Footballing oligarchs II

24 05 2016

Less than a week ago, PPT posted on the penchant of oligarchs for football and snapping up teams that promote their interests and, if things work out, make them even more money.

As everyone in the world knows, Leicester City recently collected some silverware as outsiders made good. As we noted in that earlier post, the club has been owned by football-loving, polo-playing oligarch, monopolist and royalist Vichai Raksriaksorn (who has a royally-bestowed moniker, Srivaddhanaprabha). Vichai made oodles of money through his monopoly on duty free at Thailand’s airports, through his company King Power.King Power

Thailand’s airports have long been the property of the military. They are now part of a listed company, Airports of Thailand. Now the Ministry of Finance controls 70% of AOT’s stock but four of the 14-member Board of Directors continue to carry military ranks. As far as we can tell, only one of the directors of AOT is not a serving or retired official or worked for AOT. The senior executive of AOT continues to have quite a few military ranks listed.

In other words, gaining a monopoly on duty free requires high-level political support and close relations with the senior brass. Exactly how Vichai managed this in the beginning has never been made clear. He went from unknown to billionaire in a relatively short time. King Power began in 1989, with a license granted for Thailand’s first downtown duty free shop at Mahatun Plaza. How it was that King Power got the Chatichai Choonhavan government to award the license isn’t easily seen, but as Chatichai opened to the former enemies across the border, King Power got a license in Phnom Penh soon after. By 1993, King Power had Don Muang airport under its wing. All of this during a period of civilian versus military political tussling.

In a story linked to below, The Nation states:

In addition to the ruling junta, the wealthy businessman has managed to build good ties with both politicians and military figures in powerful posts. And thanks to these cosy relationships, his company has managed to win coveted deals from influential people at key times, including a concession to operate duty-free shops at major airports that has grown into a Bt68-billion-a-year business.

Now that he and his kids – the Sino-Thai tycoon model of family business – are on top of the world, what does this mean for Vichai and Thailand’s politics. Some measure of this comes from recent press reports on Leicester City in Thailand.

An AFP report states that the “Premier League champions Leicester City received a royal seal of approval … at Bangkok’s Grand Palace, with the Thai-owned team presenting its trophy to a portrait of the king before a bus parade through the capital.”

Leicester 2

To most people in the world, this sentence will seem very odd. How does one present a trophy to a portrait and how does a portrait provide “a royal seal of approval”? Why would they present a trophy to a king of another land be he real or a portrait?

In royalist Thailand, however, most things associated with the monarchy are very odd. It has become normalized for sports champions to “present” their medals or trophies to the king as a sign of loyalty. Not doing so becomes disloyalty. At the same time, the businessmen and businesswomen who manage and profit from big sports (and gambling on sport) in Thailand get the reflected royal aura. That’s good for business.

So when Leicester City “present” the silverware to the king’s portrait, “[l]ocal television showed billionaire club-owner Vichai …, alongside his son Aiyawatt and manager Claudio Ranieri, presenting the trophy to a portrait of the king as they and the team then took a deep bow.” In fact, they got on their knees, another “tradition” reintroduced in this reign.

Leicester 1

The team later went on an open-top bus parade through Bangkok. More on that below.

And, oh yes, Vichai’s King Power brand was everywhere. The parade “wound its way from a King Power-owned shopping and hotel complex through Bangkok’s downtown commercial district.” Continuing the royalist theme, “[d]uring their title celebrations at the King Power stadium, a portrait of Bhumibol was held aloft as players…”.

For the company King Power, the seal of approval is also coveted. According to Chulchit Bunyaketu, listed at the company website as a “Counselor,”The fact that the company was awarded the Royal Decree and is under the patronage of His Majesty the King clearly reflects on the integrity, capability, and honesty of our company and staff members.”

The Mail Online has more on the parade, noting Vichai’s commercialization and use of pliable monks: “Vichai is a regular devotee of Phra Prommangkalachan … and took the monk to Britain to bless the stadium and the team.” So the players trooped of to the royal Emerald Buddha temple.

It is The Sun that made most of the “thousands of Thais [who] were paid to pose as Leicester City fans for the club’s Premier League victory parade in Thailand…”.

Many of those dressed in club colors were there having “responded to a social media advert offering to pay people for a ‘Leicester parade job’. They were to get 500 baht…. They were asked to meet at the Bangkok HQ of the King Power company … [and] were also given free club T-shirts and urged to clap and chant during the celebration.” King Power employees were also mobilized.

All of this is obviously good for business, but thetre is also political speculation. The Nation explains some of this. It says that Leicester City’s “well-connected billionaire owner, Vichai … has … been linked to an alliance with political friends and the ruling generals that could result in a new political party…”.

It says that “his massive wealth and strong connections” mean that “Vichai is seen by some as having the potential to be the ‘last piece in the jigsaw’ needed for the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) [the junta] to retain power via a new political party.”

Prawit, Suthep and King Power

Prawit, Suthep and King Power

Vichai is said to have good relations with “many key figures’ in the military junta, naming “Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, one of the most influential figures in the ruling junta.”

The story goes on, saying Vichai is close to “Bhum Jai Thai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul and Newin Chidchob, the former Cabinet minister and political broker who owns Thailand’s leading football club Buriram United.”

Anutin is rumored to have close links with the palace, and it was his father Chavarat who worked with Newin and the generals in 2008 to make Abhisit Vejjajiva prime minister and Bhum Jai Thai the military’s party as it went to the 2011 election. The military and the party failed spectacularly as Yingluck Shinawatra and the Puea Thai Party won in a landslide.Newin and King Power

This time around it is stated that an “alliance between Vichai, Newin and Anutin, plus support from Prawit -in the background, would be a coalition between a financial group and a power clique set for the new political landscape…”.

Newin and Vichai have a mutual interest in football and politics and blue pervades Buriram as much as it does Leicester, not to mention a group of blue-shirted thugs organized by Newin and Suthep Thaugsuban in 2009 to oppose red shirts.

Vast stocks of cash, royalism, political savvy and skills in the “dark arts” of vote-buying and great influence are just what a military party will need (if an election is ever permitted).


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