Minister of gaffes

Ever since it was installed by the military last year, Thailand's interim government has struggled to put a positive spin on its often creaky performance. It often seems to be a losing battle, at least on the world stage beyond the reach of the junta's censors.

Some observers put the blame for the hapless government on the political forces swirling in the wake of the bloodless September 19 coup, which pulled the plug on a fragile democracy. Others cite the mess left behind by ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Information Communications and Technology Minister Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom - the man who banned YouTube - has his own theory for why the administration is floundering.

In his view, the cabinet is honest, earnest - and complete amateurs in the ways of modern politics. Refreshingly, the wealthy academic, avowed atheist and avid inventor who had no prior experience in government is hardest on himself.

Taking charge of a ministry tasked with internet regulation and telecoms reform has been a steep learning curve for the minister. He admits having fallen asleep in cabinet meetings and says he longs for academia.

'Truly speaking, I'm a terrible minister. I have no competency at all. I can't stand being a politician,' he recently told an audience at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. Not that he wants to be one. 'All politicians are crooks,' he said, grinning.

Such honesty has become Dr Sitthichai's calling card, and a reminder that not everyone has lost their sense of humour over Thailand's political woes.

Born to a Shanghainese general in the Kuomintang army who settled in Thailand in 1948, Dr Sitthichai, 59, trained as an electrical engineer, and had stints in the United States, Australia and Britain.

He proudly points out that he is the only Thai to have been made a fellow of the US-based Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

He is a gun enthusiast and marksman who listed 322 guns on his assets declaration when he was appointed minister. He has taught his son to shoot and always packs a .45 calibre pistol when he goes for a walk.

Perhaps most remarkable, in a country steeped in religion, astrology and numerology, he makes no bones about being an atheist who does not believe in accumulating karma for the next life.

'There is no God. Or if there is, he or she built quantum mechanics, which rules everything in this universe,' he told the Bangkok Post.

During a successful career in academia, Dr Sitthichai rose to become the dean of the King Mongkol Institute of Technology in Bangkok and later founded Mahanakorn University in 1990 to concentrate on teaching science, his main passion. His current team of advisers draws heavily on his university faculty.

His other calling is the winnowing of ideas into practical inventions: machine guns, a telephone switchboard and, most notably, the Bangkok taxi meter.

To calibrate the correct meter fares, Dr Sitthichai spent a year measuring the time and length of car journeys and comparing it to the fare that taxi drivers would charge after bargaining with customers.

The meter was quickly adopted in the 1990s in a city where many other daily items are still haggled over.

He is also credited with inventing a machine that turns human excrement into renewable energy, based on the extraction of fibres. But he says one of his hot-shot researchers deserves the glory. 'Not mine, that one,' he said.

But such achievements have been overshadowed in recent months by the controversy over internet censorship in Thailand, and especially the banning of the popular video-sharing site YouTube.

In April, after an insulting clip of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej was posted on the website, Dr Sitthichai put a block on the site.

The move drew international attention and condemnation from free-speech groups. Predictably, the outcry led to a mushrooming of video clips taking aim at the Thai monarchy and to counter-attacks from loyalists.

Dr Sitthichai then accused Google, the parent company of YouTube, of double standards for its refusal to remove the anti-royalist clips. He argued that Google had bowed to Chinese demands to censor its search engine in order to get access to China's booming online community.

In May, Dr Sitthichai said he would sue YouTube for breaking Thai law by insulting the monarchy, but never followed through.

A compromise has apparently been reached, as Dr Sitthichai says he will restore access to YouTube after it removes the videos.

Still, anyone putting their trust in Dr Sitthichai's ability to navigate the boundaries of the online world would be brought up short by his admission that he rarely uses the internet or e-mail.

'I don't like to type. I just like to talk,' he told the International Herald Tribune.

That cavalier attitude to the internet infuriates free-speech groups and bloggers in Thailand. They accuse the government of blocking or closing down thousands of websites, including political voices critical of the military coup.

Dr Sitthichai claims that only 200 sites have been blocked by his ministry, most of them pornographic. Websites linked to Thaksin, who is living in exile in London, are among them.

He says that personally he does not agree with blocking websites unless they stray into territory that might invoke Thai lese majeste laws that make it a crime to disrespect the royal family.

But pressure from the public has forced his hand, particularly when it comes to pornography. 'They should not be closed down, but it's necessary,' he sighed.

A decree passed by the ruling junta in September gives the government unilateral power to shut down websites. Scores of sites were immediately affected by the move, including a popular academic forum in Chiang Mai that carried views critical of the coup.

Freedom Against Censorship in Thailand, an activist group, estimates that more than 11,000 websites have disappeared from screens in Thailand since the coup. By comparison, the previous government blocked 2,400 sites.

Dr Sitthichai says he wants to overturn the junta's decree and make it necessary for the government to obtain a court order to close down or block sites.

Still, if regulating the unruly outer reaches of cyberspace sounds tricky, untangling Thailand's telecoms sector has proven a virtual non-starter.

Thai telephone companies have bristled at efforts to overhaul the concessions system or open up the sector to competition. Lawsuits are flying over interconnection fees between mobile and fixed lines.

Few observers expect anything to be resolved until a new government takes office after elections tentatively scheduled for year's end.

Nationalist calls for Thailand to take back control of the satellites sold to Singapore's Temasek Holdings by Thaksin's family have also tested Dr Sitthichai's political smarts - and found them lacking.

Asked if Thailand should try to buy back the satellites as a matter of national security, Dr Sitthichai proposed holding a referendum to see if the public supported the move.

The suggestion was ridiculed by media commentators, who asked why a purported security threat would be put up for public debate. The referendum was quickly shelved.

More recently Dr Sitthichai has clashed with the management of TOT, the state-run domestic fixed-line operator. Its president, Vuthiphong Priebjrivat, was forced out in June after making disparaging remarks about Dr Sitthichai and his competence.

Mr Vuthiphong later told Thai media that he had been fired because he objected to an army request to use 800 million baht (HK$198.8 million) of TOT's budget for a secret national security project, reportedly for electronic surveillance.

Asked about this secret fund, Dr Sitthichai refuses to give details and says the former TOT president should have kept his mouth shut. 'It's still only an idea,' he added.

As a general's son and self-confessed weapons nut, it is not surprising Dr Sitthichai feels at home in a military-run administration. Going into the armed services was his second career option and he is a proud patriot.

'The military are there to defend the country and to take care of bad prime ministers,' he says.

With the clock ticking on the interim administration, political analysts are watching to see which ministers will jockey for a future role.

Dr Sitthichai won't be among them. He wants to quit and return to academic life, to get back to his research on quantum mechanics.

It is a routine that makes him happy: reading, writing, watching TV and smoking 20 cigars a day.