Crown versus the public

13 08 2011

Thomas Fuller in the New York Times has looked at the issue of the German seized-now-released Boeing 737, which the Thai government claimed “belonged” to Prince Vajiralongkorn and asks exactly the right questions.

He notes that, in the final days of the Abhisit Vejjajiva government, a deal was struck whereby the Thai taxpayer paid a bond for the release of an aircraft the government claims “belongs” to the prince. As PPT stated in its second post on this saga, the question of ownership raised serious issues of the relationship between crown and public.

Fuller makes the same point when he states that the Thai government’s actions “left unanswered was the question of who, precisely, owns the plane.” As he summarizes,

The case underlined a long-unresolved, and rarely discussed, question about the privy purse and the public purse in Thailand — and, ultimately, whether certain assets are held by crown or by country. At issue are an estimated 1.1 trillion baht, or $37 billion, in real estate holdings alone, plus substantial stakes in two of Thailand’s most successful companies. But the agency that manages the assets, the Crown Property Bureau, is under no obligation to detail the holdings or how profits are spent….

Fuller associates this ownership with the CPB and it needs to be emphasized that it is not clear that the plane seized by the Germans had anything to do with the CPB. What Fuller does is draw attention to the broader issue of crown property. PPT won’t go through all the details in Fuller’s article, although if it is blocked in Thailand, readers can email us, and we’ll post it all. Here, we’ll just make a few of the important points.

Fuller notes that “the subject of the crown finances remains mostly taboo in a country that regularly enforces a strict law against criticizing the monarchy. The media in Thailand reported on the controversy over the crown prince’s plane, but the episode did not generate commentary in the mainstream media about the larger questions of ownership.”

As PPT has noted several times, the lack of transparency and control of the CPB by the monarch is associated with the current reign. The opaque management and operation of the CPB is becoming a serious issue, and it scares those who manage the CPB so much that they have taken baby steps to trying to appear more transparent. As Fuller says, “Much remains unknown about the bureau’s assets.” In fact, his statement is weak; almost nothing significant is known.

He notes that, in 2008, Forbes magazine “ranked the Thai king as the world’s richest royal, the Thai government strongly protested, saying the magazine had conflated the king’s personal wealth with assets managed by the bureau.” As others have pointed out, this is a nonsensical response. Only the crown controls the CPB and no recent government has ever sought to change this situation.

Fuller adds that income from the CPB “is separate from the approximately $350 million in taxpayer money allocated for the royal household, royal-led development projects and other expenses related to the royal family.

In fact, PPT thinks $350 million of taxpayer money is an under-estimate. For example, in the Abhisit Vejjajiva government’s last budget the first three lines of the Ministry of Finance’s allocation was for royal things and amounted to about $100 million. Line after line in the budget allocates funds to the royals. This is public information, but as far as PPT knows, going through the Budget Bureau’s allocations has not been a task yet completed.

As Fuller points out, the “king and his family also have personal assets” and it is this arena where the prince’s Boeing 737 seems to have landed, if the government is to be believed.

Fuller reckons that the monarchy’s wealth is seldom questioned “because King Bhumibol commands widespread respect after more than six decades on the throne and because of the law protecting the monarchy against insult.” PPT reckons that the first factor really only applies to government and the bureaucracy. No one is willing to question the deals done by individual royals or by the CPB.

Fuller’s parting remark is important, and a point we’d missed: “As for the specific question of the prince’s plane, a German court was supposed to rule on its ownership in September. But with the aircraft now back in Thai possession, the case is closed.” That’s another of those eye-opening moments! Of course!

 


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