Ji on the monarchy

27 08 2014

As we often do, PPT reproduces Ji Ungpakorn’s latest statement on Thailand’s politics. While we like the tone we are not convinced that that palace isn’t significant. If nothing else, the remarkable personal wealth of the monarchy and the well-known position of the Crown Property Bureau at the center of the capitalist class deserves serious attention:

Gen Prayut’s “Virtual Monarchy”

The power of the Thai monarch has always been a myth created by the military and the conservative elites in order to discipline the population into submission. Through violence and repression they have persuaded millions into believing the exact opposite of the truth. According to the elite myth, the King runs the country behind the scenes and gives secret orders to the military, top officials and politicians. Yet at the same time he is said to be “above politics”. The truth is that the military and the elites have used the weak-willed monarch to rubber stamp all that they do, including the staging of military coups and the destruction of democracy. Part of the process has been the creation of the King into an “untouchable” deity, hence all the grovelling on the floor and the use of special royal language. An unintentional side-effect of this is that idiotic royalists weep with respect and awe when they see the King tying his own shoe-laces.

It is a bit like a group of master craftsmen making a Buddha image from plaster and then covering it with gold. Soon the statue takes on strong magical powers of its own and people conveniently forget that it is merely a human made lump of inanimate plaster; just a symbol of a religion, not something with power.

Marxists refer to this process of building false beliefs by those in power as part of the process of “alienation”. It serves the interests of the elites. So we unconsciously believe that money is real wealth, not just a symbol of exchanging the products of human labour.

However, since this latest coup, junta leader Generalissimo Prayut has taken the crafting and moulding of the Thai monarchy to previously unimagined heights.

Initially, unlike in previous coups, Prayut made no pretence at “consulting with and receiving orders” from the King.  Then he managed to be photographed in front of the King while the latter touched a piece of paper representing the military constitution. It is questionable whether the King could read and understand anything about the constitution or even lift the document and place it on the ceremonial golden bowl by this stage. His health is very poor. So that was all just play-acting.

Now, the latest invention by Prayut is the “Virtual Monarchy”. No living and breathing mortal has to be present. You just use the picture of the King instead. A few days ago the junta staged a swearing in ceremony in front of this picture and that was deemed to prove that royal endorsement had occurred. No need for the monarchy to say anything or even write anything with his own hand.

The concept of the “Virtual Monarchy” opens up a number of possibilities. Firstly, even when the King dies you can go on using the picture as though nothing had happened. Secondly, and I like this option, you could just do away with all the royal family and its budget for servants, palaces and shopping trips and spend a few thousand baht on a single “holy picture” to be placed at Government House. A cheaper alternative would be just to have a digital photo on the internet which could be projected on to a wall at various ceremonies.





On being in the network

9 07 2014

Some years ago, academic Duncan McCargo came up with the descriptive notion of a “network monarchy.” By this he meant a “form of governance operating in Thailand” that considered the “political order is characterized by network-based politics. From 1973 to 2001, Thailand’s leading political network was that of the reigning monarch, King Bhumibol.” He adds that this approach means the:

monarch will be presented as the central component of a rather novel mode of governance, best understood in terms of political networks. Thailand’s ‘network monarchy’ is centred on Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanond. Network monarchy is a form of semi-monarchical rule: the Thai King and his allies have forged a modern form of monarchy as a para-political institution.

 McCargo says the:

main features of Thailand’s network monarchy from 1980 to 2001 were as follows: the monarch was the ultimate arbiter of political decisions in times of crisis; the  monarchy was the primary source of national legitimacy; the King acted as a didactic commentator on national issues, helping to set the national agenda, especially through his annual birthday speeches; the monarch intervened actively in political developments, largely by working through proxies such as privy councillors and trusted military figures; and the lead proxy, former army commander and prime minister Prem Tinsulanond, helped determine the nature of coalition governments, and monitored the process of military and other promotions. At heart, network governance of this kind relied on placing the right people (mainly, the right men) in the right jobs.

Academic Serhat Ünaldi took a slightly different tack, talking of “working towards the monarchy” which he says,

refers to actions by individuals or groups who aim at expanding and/or protecting the sacred charisma of the monarchy. In turn, the monarchy’s sacred charisma serves as the most potent source of symbolic capital in Thailand. It legitimises the accumulation of other forms of capital, most notably economic capital, for the benefit of the person or group performing the actions.

So how does the network who deal on the monarchy work? Almost no one, apart from insiders knows, but a small window has just been opened. Bloomberg has a great story by former Sondhi Limthongkul employee William Mellor that sheds some light on the network and the benefits it provides. I t concerns William Heinecke, a billionaire American-turned-Thai businessman who is said to have spent a “lifetime betting on turbulent Thailand” and doing very nicely.William Heinecke

But has it been a bet? Or were there significant supports in place that allowed him to “work towards the monarchy” or even allowed him entry to the fabled network? The very first line in the article sets a reader thinking that this man has the protection he needs, for in his penthouse with “spa, a wine cellar, a marble staircase” he also has “memorabilia that includes a costume worn by Yul Brynner in the Broadway musical The King and I.” The King and I is banned in Thailand. Think of the woman being threatened with lese majeste because she used “long live” the wrong way! Bill’s either got big balls or plenty of support and protection.

It is the latter, for he has repeatedly spoken out in support of royalist Thailand and did so again following the coup. He says the coup and military dictatorship is “like a rebooting of the system,” which is the anti-democrat line from 2006 and 2014. He adds: “The government had come to a standstill. There would have been continued political conflict if the military hadn’t stepped in. Democracy will eventually be returned to the people, as has always happened in the past.” But what kind of “democracy.” As a wealthy businessman, working towards the network, he wants a democracy that preserves his political and economic power and that of the network.

Yes, he’s protecting his business interests which are all services and rely heavily on tourism and consumption, but he’s speaking for and to the network.

Heinecke “surrendered his U.S. passport for Thai citizenship in 1991″ and created “a multinational hotel, restaurant and retail empire that has survived five previous military takeovers, the 1997-to-1998 Asian financial crisis, a deadly 2004 tsunami that swept away one of his resorts and bruising corporate skirmishes with foes as powerful as Goldman Sachs Group Inc.”

How did he get started? Here’s the key:

Perhaps no foreign-born investor has made a bigger personal bet on Thailand than Heinecke. As a U.S. diplomat’s son studying at the International School Bangkok in 1967, he resisted parental pressure to return home to enroll at Washington’s Georgetown University.

Instead, at age 17, he borrowed $1,200 and set up an office-cleaning company. By the time he became a Thai citizen, Heinecke had forged business ties with the royal family’s asset managers by leasing crown land on which he built hotels.

“Bill struck me as a go-getter but also as an honest person,” says Usni Pramoj, who heads the office that manages the king’s private property and who signed the first such deal in 1976.

“It was the start of a long and trusting relationship,” Heinecke wrote….

The Crown Property Bureau claims to have supported a 27-year-old American get started. They must have seen remarkable potential. He’s paid them back in bucket loads, and not just with political capital. The story points out:

Since bottoming during the Asian financial crisis in January 1998, Minor stock has soared 50-fold — more than 10 times the return of the SET Index, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. This year as of July 8, it has risen 49 percent compared with a 16 percent gain in the benchmark gauge.

A prime beneficiary of Minor’s surge is Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who owns 2 percent of the company in his own name. Another 4 percent is held by other royal family members and the Crown Property Bureau, the monarchy’s money manager — putting the value of the royal holdings at $227 million.

Remarkably, the story states that a man who “speaks barely 100 words of their language,” managed to pass the Thai-language test to get residence and citizenship. Or maybe he just had a powerful reference. He’s certainly trusted by the CPB:

Just how trusting became clear in 1999, when another of the monarchy’s money managers, the Crown Property Bureau, helped Heinecke thwart Goldman Sachs’s $46 million hostile takeover of Rajadamri Hotel Pcl, owner of the Bangkok property then known as the Regent and since renamed the Four Seasons.

The hotel stands on land owned by the royal family, and Heinecke, who controlled 25 percent of Rajadamri’s shares, rallied the property bureau and other stockholders to his side. Goldman finally ended up with only a 41 percent stake and, in 2003, sold out to Heinecke for $19 million.

“Goldman’s offer was higher than Bill’s, but Bill’s PR machine was better,” Thadani says. “He persuaded other shareholders the hotel was a sacred Thai asset that mustn’t fall into foreign hands.” Edward Naylor, Goldman’s Hong Kong–based spokesman, declined to comment.

Being inside the magic circle in Thailand, be it network or something else, can be very lucrative and rewarding, for both sides.

 

 





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

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.”

 





Networks

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.








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