BROWN: Burmese generals surfing the Internet
Sunday, July 6, 2008
Military trucks are park outside a government building in Yangon, November 8, 2005, waiting to carry away records and other …
With the push of a button, the generals in Burma can instantly access the Internet, thanks to a U.S.-built and U.S.-financed satellite. The generals and their cronies have been doing this for months as the Export-Import Bank of the United States (U.S. Ex-Im Bank) and the U.S. State Department which together made it possible, stand by silently.
In this instance, the U.S. government was apparently more than eager to see a U.S. company, Loral, build and deliver a sophisticated broadband satellite to a Thailand-based telecommunications company known as Thaicom, formerly Shin Satellite.
At first glance, there appears to be nothing wrong here, but scratch the surface and the Thaicom-Burma connection quickly appears. It was well-established and well-known to all parties concerned long before the satellite in question even reached the launch pad in 2005.
Keep in mind that the White House including first lady Laura Bush, and the U.S. Congress have been quite vocal in condemning the government of Burma, officially called Myanmar. In 2007, for example, President Bush extended for another year the national emergency first signed by President Clinton in 1997. Add to the list the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, and the executive order signed by President Bush that same year.
So the message to Burma has been clear, while the gap that divides the United States and the government of Thailand when it comes to Burma grows larger. Unlike Thailand, engaging Burma has not been the preference of the American government, and U.S. companies are strictly forbidden from doing any business with the government of Burma, although these rules simply do not apply to businesses in Thailand.
More than six years ago, as the human-rights record of the junta in Burma was steadily deteriorating, American taxpayers quietly provided financial backing for construction of the broadband satellite for Thaicom via $190 million in loan guarantees provided U.S. Ex-Im Bank. The French government stepped up and provided loan guarantees for launch services.
America’s dislike for the junta did not prevent Thaicom’s ties to the government of Burma from strengthening. In 2004, for example, the Ex-Im Bank of Thailand rolled out a massive, multimillion-dollar loan to Burma that helped finance telecommunications equipment for the Burmese generals, including a substantial number of broadband satellite terminals to enable Thaicom’s services to be delivered throughout Burma.
The government of Burma and all the assorted businesses run by Burmese generals no doubt constitute the largest pool of satellite broadband customers for Thaicom in Burma, before and after the cyclone. The fact that former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra created and ran Thaicom’s parent company, Shin Corp., cannot go unmentioned. Shin Corp. is now owned by Temasek Holdings of Singapore, which holds a 41 percent stake in Thaicom and remains its largest shareholder.
Since the satellite itself was launched in 2005, Thaicom has steadily expanded its presence in Burma. And in early 2008, Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications and Thaicom signed a new pair of contracts. This was followed by news that the final remaining portion of the above-mentioned 2004 Ex-Im Bank of Thailand telecom loan is to be handed over to the generals in Burma this year as well.
The response of the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Ex-Im Bank while all this has unfolded has been to say absolutely nothing. Apparently, when the government of Burma gains access to U.S.-funded satellite broadband technology, the official U.S. response is to simply look the other way and ignore everything that is happening.
So the generals in Burma and their buddies go on surfing the Internet, casually using a U.S.-built satellite in the process while knowing that what truly represents a dark stain on U.S. policymaking in Southeast Asia will no doubt be ignored altogether.
Peter J. Brown is a Maine-based free-lance writer who writes frequently about satellite industry trends and developments in Asia.