I want more!

22 06 2014

One of the major complaints made by red shirts in their campaigns for elections in the 2008 to 2010 period was that the amart was a powerful group that defended the status quo and refused to provide any political openings for those who wanted more representation of their interests.

pyramidThe amart was never particularly well defined. It was the elite, the royalist elite, the network monarchy, Sino-Thai tycoons and so on. When rhetorical push came to political push, sometimes the links between the (Sino-Thai) monarchy and Sino-Thai capitalists were made, and there were attacks on corporations such as the Bangkok Bank.

More recently, when Suthep Thaugsuban’s anti-democrats were on the streets, there were several articles that made connections between him, his movement and tycoons. While Suthep may have attacked nepotism and cronyism that he alleged were features of Thaksin Shinawatra’s clan, it is evident that Suthep was doing the work of big clans and networks that had greater longevity than Thaksin’s lot.

There have been various mappings of the group known as the Sino-Thai business class and its networks.

The Sino-Thai rich have long been required to demonstrate their political loyalty by writhing about at te feet of the royals, offering them buckets of money and swathes of land. The royalist Democrat Party also collects loot from the rich and is the tycoons’ preferred party, if they must endure party politics.

Of course, there are various measures of the huge troughs of money that accrue to the amart through its political and economic dominance. The obscene wealth of the royals has also been detailed as well as the huge handouts the monarchy gets from the taxpayer.


Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi

Until a recent report at the Bangkok Post, however, we had never seen a listing of landholdings. There, it is the alcohol tycoon Sirivadhanabhakdi family that is listed as owning the most land in Thailand, with 630,000 rai. PPT is never the best with calculations, but we think that’s nearly 101,000 hectares or about 1,000 square kilometers. One might be tempted to observe that that’s a small amount of Thailand’s land area, but it is about the size of the Hong Kong S.A.R.. The family has “a 12,000-rai plot in Cha-am, Phetchaburi province, and a 15,000 rai plot in Bang Ban, Ayutthaya province.”

That beer and whiskey family is followed by the telecoms, shopping mall and hotel-owning tycoons, the Chirathivat family, with 200,000 rai. That family held a prize “10,000-rai plot in Ayutthaya.”

The Crown Property Bureau is said to be fourth, with “just” 30,000 rai. That’s about the same as was reported in 2005. Given that a significant portion of this is in the highest value areas of Bangkok, the returns are pretty chunky.

The report states that there were just “837 individuals and juristic persons [that] had 1,000 rai or more…”. The vast bulk of landowners in Thailand own very small plots. Inequality in incomes is matched by vast inequalities in land ownership.

Updated: Political crisis and the rich

7 06 2014

The 14 June 2014 issue of Forbes lists the 50 richest Thais/Thai families. With all of the political turmoil in Thailand in recent years, most of it claimed or asserted to be in support of the wealthy elite – recall the remarkable Vice clip of rich dipsticks in Ferraris – it might be thought that the wealthiest might have seen a decline in their fortunes. After all, the economy has struggled, several of the richest families kicked in loot to back the anti-democrats, and things just haven’t seemed conducive for the rich to add hugely to their fortunes. So what has happened?

Most years PPT has posted a list of the wealthiest, always noting that the list leaves off the wealthiest family. That’s the “Mahidols,” also known as the royal family. In 2011, the Forbes list was:

  1. Dhanin Chearavanont,  $7.4 billionmoneybags
  2. Yoovidhya family, $5b
  3. Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi,  $4.8b
  4. Chirathivat family, $4.3b
  5. Ratanarak family,  $2.5b
  6. Aloke Lohia,  $2.1b
  7. Bhirombhakdi family,  $2b
  8. Vichai Maleenont,  $1.5b
  9. Isara Vongkusolkit & family,  $1.4b
  10. Praneetsilpa Vacharaphol & family,  $1.05b

The combined wealth of this top 10 was $32.05 billion, still quite a lot less than the royal family’s Crown Property Bureau.

What does the list look like in 2014? With a little adding together of the same families listed twice and lengthening to show changes, it is:

  1. Sirivadhanabhakdi family, $12.9bmoney
  2. Chirathivat family, $12.1b
  3. Dhanin Chearavanont, $11.5b
  4. Yoovidhya family, $9.9b
  5. Ratanarak family, $5.1b
  6. Chaiyawan family, $3.9b
  7. Bhirombhakdi family, $2.8b
  8. Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth, $2.3b
  9. Vichai Maleenont, $1.7b
  10. Shinawatra family, $1.7b
  11. Chatri Sophonpanich, $1.6b
  12. Thirakomen family, $1.5b
  13. Thongma Vijitpongpun, $1.4b
  14. Prayudh Mahagitsiri & family, $1.4b
  15. Keeree Kanjanapas, $1.4b
  16. Bencharongkul & family, $1.3b
  17. Aloke Lohia, $1.2b
  18. Osathanugrah family, $1.2b
  19. Wichai Thongtang, $1.1b
  20. Isara Vongkusolkit & family, $1.1b

Praneetsilpa Vacharaphol & family dropped to No. 25 on the list but increased its wealth to $1.1b. Of the top 10 families in 2011, all but the Vongkusolkit family had increased their wealth, most of them very substantially.

By 2014, the combined wealth of the top 10 on the list had rocketed to $63.9 billion. We have no way of knowing what the current assets of the royals and CPB are at present – they don’t have to provide such trivial details to the public. All we can note is that the wealth of the top 10 is now about double the 2011 assets of the CPB.

The wealth of the Shinawatra family increased 4.25 times between 2011 and 2014, outstripping the growth of the top 10. However, others did well to. The Chirathivat family wealth increase by about 3 times and the Chaiyawan family at about the same rate as the Shinawatra family.

Update: Our writer yesterday has been admonished and, in the spirit of “good order,” was made to stand outside her condo displaying a dangerous 3-fingered salute for neglecting to link this post about the richest with those who were thought to have funded the anti-democrat movement. He is truly sorry.

Thai monarchy a factor in dispute

24 05 2014

There’s a bit of international media attention to the monarchy and our header is from the Wall Street Journal. PPT thinks that all of them have some useful points, although the recent debates about the political position of the monarchy have also tended to be murky due to lese majeste laws and such considerations.

Andrew MacGregor Marshall has his take that “Unreported battle over royal succession in the kingdom is a driving force behind the crisis.” It is hardly “unreported” if one follows ZenJournalist, and his line has been taken up by the international media in a veritable cottage industry, so his account is another useful statement of this particular line on the crisis and events. The Wall Street Journal is worth posting in full, and the Vox account of the coup, which has a section on the monarchy, is useful:

Thai Monarch Is a Factor in Dispute

Two Feuding Political Factions Both Have Publicly Courted King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Support

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving monarch and one of the richest, is a significant behind-the-scenes factor in the ongoing political drama.

The nation’s two feuding political factions—one representing the urban establishment and the other a populist movement with roots in the rural heartlands—both have publicly courted the royal family’s support and sought to use his name to their advantage.

The king, who is 86 and physically ailing, is a major political and social force. Although he wields no official power, he is widely revered and often has intervened at times of political crisis.

The monarchy also is a potent commercial force, owning assets worth billions of dollars and huge swathes of land in Bangkok, the capital.

Antigovernment demonstrators, whose protests have brought Bangkok to a standstill for seven months, regularly accused Thailand’s populist elected government of attempting to undermine King Bhumibol.

Some pro-government supporters, drawn largely from the ranks of Thailand’s rural poor, complain that political rivals have used the king’s name to further their own interests.

The king so far has not publicly entered the fray. The drama moved into its latest phase Thursday when the army, whose top generals also publicly revere the king, announced a coup d’état, citing the need to avert violence between the factions. On Friday, the military imposed new restrictions on the ousted leadership.

The royal family plays an outsize role in Thailand’s economy. The monarchy controls big stakes in two of Thailand’s largest companies and owns huge amounts of land in central Bangkok and across the country.

But unlike Britain’s royal family, whose assets are detailed in annual reports, much about Thailand’s royal wealth is not disclosed. A part of the royal family’s assets are managed by the Crown Property Bureau, a body based in Bangkok.

King Bhumibol appoints six members of the bureau’s governing board. The seventh is the sitting finance minister, who serves as chairperson. The director-general is Chirayu Isarangkun Na Ayuthaya, an economist from an aristocratic family, who has held the position since the 1980s.

The king and other royals also hold personal assets, the size of which also aren’t publicly released.

A study, published by a Thai economic historian in a 2008 academic paper, estimated the monarchy’s assets managed by the bureau in 2005 were worth 1.12 trillion baht, equivalent to $34.4 billion at today’s exchange rate.

The study said it looked at the monarchy’s extensive holdings of land in Bangkok as well as its stakes in two of Thailand’s largest companies, Siam Cement PCL and Siam Commercial Bank PCL. (At the end of World War II, the bureau held a third of land within Bangkok’s city limits, the study noted.)

The Crown Property Bureau didn’t respond to questions Friday about the study or about the assets it currently manages. An annual report for 2013, posted on the bureau’s website, focuses on social works carried out by the bureau and does not include detailed financial statements.

A person who was involved in the study said the bureau had confirmed the findings at the time the study was released.

But the bureau did note that it does not receive market-rate incomes from the land holdings, much of which is leased cheaply as shop houses or government offices, the person said.

Forbes Magazine used the study as the basis of its decision to name King Bhumibol as the world’s richest monarch in 2008, knocking the Sultan of Brunei from the top spot.

An official from the Thai Embassy in Washington wrote Forbes in 2012 taking issue with the king’s continued top ranking, according to a copy of the letter posted on the magazine’s website. The letter said the assets managed by the bureau should not be counted as the king’s personal wealth but, rather, are “held in trust for the nation.”

Still, King Bhumibol has wide controls over the assets. The bureau was created by a 1936 law, four years after a revolution that ended absolute monarchy. An amendment to the law in 1948 ordered that any income derived from crown property, after expenses, “may be paid at the King’s pleasure in any case.”

By comparison, Britain’s Crown Estate controls property worth $13.7 billion and publishes a detailed annual report. The estate, by law, pays profits to the government.

Coronation Day and lese majeste

5 05 2014

It is difficult finding a header for this story. The newspapers have headline stories about the king and Coronation Day, but we can’t find anything much of significance in them, unless one is skilled in reading silences and gaps. It was the international media that made the day interesting.

In the local media, some may draw significance from The Nation’s comment on the crown prince: “His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn presided over the celebration of the Royal Umbrella and the Crown Jewels on behalf of the King after His Majesty left the ceremony.”

Perhaps the Bangkok Post’s statement is a nugget for others: “The King arrived at the pavilion at 10.30am, but he did not deliver his traditional address … and did not get up on his wheelchair. The ceremony ended about 11am…. Her Majesty the Queen, 81, was not present during the ceremony.”

The rest of the local news is non-news: “His Majesty waved to the people while his car moved along the way to the Rajapracha Samakhom Pavilion in the Klai Kangwon Palace…” or that some well-wishers shouted “Long live the king.”

A couple of international reports did manage to make some more interesting news, not least Australia’s ABC/Radio Australia, which managed, after a poor introduction to the audio story, makes Coronation Day about lese majeste, interviewing Somyos Prueksakasemsuk and his wife Sukunya before interviewing the ultra-royalist fascist Rientong Nan-nah. The latter is reported as comparing free speech that he sees as offensive to the monarchy as “like terrorism, and the capitalists are behind it.” The Crown Property Bureau, as Thailand’s largest capitalist conglomerate, better watch out!

Also making Coronation Day about lese majeste, Britain’s Channel 4 News blog has a post that begins with Rose Amornpat, quoted as being:

a harsh critic of the Thai Monarchy. She wants the institution abolished and replaced with a democratically-elected head of state. “We need to the change the system in Thailand to become a full democracy. We need to cut the power of the Thai monarch down.”

 Discussing lese majeste in Thailand, the report states: “There’s nowhere else on earth quite like it – you’d have to go back 300 years to find anyone in Britain prosecuted for a similar offence.”

Rienthong gets a mention in this report too: “He wants the London hairdresser [Rose] extradited to Thailand – but if that’s not possible, he wants the British government to find a way to shut her up…. “(What she says) is beyond freedom, beyond democracy. You can have opinions but what she has done is beyond freedom of expression.”



28 03 2014

With all of the discussion recently regarding “neutral” prime ministers and “neutral” cabinets, we want to point to a recent article on networks in Thailand’s politics.

In the context of kicking out another elected government, “neutral” meaning a bunch of royalist flunkies hoisted into position by opaque power structures that operate beyond public scrutiny as networks.

In a new article by Boston University sociologist Joseph Harris, “Who Governs? Autonomous Political Networks as a Challenge to Power in Thailand.” The abstract for his article states:

Recent scholarship examining political contestation in Thailand has emphasised concepts such as “network monarchy,” while pointing to the populism and enduring political influence of Thaksin Shinawatra. While this descriptive work has helped shed light on the architecture of governance in Thailand, it has not been embedded in a broader theoretical approach that might help to train our attention on other powerful actors that play important roles in shaping Thailand’s political and institutional landscape. In this article, I outline one such approach and advance the term “autonomous political networks,” to refer to collections of people who share strong value commitments and political goals and who operate in the space between the country’s dominant political institutions – often straddling positions in the state and civil society simultaneously. This theoretical discussion is grounded empirically in a description of one such network whose power is derived from sources other than electoral legitimacy or long-standing historical tradition. The article discusses the enormous influence this network has exercised in reshaping Thailand’s political order, all while remaining largely invisible to the public eye. It suggests the need to use this approach to elaborate other hidden political networks that play important roles in governance in Thailand and beyond.

Of course, it was Duncan McCargo who used the notion of “network monarchy” that has gained considerable currency in academic writing on Thailand. PPT has pointed out previously that the notion of networks in Thailand’s politics and economics goes back to G. William Skinner’s work from the 1950s.

Harris tries to be more theoretical in the use of “network” and “networked governance” by examining the Dusit 99 network and Prawase Wasi and the Sampran Forum. Both have been political players. Dusit 99 included a bunch of future premiers, military brass and top business people, many with links to the monarchy and Crown Property Bureau. Prawase’s network may be seen as having links to the “network monarchy.”

Unfortunately, the article is behind a pay wall, but open to those who subscribe or are at an institution that subscribes.

It is all politics

26 03 2014

David Streckfuss has an op-ed in the Bangkok Post that raises some important points. He begins:

The political situation in Thailand is slowly but surely ratcheting up to something akin to a civil war. Civil wars are by nature bloody affairs that bring out the worst in everyone, let loose the extremists on all sides, and have no real heroes.

StreckfussHe suggests ways to avoid a bloodbath. The first is “to proceed as constitutionally as possible.” Maybe not, given that the current constitution is a military junta artefact and the courts interpret it in weird ways. The second “is to throw the entire framework of government back to the people,” but that seems inherently flawed to PPT. After all, the junta sent its draft constitution to a referendum and required just a yes/no answer on a huge document that was flawed in many places. He concludes that the “third possibility is to let things continue as they are,” which hardly seems likely to end confrontation.

PPT thinks there is a fourth possibility: the royalist elite needs to compromise and accept parliamentary elections and get of their fat butts and get serious about getting elected and ditch its coup-cum-massacre and born-to-rule mentality. Other sets of plutocrats and powerful oligarchs managed to do this in other places.

In all of this, we did like one point Streckfuss emphasized:

By acknowledging that Thailand is split politically, the country could free itself of the façade of neutral brokers. It recognises that “politics” is not what politicians do but rather the exercise and constraints of public power by any party. Under this definition, many groups are involved in the political project: civil society groups, social movements, elected officials, bureaucrats, and even the Crown Property Bureau and the monarchy. “Politics” is no longer a dirty word; it’s just the dynamic underlying any political society.

That would be a useful acknowledgement.



Bizarre and strange I

24 02 2014

PPT received the latest anti-democrat press release which, amongst other claims, has this claim from their spokesman:

“I fear that the Thaksin regime will betray red shirt supporters again by using them as an unsuspecting front for men-in-black renegades attacking citizens. To prevent further bloodshed and to set Thailand on the right track, the PM must resign. Her departure would be the swiftest way to uproot the Thaksin regime and the most efficient method to restart Thailand and pave the way for reform before the next elections.

The spokesperson indicated that the PDRC would continue to target the business interests of the Thaksin regime. At present a public initiative to switch mobile carriers from AIS (founded by Thaksin) had already proven to be very popular, as evidenced by on-line activity.

AdvanceThe first of these claims is quite bizarre given that all of the discussion of MIB of late has been of them supporting the anti-democrats. The second claim – that just the premier resign – seems a climb down from earlier demands. And to add to the bizarre, the idea that AIS should be punished because it was founded by Thaksin is about as strange as it gets. Perhaps the anti-democrats missed the sale of the company? Perhaps they believe the Singaporean connection is a front? Did they miss the Crown Property connection also?

Or did we miss something?



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