The impact of widespread satellite broadband deployments on previously unserved and underserved regions of the world has been substantial and represents a real win-win for the user and service provider alike. But in the case of certain satellite broadband services in Burma there is a dark cloud overhead.
The human rights policies and repressive practices of the government of Burma — which calls itself Myanmar — have been criticized by both the White House and the U.S. Congress. Sanctions have been imposed, and American companies cannot do business with the government of Burma. And yet, Burmese officials have had no problem accessing a U.S.-built and U.S.-financed broadband satellite, services they have been able to access since the early days of the satellite.
The IPStar satellite, also known as Thaicom 4, was launched in 2005 by Thaicom Public Company Ltd., formerly Shin Satellite. Built by Space Systems/Loral, IPStar is a success story, providing satellite-based broadband Internet services to customers throughout Asia and Australia, including China and Burma.
Thaicom’s former parent company, Shin Corp., once was owned by former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Shin Corp. now is owned by Temasek Holdings of Singapore and remains the largest shareholder in Thaicom with a 41 percent stake in the company.
American taxpayers backed IPStar’s construction with loan guarantees valued at roughly $190 million provided by the Export-Import Bank of the United States (U.S. Ex-Im Bank). U.S. Ex-Im Bank loan guarantees have supported other satellite projects in Asia. For example, the Bank in 2004 approved a $138 million long-term loan guarantee which enabled Malaysia-based Binariang Satellite Systems to purchase a Boeing-built satellite. The French government also provided loan guarantees for launch services provided by Arianespace.
These loans played a key role in the development of the satellite, and the importance of the IPStar project was highlighted in a speech by Ex-Im Bank Vice Chairman Eduardo Aguirre to the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Business Council in December 2002.
But while the United States showed strong support for the project, the use of IPStar services by Burma and Thailand’s attitude toward Burma’s government flies in the face of the official U.S. stance toward Burma.
The actions undertaken by the United States are clear and are intended to isolate and even punish Burma. In May 2007, President Bush extended for another year the national emergency with respect to Burma which was declared by President Clinton in 1997. This further strengthened U.S. sanctions imposed on the government of Burma which had been reinforced by the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, and an executive order signed by President Bush that same year.
But from the start, Thaicom’s owners appeared quite eager to include Burma in direct opposition to U.S. mandates. Thaksin is now at the center of a controversy surrounding an IPStar-related loan to Burma in 2004 and whether or not he used his influence as the Export-Import Bank of Thailand loaned millions of dollars to the Burmese government so that IPStar services and equipment, including terminals and other telecommunications items, would be purchased. In early 2008 Thaicom expanded its ties to Burma by signing a pair of new capacity contracts with Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications.
The fact that the U.S. and the government of Thailand have adopted vastly different approaches when it comes to relations with Burma is highly relevant. The American government prefers sanctions while Thailand prefers to engage Burma.
It is hard to imagine that the Asia team at the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Ex-Im Bank and the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok were unaware that that the government of Thailand and the Ex-Im Bank of Thailand in particularwere dealing aggressively upfront with the government of Burma months prior to the launch of IPStar given the sheer size of the loan mentioned above.
For this reason, a dark cloud hangs over satellite broadband in Burma. In this instance, someone either dropped the ball entirely or elected to look the other way.