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?


Anti-monarchy graffiti and royal wealth II

19 10 2013

This post continues PPT’s summary of the academic article “Working Towards the Monarchy and its Discontents: Anti-royal Graffiti in Downtown Bangkok,” that is authored by Serhat Ünaldi of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. It is available (for a fee, free to subscribers or through universities that subscribe) at the Journal of Contemporary Asia.

Our earlier post concentrated on the graffiti, whereas this post is on royal ownership of valuable property. We earlier noted that the article’s analysis of the ownership of the Rajaprasong area was interesting:

The space examined here is a major part of downtown Bangkok and borders the Khlong Saen Saeb canal in the north, Ratchadamri Road in the east, Rama I Road in the south and Phaya Thai Road in the west. Based on land ownership the area can be divided into two. The western part is privately owned by Princess Sirindhorn who, as the landlord, earns the income generated from property rents directly. The eastern section is owned by the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) which manages the assets of the monarchy as an institution but whose generated income is “paid at the King’s pleasure” (p. 8).

As few researchers have ever dared publish on the private assets of the royals, the following bits and pieces from the article deserve attention. The dates are about acquisition/building/registration of the property or company:

An AP Photo

An AP Photo

The land owned by the princess comprises her palace Wang Sra Pathum (completed in 1916) and the sites of the surrounding commercial buildings: the Siam Kempinski Hotel (2010), the Siam Paragon shopping mall (2006), the Siam Center shopping mall (1973), the Siam Car Park (1994), the Siam Tower offices (1998) and the Siam Discovery shopping mall (1997).

 The CPB-owned land encompasses: the Isetan department store (1992), the Centara Grand Hotel (2008), the CentralWorld shopping mall (1989/2006), Zen department store (1989), the Offices at CentralWorld (2005), Chumchon Lang Wat Pathumwanaram (a slum community), Suan Pathumwananurak (an unfinished park) and the Wat Pathum Wanaram school (2007).

The dates are about acquisition/building/registration. There’s more:

… in the Siam-Ratchaprasong area the commercial interests of the monarchy are served not only by income from its properties, for Princess Sirindhorn and King Bhumibol are also major shareholders of the retail company Siam Piwat which operates the Siam shopping malls on Princess Sirindhorn’s land. The king holds 180,000 shares in Siam Piwat and the princess holds 4.32 million shares, most of them acquired from the Ministry of Finance and BankThai (now CIMB Thai Bank) in 2003 and 2005, respectively. This makes the royal family the second biggest shareholder of Siam Piwat. The family thus earns twice: from leasing out land to Siam Piwat and from their shares in the company. The princess could earn an estimated 1.68 billion baht (US$52.5 million) in annual rents from the mall and hotel operators in the “Siam” area, calculated on the basis of recent estimates of land prices in downtown Bangkok of 600 million baht per rai (1,600 m2), a total plot size of approximately 70 rai and a policy – followed by the CPB next door (Grossman 2011, 297) – of raising annual rents of 4% of a property’s market value. Moreover, in 2010, Sirindhorn’s share of Siam Piwat’s net income amounted to 145 million baht (US$4.7 million) or almost a quarter of the company’s total net income attributable to shareholders for that year.5 Siam Piwat itself subleases part of the land to the Siam Kempinski Hotel. The Siam Kempinski is owned by Kempin Siam, a joint venture between the Bahrain-based Al Manar capital group (49%), the Thai property developer Natural Park (35%) and Royal Wealth (16%) which, again, is co-owned by Al Manar and CPB Equity, a holding company which looks after the share dealings of the CPB. Interestingly, by setting up the aptly named company Royal Wealth together with Al Manar, the CPB helped the foreign capital group to increase its shareholding in Kempin Siam beyond 49% to become a majority shareholder in a Thai company. Moreover, the CPB not only co-owns Siam Kempinski, it also owns 86% of the shares of Kempinski Hotels S.A., a world-wide operating luxury hotel chain which manages the Siam Kempinski. In the mid-1990s the Dusit Thani Hotel Group and Siam Commercial Bank (SCB, of which the CPB holds a dominating 23.69%) invested in the ailing Kempinski group. After the 1997 financial crisis the CPB bought the shares from Dusit Thani and the SCB to “face-lift” the bank’s portfolio.

On the political economy of royalism and consumption, the author observes:

Royals often frequent the “Siam” malls whose appeal, through physical proximity to a royal palace, can hardly be replicated elsewhere in the city. Therefore, business success in the Siam area partly depends on the continued power of the monarchy’s sacred charisma. But while the monarchy lends its barami to the shopping malls it also symbiotically profits from them – and not just in terms of income generated from rents and shareholdings. Subtle references to the royal ties of the malls link the monarchy with the material progress of the Bangkok populace, yet carefully avoiding revealing the royal family’s direct financial interest in these commercial operations. As a place of conspicuous consumption, of Louis Vuitton and Ferrari, and as a “royal” mall, Siam Paragon is a double source of social distinction.

All-in-all, this is one academic paper that deserves broad attention and careful reading.

Anti-monarchy graffiti and royal wealth I

18 10 2013

Regular readers will know that PPT sometimes has writers who have been off trawling academic papers. Yesterday, our post included a link to a paper on populism. It was while looking for this paper that PPT came across an article that we are sure will be of considerable interest. “Working Towards the Monarchy and its Discontents: Anti-royal Graffiti in Downtown Bangkok,” is authored by Serhat Ünaldi of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. It is available (for a fee, free to subscribers or through universities that subscribe) at the Journal of Contemporary Asia.

PPT has posted on another article by the same author, on a related topic, here.

The latest article is surely about anti-royal graffiti but it is also about much more. Below we include excerpts so that readers can get a feel for the article, where the abstract states:

This article examines the desacralisation of royal charisma in contemporary Thailand. Over the past few years an underground discourse has emerged among critics of royal ideology and supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that directly confronts the power of the monarchy. The images, metaphors and linguistic devices used in the process are difficult to study because they rarely appear in public. This article focuses on an unprecedented demonstration of rage against the monarchy on September 19, 2010, when red-shirted demonstrators painted anti-royal graffiti on a construction hoarding at Ratchaprasong intersection in downtown Bangkok. In analysing the Thai political crisis as a battle of different charismatic groups, the article will present the September 19 event as the first open strike against the sacred charisma of the Thai monarchy. This charisma has hitherto been protected by royalists from all walks of life who were “working towards the monarchy.” With their attacks on the monarchy the red-shirts were challenging a legitimacy-conferring system which had benefited wide sections of the Bangkok populace in the past. At the same time, a competing charismatic movement has emerged around Thaksin, who himself has to take into account the charisma he conferred upon his followers.

We felt the charisma and Max Weber stuff was overdone in the article but we understand that academics are looking for the theoretical angle. Yet we found the empirics far more interesting. The first couple of sentences set the scene:

The spread of anti-royal graffiti in downtown Bangkok on September 19, 2010 was a watershed moment in recent Thai history that has remained almost unnoticed in analyses of the country’s political crisis. On that day, thousands of protesters donning red shirts gathered at Ratchaprasong intersection in central Bangkok. The rally took place in commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the 2006 coup against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (p. 1).

PPT’s post from that day in 2010 may still be of some interest. What is certainly of interest is the focus in this new article on the anti-monarchy graffiti of that day and the analysis the author does of the ownership of the Rajaprasong area. On the latter, this is interesting:

The space examined here is a major part of downtown Bangkok…. Based on land ownership the area can be divided into two. The western part is privately owned by Princess Sirindhorn who, as the landlord, earns the income generated from property rents directly. The eastern section is owned by the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) which manages the assets of the monarchy as an institution but whose generated income is “paid at the King’s pleasure” (p. 8).

As few researchers have ever dared publish on the private assets of the royals, this account is interesting. We will save this detail for another post and here concentrate on the graffiti. Of this, Ünaldi states (p. 15):

For the purpose of this study a sample of 63 graffiti items were assembled, 51 of which appeared on September 19, 2010 on the construction fence at Ratchaprasong intersection, four at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument during a protest on October 10, 2010, and three, and five, respectively, during gatherings on November 19 and December 19, 2010.

Some of the messages from the graffiti are worth repeating, reflecting a “ta sawang/awakening” moment (p. 17):

The use of the word fa was not limited to this one graffiti but occurred frequently: fa ta diaw (one-eyed sky); fa bo kan (the sky is no barrier, …); mueng mai chai fa mang khue ma thi nasomphet (you are not the sky, [but] more likely a pathetic dog); hia sang kha fa mai mi ta phro fa ta bot (the “monitor lizard” ordered the killings – the sky has no eyes because the sky is blind). Like hia, ma (dog) is one of the strongest insults in the Thai language.

More attacks on the monarchy related to ownership, stewardship and sufficiency (p. 18):

“the country does not progress because there are no good people. Bad people were taken to rule the land because heaven has no eyes, because the eyes are blind. [They] see damn animals [ai sat] as good people. I ask for real, you damn blind man [ai bot],when will you die?” Some red shirts were aware that their protest site was owned by the monarchy and suspected this to be the reason for their violent expulsion from the area in May: thi khong khot pho-mae mueng rue thueng ma kho khuen phuen-thi (Does the area belong to your ancestors so that you demand it back?). By painting some graffiti on the asphalt of the street the red shirts marked Ratchaprasong as their territory: ku khoey non yu thi ni [I once slept here]. Other street artists took issue with the king’s sufficiency economy: kha daeng yang pho-phiang (killed enough/sufficient red [shirts]); pho-phiang tae ku yang mai pho kin (sufficiency but I didn’t have enough to eat). To this commentator, the idea of sufficiency seemed to sound cynical given his or her own struggle for survival. Next to the official sign for the sufficiency economy on the fence at Ratchaprasong one red shirt commented ironically: pho-phiang ko mai tong tham bai (sufficiency, so don’t produce a poster). These comments were probably the strongest signal of the breakdown of royal charisma: The king was no longer seen as benefiting the people and his “sufficiency economy” model was debunked.

Queen Sirikit was a target for graffiti (p. 19):

Red-shirts poked fun at her weight, her makeup and rumours about her involvement in the disappearance of the “Blue Diamond,” a gem which was stolen in 1989 from the Saudi Arabian royal family. Several items depicted the queen as a blue whale, hiding a gemstone in her mouth. Next to one such painting someone had written: Sa-u ha phet mai joe khrai ru bang (the Saudis are looking in vain for a diamond. Who knows anything?). Another graffiti mimicked the prohibition signs on the fence and depicted a crossed out whale, adding khet plot pla-wan (whale-free area). Someone else had written: Ai bot kap i pla-wan jombongkan tua jing (The damn blind man and the damn whale woman are the real dictators).

This is certainly a paper worth reading. In our next post we will look at what this paper says about property and royal wealth.


2 10 2013

We noted an article a couple of days ago at the Bangkok Post on the long-proposed evictions and re-development of the Pom Mahakan neighborhood, at the centre of the so-called Rattanakosin Island. This article was by Michael Herzfeld who is said to be “the Ernest E Monrad Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, where he also serves as coordinator for Thai Studies in the university’s Asia Centre.”

His article is a well-made plea to abandon the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) plan, in place for more than two decades, requiring the eviction of residents. Eviction notices are again being issued by the BMA. Herzfeld asks: After so long, why now?

Good question. But what of the context?

PPT found two snippets of interest. The first is from a downloadable PDF and refers to the role of the Crown Property Bureau:

Pom 2

The second also refers to the CPB and is from a book at Google Books:

Pom 1

We wonder if the CPB has divested itself of this land and disowned the plan, which it desperately wanted in order to raise rents following the Asian financial crisis?

We wonder why the professor only mentions the BMA? We also found this article on official Thai government support for Harvard University where Herzfeld is heading a drive for big money. This quote from the professor is code for the monarchy’s relationship with Harvard University: “Given the fact that there is a long symbolic association between Harvard and Thailand, it is quite shocking that Harvard and across the university doesn’t have Thai studies.”

Does fund raising lead to quietness on some issues or is the CPB now irrelevant to this eviction? As we all know, doing anything vaguely academic related to the monarchy requires either some courage (if critical) or being very quiet.

Rich richer

15 09 2013

There are several measures of wealth around. There are also measures of poverty, but these are less likely to generate media stories unless associated with political strife.

There have been several media accounts of a report by Wealth-X, which each year delineates the really, really rich around the world. PPT uses a Wall Street Journal story that appeared at Wealth-X’s website. It begins: “In Southeast Asia, the rich are getting richer.”moneybags

The WSJ says:

Every country in the region tracked by the [Wealth-X] report – Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam – saw their population of ultra-high net worth individuals (UHNW), defined as those with assets of US$30 million and up, grow over the past year.

These UHNWs have done pretty nicely in the past year, for Thailand:

boasted the biggest growth of this specific group of wealthy, with its ultra-high net worth population up 15.2% to 720 individuals this year, compared to 625 in 2012. The wealth pool of these millionaires in Thailand has also grown, and they now control US$110 billion in assets, up from US$95 billion a year ago.

That’s about $150 million each for the 720.

Of course, US$150 million is a drop in the bucket when compared with, say, the announced royal wealth for Thailand, which is far in excess of $30 billion. And that doesn’t even include the taxpayer slug of US$436 million for making sure the royals are safe, secure and posterior polished. With the rich getting richer, we would expect the Crown Property Bureau’s assets and personal royal wealth to have at least kept pace in recent years.

Thailand, which has actually seen tiny improvements in its Gini Index and increases is incomes for the poorest in recent years. Even so, the National Statistical Office’s 2011 household survey revealed that the national average monthly income was 22,236 baht (US$741). The national average per capita income for the poorest 10% of the population was just 1,896 baht (US$63) per month.


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