Tom Felix Joehnk is a Bangkok-based journalist.His op-ed for the New York Times is likely to cause some waves. Among other things he says, in the article titled “The Thai Monarchy and Its Money,” says: “the Crown Property Bureau is an antiquated institution of entrenched privilege that operates largely in secret beyond the purview of the government.”
The Crown Property Bureau, which manages the Thai royal family’s properties and investments, controls assets that may amount to as much as 1.9 trillion baht, about $53 billion. It is the biggest corporate group in the country and one of the biggest landholders in the capital. It is also one of the more mysterious arms of the Thai government.
…Little is known about how it spends its money. It does not make its financial statements public. Six of its seven managers are appointed by the king. Although the finance minister chairs its board, the government exercises no oversight over its operations.
The Crown Property Bureau’s annual returns today probably near $840 million…. It holds more than 21 percent in Siam Commercial Bank, Thailand’s oldest and most influential bank, and 30 percent in Siam Cement Group, the country’s biggest industrial conglomerate. Its equity wing has a controlling stake in the luxury hotel group Kempinski and minority stakes in the Thailand-based subsidiaries of Honda and other Japanese manufacturers, as well as in domestic firms that run shopping malls, hotels, insurance businesses and fast-food chains.
By law, the Crown Property Bureau’s annual income may be disposed of “at the king’s pleasure.” Its returns are tax-exempt.
The article calls for reform:
…The agency must be reformed, for the sake of both the country and the monarchy itself. With Thailand increasingly paralyzed by a political struggle between liberal and reactionary camps, modernizing the Crown Property Bureau would distinguish the palace as an agent for progress.
…the Crown Property Bureau should publish annual reports detailing its investments, land holdings and other assets, as well as its earnings from these assets, the use to which it puts those earnings and its operational costs. The agency should be placed under the control of officials appointed by an elected government.
The entire Thai state needs this latter reform.
The government, in conjunction with the palace, would decide the level of that financial support. It should also decide how to spend the Crown Property Bureau’s dividends.
The agency’s earnings should be partly reinvested and partly handed over to the Thai treasury. None should remain directly at the disposal of the royal family. Consistent with the law that applies to firms in Thailand, these earnings should be subject to tax.
The Crown Property Bureau’s ostensible goal today is to make investments that support Thailand’s development. This, too, must be abandoned; it is an objective best left to the government.
Lifting the secrecy that shrouds the operations of the Crown Property Bureau and placing it back under the control of the government would signal that the Thai monarchy is serious about transparency. Such a reform would send an important message of accountability to the military, politicians and businesspeople, and pave the way for an open economic system, the only kind that is truly compatible with democracy.
We look forward to the response from the military dictatorship and various royalists, both “liberal” and the madder of the monarchists.
The New York Times complained of the “regrettable” lack of press freedom in Thailand today after the Bangkok publisher of its international version refused to run an article deemed too sensitive for the second time this week.
Two days after the International New York Times was published with an empty space on the front page instead of an article on the kingdom’s present economic and social malaise by longtime correspondent Thomas Fuller, today’s opinion page in Thailand was missing a critical op-ed on the role and recommended reforms of the Crown Property Bureau.
“We’ve been notified by our printer in Thailand that they will be blocking another article, an Op-Ed, in today’s International New York Times,” newspaper spokeswoman Eileen Murphy wrote in a statement to Khaosod English. “This second incident in a week clearly demonstrates the regrettable lack of press freedom in the country. Readers in Thailand do not have full and open access to journalism, a fundamental right that should be afforded to all citizens.”