Updated: Royal wealth and the squeeze on the taxpayer

13 09 2017

Academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun has recently published an op-ed at The Japan Times. “A very wealthy monarch grows wealthier” examines the July “reorganization of the Crown Property Bureau, to pave the way for his [King Vajiralongkorn’s] control of this financial wing of the monarchy.”

Pavin observes that:

The new legislation was approved by the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, which appointed Vajiralongkorn as the sole authority over royal wealth. This dismantled the traditional mechanism put in place by his father … who appointed a government official to manage the crown property. Instead, under the new bill, Vajiralongkorn will set up a board of directors to oversee his assets.

We don’t think this is entirely accurate. It is odd to call the previous arrangement “traditional.” Rather, laws that have been revised a couple of times since 1932 established that the Minister of Finance would chair the CPB (as Pavin later notes). It is that governmental link that has been removed and the CPB made the preserve of the king. Pavin is right to note that:

There are two key characteristics of the legislation. First, the king is entitled to appoint the board members, as well as to remove them, at his discretion. Second, the law prohibits the taking away of royal assets without the king’s approval.

As others have noted, this new arrangement means the “Crown Property Bureau is the corporate arm of the monarchy, performing as the major shareholder of the kingdom’s biggest cement company and one of the largest commercial banks.” It’s also correct that “the most valuable assets owned by the royal family are huge swaths of land, much of it in prime areas in central Bangkok.”

Pavin is also correct to argue that “the financial status of the monarchy [the CPB and private wealth combined] has dominated Thailand’s economic landscape. The super-rich status of the king played a vital part in buttressing the political power of the royal family.” Likewise, it is certainly true that part of the CPB’s business success “derived from special privileges granted to the monarchy in conducting business” without transparency or accountability.

Then there’s the capacity of this fabulously wealthy monarchy to leech off the taxpayer. Not only does the CPB pay no taxes (its listed companies do) but there’s a seemingly bottomless money pit that takes money from the taxpayer and redistributes it to the richest of Thailand’s rich.

The much touted “royal projects” are funded by the taxpayer – thank General Prem Tinsulanonda for that redistribution when he was unelected premier. And then there is the cash spent on the “operations of the Bureau of the Royal Household and the expenses of the monarch and his extended family members,” along with bags of money for “promoting” the monarchy.

Despite the wealth of the Crown Property Bureau, the monarchy is allocated generous funds from the government for private and public expenses. Around $170 million annually in state funding covers the salaries of staff working in the Royal Household Bureau and other palace offices, including protection provided for the royal family by the security forces.

Pavin reckons the “budget for the promotion of the dignity of the monarchy,” was almost $400 million in 2003, increasing to $438 million in 2015.

We looked at the 2016 and 2017 budget years in documents available from the Budget Bureau (Thailand’s Budget In Brief), and we think the figures are striking. In 2016, the amount for “upholding, protecting and preserving the monarchy”under the National Security Strategy, on its own, comes to about $555 million. As can be seen in the attached snip, there’s more in the budget for “unified reconciliation.”

The interesting thing is that when one goes through the budget lines provided it is decidedly unclear if the strategies listed as 2.1 and 2.2 overlap the roughly $340 million for royal projects, royal travel, royal bureaus, royal vanity projects and so on. Given that every ministry and department will spend oodles on royal promotion not covered under the programs above, we are thinking that, in 2016, the monarchy cost Thai taxpayers something like $700-800 million.

How does this look in 2017? The format provided is different, but we located this:It seems highly unlikely that the programs have changed this much. Rather, the changed format is suggestive of covering up the huge amount on “upholding, protecting and preserving the monarchy” in 2016. What we do observe is that the second program has gone up by about 60%. In looking at details of funding to royal projects, royal travel, royal bureaus, royal vanity projects and so on, there has been a 37.8% increase, thanks mainly to the creation of a budget line for the Chulabhorn Research Institute (about $115 million). The total budget in these lines in 2017 was $472 million. We might guess that the total taxpayer bill for all things royal is around $1 billion.

(Correct us if you think we are wrong in our calculations.)

Whatever way you look at it, this fabulously wealthy king and royal family, worth perhaps $50-60 billion, also leeches off the taxpayer to the tune of another $1 billion a year.

Update: Somsak Jeamteerasakul wants to challenge some of the points made by Pavin:

Pavin’s article contains some significant errors or misleading statements, and this post doesn’t correct them, even repeats them. For instance. it’s not “right to note” the “two characteristics” of the new legislation. Those two were already there in the previous law. In fact, the second ”characteristic” is quite misleading to put it that way, both in the case of the previous law (article 7 which was more suit to describe as Pavin does, but still isn’t entirely apt) and the new law (article 8 last para., which doesn’t really mean what Pavin says; it is not about [others] ‘taking away’ royal assets at all, just saying that the king-appointed committee couldn’t sell or make any transaction of the asset without his formal approval). Pavin was also wrong to say the late king “appointed a government official to manage the crown property”. The next sentence is also mistaken: “instead, the – no, it’s not something King X does ‘instead’; his father also did. Pavin was wrong again to say “Under King Bhumibol, the board of directors for the royal assets answered to the finance minister.” In both the letters of the old law (read carefully article 4, nothing about ‘answered to’ at all) and in practice (for 70 years, finance ministers of all successive governments did have any say in the management of the CPB). In consequence and in this context, Pavin’s next sentence is also incorrect: “NOW, it is independent of the government.” It isn’t “now” that the CPB is ‘independent of the government.’; it had always been since 1948.

As we said above, there were some problems with Pavin’s characterization of the new law, but Somsak is rather picky on this stuff, being immersed in the detail. We don’t believe that Pavin states that the “two characteristics” are new in the new law. Somsak prefers a very careful reading, and that’s fine. We pretty much agree with his other points.

However, we were more interested in taxpayer funding to the monarchy. As we said above, we are keen to know if our calculations are wonky.





Protecting villains

12 09 2017

In the context of The Dictator’s ramblings about “human rights” and law and “justice,” a commentary at the World Socialist Web Site on the impunity enjoyed by government officials in murdering civilians is worth reading, even if the details are well known (and a little scrambled in places).

It says that a Supreme Court ruling “ended the trials of ex-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban, who were responsible for the deadly military crackdown on mass protests in 2010 that left more than 90 people dead.”

In fact, the ending came much earlier, and this court decision merely confirmed the decisions of lower courts not to hear the case. It was the National Anti-Corruption Commission that ruled that murdering citizens “in the line of duty” was quite okay.

(In another case, the NACC pushed charges against Somchai Wongsawat and others, but these were dismissed by a court. The initial double standards should be acknowledged. So should the fact that this case did not involve the massive use of military force.)

The article notes that the NACC has a recent history of political partisanship:

Despite dozens of complaints filed by civilians and political parties since 2014, primarily centred on nepotism and corruption, the commission has dropped or arbitrarily prolonged all cases against military officials.

It is added that it is an “illusion that justice can be obtained through the NACC” by appealing the Supreme Court’s decision. It criticizes the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship for promoting this illusion.

The report also notes that the military junta “is determined to protect Abhisit and Suthep from prosecution because a conviction could open the way for legal action against the military.”





The Dictator and his law

12 09 2017

The Dictator and his military junta are particularly keen on the law. They have used it extensively in their self-initiated battles against Shinawatras, red shirts, the Peau Thai Party, students, local communities, republicans, and anyone else conceived of as an enemy or potential threat.

This is why The Nation reports that General Prayuth Chan-ocha has “stressed that justice is a crucial part of human rights protection, saying that everyone must go through the process equally and face the consequences if they are found guilty of wrongdoing, regardless of their social status.”

On the face of it, none of this would seem to apply to General Prayuth and his military dictatorship or their allies. After all, the junta seized state power in an illegal coup, it has abused human rights and it has lasciviously bathed itself and its allies in rule by decree, martial law, impunity and double standards.

A Bangkok Post picture

But, then, one must remember that all the junta members and supporters think the law is a tool for repression and order that falls to those who control the state.

But even then, when The Dictator states that his “government [he means the junta] pays attention to human rights protection and instructs investigations into allegations concerning the issue,” he’s lying. In fact, his regime has repeatedly affirmed that it has little understanding of human rights.

Clearly, however, when General Prayuth, who also commanded troops that gunned down dozens of civilians in 2010, spoke of law and justice, he was thinking of those now declared “fugitives” – Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra.

He did, however, get closer to truth when he acknowledged that human rights “allegations need to be delicately handled when it comes to the performance of state officials.” What he means is that impunity is the rule and that state officials only get into trouble when their actions don’t help their bosses or when they forget to pass on required loot.

On double standards, the general mischievously declared:

It’s not that the poor commit wrongdoings and they will definitely go to jail, while the rich will not. The fact is that the rich have often fled the scene, and that’s why we see that they don’t go to jail. It’s not a problem with the justice system…. The law is not there to bully anyone. If one commits wrongdoings, he or she must go through it and fight for justice….

Prayuth’s regime has shown that this is untrue. Yes, some of the rich do flee, but sometimes that suits the regime and sometimes it suits the rich. But it is the double standards that are most evident. Slow investigations, withheld evidence, cover-ups, and so on. And, significantly, the regime uses (and abuses) the law to bully and silence opponents. It also uses it to benefit itself and its allies.

Thailand’s justice system was wobbly before the coup. Since the coup it has become an injustice system.





Red Bull and the privilege of great wealth

12 09 2017

Both the Bangkok Post and Prachatai have stories on demands for Interior Minister General Anupong Paojinda to be “investigated” after he signed an order that allowed a private company to make use of a 31-rai community forest in Khon Kaen’s Ubonrat district.

General Anupong issued a land use permit to KTD Property Development, allowing it to construct a water storage facility for an adjacent beverage production plant it owns.

KTD Property Development is said to have connections to the giant Red Bull corporation. Red Bull’s Yoovidhya family are reported to be shareholders of KTD.

We wonder if one of those shareholders is Vorayuth Yoovidhya. He’s the Yoovidhya who is a “suspect” in a brutal hit-and-run case in which a police officer was killed, and who has been allowed to miss court appearances time and again as the various charges he faces time out.

His case is an example of the double standards where the rich get benefits from the support they provide to officials and to the royalist ruling class.

Protecting one Yoovidhya is just another aspect of the work of tycoons and the best “justice” and officials that money can buy. These are the tycoons who treat justice as a business tool to keep the profits flowing. The benefits they enjoy through their wealth and extensive corporate control are counted in baht and dollars.

That seems to be what’s happening in Khon Kaen.

KTD has been buying land in the area for five years and requested that it be allowed to use Huay Mek community forest land in 2015. It is reported that the “local community had repeatedly rejected the request.”

The local level officials reckon that KTD will pay. How much? It is stated that the local administration will “collect an annual fee of 1,000 baht per rai, or about 31,000 baht per year.”

What a deal! For KTD and its Red Bull investors.

That said, we assume the company has invested heavily in local, provincial and national officials.

The ever activist Srisuwan Janya has “filed a petition with the National Anti-Corruption Commission to initiate an investigation against Gen Anupong and other high-rank officials of the Interior Ministry.”

Srisuwan and many others reckon General Anupong and his underlings have abused power in favor of a private company.

That support for big business has been a part of the military dictatorship’s “reform” agenda.





Pathetic royalist “university” V

11 09 2017

Having panicked several times, the people administering Chulalongkorn University seem to be spooked again. The problem is that it is their own actions, and the reactions to them, that cause the panic and spooking.

Worried about the reaction to events over a lecturer putting a student in a headlock and the university’s royalist reaction – blaming students – the administration released a statement for the international media. The statement essentially told that media to butt out of an “internal” affair, accusing foreigners of failing to understand “Thai culture.”

According to a report in Khaosod, these same duffers administering the royalist kindergarten have decided to “revise” their statement, toning it down.

Saying the statement hadn’t been properly vetted, officials said stronger language about the “shameful” actions of Ruengwit Bunjongrat, a professor and administrator, was removed after it was originally published.

“We published it on the website without careful deliberation,” Supawan Pipitsombat, a university spokeswoman said by phone. “It was the fault of our team.”

Getting its story straight seems to be rather too challenging for the dullards “administering” the university.





The “hunt” continues II

10 09 2017

A report at The Nation mirrors an earlier post at PPT, and updates the military junta’s “hunt” for Yingluck Shinawatra. It begins:

All imaginable questions of what, when, where and why poured forth on the matter of ex-PM Yingluck Shinawatra’s fleeing the country and missing the verdict in her malfeasance case.

There’s also a repeated question of when she will appear and what she will say. It remains unclear if a deal was not done with the junta.

Then the report provides a round-up of the miltiary dictatorship’s latest drip-drip feed of “information” regarding the “great escape.”

For the record:

She was last seen in Bangkok on August 23, when CCTV footage showed her lunching with 14 people of her team at the Shinawatra-run SC Park Hotel Bangkok after making merit at Wat Rakhang Khositaram.

The latest claim by the Deputy Dictator General Prawit Wongsuwan are that:

… Yingluck was last seen in a sedan on CCTV at a military checkpoint in Sa Kaew, a border province to Cambodia, that same day.

However, the vehicle’s movements were not captured by additional CCTV cameras, and so there is no proof that it had crossed the border into Cambodia.

As far as we can tell, this is a reference to a vehicle, but not the person.

The report then makes another point PPT has made in several posts:

The Shinawatras remain oddly silent, only posting social media messages encouraging their missing relative. Thaksin himself hasn’t even asked for justice or explained why Yingluck did not go to hear the final verdict.

The ruling government, meanwhile, has stressed progress of the investigation in vague terms. We’ve almost figured out how and in what way she escaped, police officers said. All still remains ambiguous. The military simply said they haven’t got anything on their hands.

The report then speculates on when Yingluck might choose to speak out:

The more Yingluck stays silent, the more she will be attacked. September 27, when a verdict is scheduled to be read without her presence, could be the most appropriate moment for her to strike back.

Social media speculation has suggested that she will remain silent until she gets political asylum in an unnamed place. It also mentions the dead king’s funeral. There has long been speculation that the period after the funeral may see increased political activity.





Updated: Military propagandists to the world

9 09 2017

The Thailand National News Bureau has reported that Deputy Dictator General Prawit Wongsuwan has held a ceremony to send off – the report uses the military term, “deploy” – a batch of 27 “military diplomats” to the rest of the world.

These propagandists for the military dictatorship seem to be an additional “diplomatic” resource, supplementing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its ambassadors and military attaches. (We note that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is deeply yellow and has worked hard to “justify” Thailand’s descent into military authoritarianism.)

Gen Prawit, who is also Minister for Defense and responsible for Shinawatra hunting, declared that the “military diplomats” will “foster a clearer understanding among foreigners of the current situation in Thailand.”

The Deputy Dictator “told the diplomats to inform their host governments of the role of Thailand’s reform plan, roadmap to democracy, and the monarchy.” As we said, these are propagandists for the dictatorship. (At the same time, it is a reward for military posterior polishers and enhances loyalty in the senior ranks.)

Update: Alan Dawson at the Bangkok Post also picks up on the military propagandist plan:

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who knows more about staging successful coups d’etat and clutching power than almost anyone in the world, has just done an Orwellianism.

He has dispatched messengers around the world — 27 military attaches and deputy attaches — with instructions to change the story.

The May 22, 2014 putsch was not to reform government laws. It wasn’t to bring about reconciliation. That old story is invalid, air-brushed as surely as a North Korean propaganda photo. It was merely an act of benevolence by the green shirts to stop red shirts and yellow shirts from mayhem and murder.

As he points out, the real story of the 2014 coup. It was:

to take the country back to a simpler time, and events now taking place are the main part of it. The slogans and policies are in place. “Democracy isn’t for everyone” and “Freedom of speech is a good idea but …” and “Elections will eventually occur after it is clear peace can be assured”.

Dawson observes that this reactionary path means:

What is factual is a lack of true reform that would bring freedoms and rights, along with a mass of new laws so great that no one alive can list them, let alone provide details.

Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha positively bragged in July: “The government has already issued 401 new laws.” Not enough, though. “More than a thousand more need reform.”

Junta law and justice under the junta and into the future means rule by “law,” injustice and double standards.