Clouds over satellite deal

Clouds over satellite deal

Similar to other dubious military deals, the Defence Ministry's new reconnaissance satellite project, which is reportedly worth several billion baht, doesn't quite smell right.

Given the military's record of buying things that serve little or no practical use, such as GT-200 bomb detectors or blimps, along with its expensive shopping list for submarines, tanks and weaponry, the ministry cannot expect the public to feel comfortable about the satellite plan, the news of which surfaced recently.

Last week, Defence Ministry spokesman Khongcheep Tantrawanich said the ministry planned to have its own satellites for security-related matters, saying the Thai defence authorities need to keep pace with the kind of spy technology associated with satellites.

The project is seen as a replacement for the Thaicom satellite, the lease for which will expire in 2021.

The ministry reportedly plans to either lease or co-invest in new "THEIA" satellites at an annual cost of 2 billion baht for 15 years. But activist Srisuwan Janya, citing information he acquired, has alleged that the total cost could be as high as 91.2 billion baht.

This, he said, would cover the cost of purchasing 112 satellites with piercing zoom functions that could infringe on people's rights and freedom given the level of detail they provide.

Senior figures in the military should have countered Mr Srisuwan's allegations with substantial clarification in an open and straightforward manner rather than responding in a way that fuelled more speculation.

While Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuson and other top military brass have insisted the project is still under review, some progress seems to have been made.

Gen Prawit admitted yesterday that the Defence Technology Institute has signed a letter of intent with THEIA Group Inc. The American company appears to have no website and looks like it is being run by a retired general.

The letter may have included certain binding and non-binding conditions set prior to reaching the next step of the negotiations.

But while some of the facts are no doubt subject to a non-disclosure pact, the ministry ought to be able to clear the air on the cost, necessity and transparency of the project.

The ministry must have been aware how much this project would cost otherwise it would not have signed a letter of intent. Gen Prawit, therefore, needs to counter Mr Srisuwan's claim by revealing what the true budget is.

He must provide clarity about the cost-effectiveness of such spending regardless of whether this applies to economic development or national security.

The ministry has to answer why this project is being given such high priority and what kind of security risk Thailand would be exposed to if the country fails to subscribe to services of the THEIA satellites.

If the satellites are intended for reconnaissance purposes, the ministry must also explain how people's privacy will not compromised -- especially those deemed political enemies of the state.

More importantly, transparency is obviously lacking in the handling of this project.

THEIA Group Inc is unknown to most people and its chairman, Ronald Fogleman, is a retired American general and former chief of air staff, according to a press release issued in April.

Gen Fogleman was in Bangkok in April to meet Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Juntong to follow up on their talks in the US.

Mr Srisuwan is correct in saying this deal is subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

But it must not be considered under the current National Legislative Assembly, which has acted as a rubber stamp for the regime.

The ministry must not make any binding decisions on the project. As long as a new elected government is not in place, the satellite plan should remain in "the study process", as claimed by Gen Prawit.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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