Temasek Holdings in a politically explosive deal last year.

Temasek bought the company from the family of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, sparking street protests that precipitated a bloodless coup by Sonthi in September.

ShinSat operates four satellites owned by the Thai government under a concession that has 10 years remaining. Sonthi on Friday had vowed to take back control of the satellites, prompting Singapore to ask for clarification.

Asked Tuesday whether the military would seize control of the satellites, Sonthi said: "We will do no such thing."

"That would hurt the system of international trade. We will only do things the right way, and (the government) is reviewing all the contracts," he said.

Thailand's minister of information and ommunication technology, Sitthichai Pookaiyaudoom, said earlier that the government would poll the nation to decide whether to make an offer to buy out Temasek's share in ShinSat.

If more than 75 percent of those surveyed back the idea, Thailand will make an offer to buy Temasek's 41 percent stake, he said.

That would cost Thailand an estimated 10 billion baht (US$280 million), Sitthichai said. He also raised the possibility that a private group of Thai investors could make an offer to gain a controlling stake in the firm.

"This issue is very delicate and affects public sentiment. We have to be very careful in how we proceed," he added.

Thailand's National Statistical Office will have one month to conduct the poll and submit the results to the government, the minister said.

Meanwhile, the government will continue to investigate whether Temasek broke foreign ownership laws when it bought Shin Corp, Sitthichai said.

The minister said Monday that if the deal was declared illegal, the government could revoke ShinSat's concession to operate the four Thai government-owned satellites.

But he acknowledged that revoking the concession could involve a lengthy court process.

Sonthi on Friday described the telecom satellites as "national assets" that should revert back to Thai control.

Sonthi has previously voiced fears that Singapore would use the satellites to spy on Thailand, and has ordered military officials to give up their cell phones in favor of walkie-talkies.

Singapore has denied any spying.

The latest spat between Thailand and Singapore capped a month of tension between the neighbours, sparked by a visit to the city-state by Thaksin, during which he met with a top government official.

Other foreign businesses have watched nervously as Thailand's government has tried to find ways of undoing the Shin Corp deal, but Sitthichai insisted that the latest threats would not scare off investors.

"Everything is being done in accordance with the law. If any other government faced a similar situation, they would probably do more than us, because telecommunication is a crucial sector and no country would allow it to fall under foreign control," he said.