Updated: Mutual back-scratching

12 12 2016

It is not a secret that companies that do well in Thailand have tended to be big “donors.” Most conspicuously, they fork out millions each year to various royal things, including charities, projects and just handing over bags of money for unspecified royal use. In the giving season, there is an endless parade of donors handing over the loot. Most recently, it has been Princess Sirindhorn doing the receiving on behalf of the world’s richest monarchy. A red royal garuda outside the company head office is one marker of these Sino-Thai tycoons having gained royal approval and acknowledgement.

These companies give less conspicuously to state events and projects. Least conspicuous of all is the myriad of payments that are made to military officers, police top brass and senior bureaucrats. This can involve positions on boards. Think of General Prem Tinsulanonda’s long chairmanship of the Bangkok Bank and all that carried with it for the company and its owners. the marvelous and still unexplained wealth of former police chief Police General Somyos Pumpanmuang, who now heads the casino known as the Thailand Football Association.

Another strategy is the creation of advisory positions, paying nice monthly stipends but where little advising is required unless their is some trouble that needs to be ironed out. And then there are the payments to those officials who are required to do favors, bend rules, overlook things and so on.

This is oiling the wheels of their commerce and trade through a hierarchy of corruption. Yet a blind eye is turned because this is the great and the good scratching each others’ broad backs.

Sometimes, though, through arrogance, forgetting that this is shady dealing and knowing that everyone does it, a revelation is made. The mutual back-scratching is visible and confirmed as in a recent report at the Bangkok Post.

Perhaps believing that revealing unexplained wealth and extra income is okay because so many others have done it with impunity, city police chief Pol Lt Gen Sanit Mahathavorn declared that the giant alcohol and beverage producer Thai Beverage Plc pays him 600,000 baht a year as an “adviser.” ThaiBev is a company controlled by one of Thailand’s richest, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, worth almost $14 billion (naturally, he’s also close to the palace.) The Post story continues:

The payment is shown in Pol Lt Gen Sanit’s list of assets and liabilities that he recently declared to the National Anti-Corruption Committee (NACC) as a member of the National legislative Assembly (NLA). The record shows he began receiving the monthly stipend last year.

The news from the NACC was released in the middle of a long holiday weekend, when it is guaranteed to attract the least possible notice.

It seems the senior policeman thinks receiving loot from the country’s wealthiest – meaning they must be great and good – is normal despite the fact that one aspect of his job is to implement a range of laws that govern the operations of the beer kings, who also have huge land and property investments in Bangkok (and beyond). This senior cop can’t see any conflict of interest, but can see his bank balance doing very nicely. This senior policeman probably also thinks that 600,000 is something of a pittance when compared with all the other illicit funds that funnel up to him. This strategy of corruption in the police is well-documented, and that’s why senior police are so wealthy. When the NLA was put in place by the junta, the top cops averaged a whopping 258 million baht in assets. And, moonlighting by doing favors for the rich and powerful is widely believed to be “legal.”

The criticism has been muted. After all, this corrupt cop has just been appointed by the junta to the NLA, so criticis have to be careful or they could end up in jail, harassed or worse. Somchai Armin, the chairman of something called the Lawyers Association for Rights and Environment Protection, has demanded Sanit give up his job as adviser to ThaiBev. That’s it? Even the Post wonders: “Somchai provided no reason for failing to call for Pol Lt Gen Sanit to resign from the police.”

Of course, Sanit is laying low: he “was not available for comment as of the press time Sunday and it is not clear what advice he has offered to the firm.”

Update: Serial petitioner Srisuwan Janya, secretary-general of the Association for the Protection of the Constitution, has filed a petition on this case with the Office of the Ombudsman.  Srisuwan argues that the Police Lt General “might have violated the Royal Thai Police code of conduct and ethics of 2008, the Prime Minister’s Office regulation of 2008 regarding ethics of political office holders, and the National Anti-Corruption Act of 1989.” The Office of the Ombudsman now has to decide if it will do anything. The military junta has apparently done nothing.





Prince’s purge?

6 11 2015

As readers will know, the most recent palace-associated lese majeste purge has been murky and baffling for many, PPT included. Because there is so much censorship on the one hand and social media speculation on the other, it has been a guessing game.

Trying to make sense of this, a story at Asia Sentinel – Thailand’s Crown Prince Starts Another Purge – is likely to be big news for several claims it makes. Because of the powerful interests involved, the deaths of several caught up in the events and the lese majeste law, the article is written anonymously, simply tagged “Our Correspondent.” Asia Sentinel

Because Asia Sentinel is often blocked in Thailand, the story will circulate clandestinely and the military junta will try to prevent it getting out.

Some of the claims and points made deserve consideration. First, a bit like Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s widely read A Kingdom in Crisis, succession is cast in terms of ancient battles, with this opener:

As Thailand’s royal interregnum approaches, the country’s ruling class has been seized by what amounts almost to a reign of terror, with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn apparently clearing out his enemies in a fashion that goes back to the installation of a long line of Rama kings.

This is scenario one. The article is undoubtedly correct in assessing that The Dictator, “Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha … appears to have accepted Vajiralongkorn as the next king and is seeking to manage the situation the best way he can.” Yet another scenario, not mentioned in the article, is that the military junta and perhaps even some Privy Council members are conducting the purge, cutting the prince off from his networks of support and loot, thus making him dependent on the junta, military and Privy Council (scenario two).

The article does lend some credence to second scenario when it observes that “Vajiralongkorn is so thoroughly detested in royal circles that efforts have been vainly made to sideline him for his associations with Chinese gangsters, his womanizing and his refusal to adhere to royal rules.” However as an unnamed source declares in the Asia Sentinel story, “There is no longer any doubt that the prince will become the king.” If that is so, then controlling his funds and advisers might make sense.

The widespread fear that surrounds the most recent purge is also noted. With the king not having been seen for some time, and rumors that he may have already passed, no one dares speculate for fear of jail or worse.

Describing the “four-times-married” 63 year-old prince as a “wastrel,” he “spends most of his time in Germany although he has made recent periodic trips back to Thailand to seek to rehabilitate his image, most principally through a series of bicycle rides in honor of his ailing parents.”

It is these bike rides that seem to be at the center of the current purge, with “a source in Bangkok” revealing that “the prince has become enraged over allegations that people in his entourage have apparently been profiting from the sale of ‘Bike for Mom’ and ‘Bike for Dad’ souvenir and promotional items.”

While other reports have mentioned CP tycoon Dhanin Chearavanont, this article claims that the purge follows complaints about “Suriyan Sucharitpolwong, better known as Mor Yong, the prince’s soothsayer, allegedly because he went to spirits [and Chang beer] tycoon Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, Thailand’s second-richest man, to ask for funds for the Bike for Dad event.” Such “asks” have been common and accepted in the past, so it isn’t clear what has gone on in this case, but “Charoen is said to have complained to Princess Sirindhorn, who told her brother in Germany.  That has blown up into a major incident with the arrest of the fortune teller and others.  Dozens of army and police officials are believed to be under fire.”

There’s a couple of things here. First, the link between the prince and his sister has sometimes been seen as distant and competitive, and this claim would not support that. Second, the scenario one claim made in the article seems difficult to fit with the terror and vengeance of the arrests and investigations. Sure, the “Prince is said to be trying to whitewash his image ahead of  the succession,” but skimming is the norm for those close to the palace. Why get flustered about it now? The story says: “He [the prince] is also said to be outraged that most of the people who have helped run his networks over recent decades have been skimming money from them too.” A source is quoted: “I have no idea why the prince would be so angry about this, because it’s standard for everybody to take their cut. But anyway, the prince is sending a message to everybody — don’t fuck with me ahead of the succession.”

Unless it is scenario two.

The story also directly refers to another social media event that has terrified local media:

In the latest purge, two top police officials have died mysteriously and a third has disappeared. Major General Phisitsak Seniwong Na Ayutthaya, the prince’s main bodyguard, died in mid-October.  Local media have been so terrified by the situation that they have hesitated to name Phisitsak in print. His family was told he had committed suicide by hanging himself with his shirt.

As is well-known, Police Major Prakrom Warunprapha, caught up in this latest purge also died while in military custody, with the military junta claiming he committed suicide by hanging himself. In the purge late last year, another police officer died when he fell, committed suicide or was pushed from a hospital window. Another senior police officer associated with the organizing of the biking events has “disappeared” and an army officer has gone into hiding across the border.

These deaths have been the subject of considerable conjecture, with some saying that the two most recent “suicides” are suspicious, not least because:

Sources in Bangkok say both were beaten and tortured. Instead of releasing the bodies to their families, as is the case for most Buddhist deaths to give time for making merit and preparing the bodies for the afterlife, the two were rushed to crematoriums and immediately burned.  The gossip in Bangkok is that officials wanted to hide the evidence of torture.

In a final nod to the rumors and speculation, the article states:

“What is interesting [and worrying] is that it’s not just the major players who are being caught up in the purge, even peripheral figures, such as former police spokesman Prawuth [Thawornsiri], are being targeted,”  a source said. “The prince is being egged on by his latest wife, who is encouraging this behavior. Presumably, this was a way of saving face and pretending he was not involved in the corruption. In fact, he was fully involved in it, just as he was with Srirasmi’s family’s shenanigans.”

Scenario one or two? Whatever is going on, it is murky, dirty, dangerous and, ultimately, threatening to the regime.





Who cut the forests?

23 07 2015

Self-appointed Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has an opinion on pretty much everything. As The Dictator his opinion is widely heard even if his opinions are those of a cloistered military bureaucrat with little knowledge of real life.

Recently he has had opinions on the environment, commenting favorably on the proposed coal-fired power station down south and denigrating those who oppose it. Military dinosaurs have a penchant for the past, and coal-fired power stations seem set to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Continuing on the environment theme, the military junta ordered an end to deforestation. Recently, The Dictator has remarked that elected governments had destroyed 8.6 million rai of forest in the north and northeast.

Former Democrat Party MP Watchara Petthong seemed a little miffed by this allegation. Watchara stated:

It sounds like the PM is blaming democratic governments – but the true reason forests disappeared was that government officials did not do their duty. Some, like those from the Royal Forestry Department, the Department of National Parks Wildlife and Plant Conservation or the Department of Provincial Administration, sought vested interests….

He added:

Another reason the country’s water resources had turned into bald mountains was that a giant conglomerate lures poor farmers to grow corn to be used as animal feed. This has caused natural disasters like floods, landslide and drought….

We guess he means CP. We’d also note the data on land ownership from an earlier post, reproduced here, which suggests another phenomenon at work; the acquisition of large plots of land across the country.Land 2The CP lot come in second, but are a long way behind the biggest landowner. That Sino-Thai tycoons own huge swathes of land seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon associated with the 1980s boom that began under the premiership of General Prem Tinsulanonda. That followed a huge expansion of agricultural land in the 1960s and 1970s that cleared considerable forest.

The same PPT post had the ownership list for politicians from a couple of years ago. If those top 10 politicians were added together they would have been listed at no. 5 in the list reproduced above. Most of those politicians were serious business people before entering parliament.

Watchara goes further, accusing The Dictator of negligence: “Even in areas under the jurisdiction of the military during the period the PM was then Army Chief, the mountains turned into ‘bald’ mountains. Did the PM ever look into the problems?” He states that “forest encroachment also took place during the Prayut government,” and suggests that the current military dictatorship and the fear it engenders prevents “decent state officials” doing their jobs.

“Politicians and senior officials encroach upon reserve forests, water sources, mangrove forests and the Sor Por Kor land. How can the Land Department issue land title deeds for them? The PM must order a check of all plots and exercise Article 44 to confiscate the land,” he said.

Watchara response is to demand even more use of dictatorial powers (sigh…) and “urged Constitution Drafting Committee chairman Borwornsak Uwanno to incorporate in the charter draft a rule that MPs, Senators, ministers must not be involved in forest encroachment, either directly or indirectly through nominees.”

Given his comments on the military, perhaps he thinks that most future MPs, Senators and ministers will be from the military.

PPT well recalls the encroachment on forests that was encouraged in the war against the CPT (opens a PDF). Many of those areas are those where the “forest encroachers” turn out to be people the military and other security organizations encouraged to settle in and clear forest hill areas in the north and northeast a couple of generations ago.

Even in the late 1980s there were endless streams of military-registered logging trucks coming out of military-controlled hill areas that were deforested. Over several decades, many of the military brass made huge fortunes through their involvement with forest and land encroachment in those areas and along Thailand’s borders.

They worked in tandem with local businesspeople-cum-politicians and with Sino-Thai tycoons.





Rich still doing very well

6 06 2015

Forbes has published its latest Thailand Rich List. There are no real surprises for the mega-rich in Thailand continue to do well through political instability and military coup. The ranking of Thailand’s 50 richest is available from Forbes.

CP’s agribusiness tycoon, the aging Dhanin Chearavanont, is the country’s richest man with a net worth of US$14.4 billion. Next is beverages and land tycoon, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi,with a net worth of $13 billion. moneybags

The list does not include the monarchy, which is covered in another Forbes listing. The monarchy’s combined wealth, which is mostly managed by the Crown Property Bureau, is variously estimated at $40-50 billion. This is equivalent to the total combined wealth of the top 3-4 tycoons in this Forbes list.

Most of those on the list have close connections to the palace, although they are big enough to split their bets when there is political agitation. As we noted last year, since 2011, the assets of the mega-rich have increased very substantially, and this has continued in this listing.

Thaksin Shinawatra and his family ranked 10th, as they were in the last listing, with the same combined assets:

Dhanin Chearavanont; US$14.4 billion
Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi; $13 billion
Chirathivat family; $12.3 billion
Chalerm Yoovidhya; $9.6 billion
Krit Ratanarak; $4.7 billion
Vanich Chaiyawan; $3.95 billion
Santi Bhirombhakdi; $2.9 billion
Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth; $2.8 billion
Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha; $2.5 billion
Thaksin Shinawatra; $1.7 billion

Forbes states: “This list was compiled using shareholding and financial information obtained from the families and individuals, stock exchanges and analysts, the Stock Exchange of Thailand and regulatory agencies.” It is not clear whether it includes land holdings.





Updated: Land, wealth and influence

28 03 2015

One of the recent “debates” in the puppet National Legislative Assembly had to do with land tax. This issue has been around for decades, and neither elected governments nor authoritarian and military regimes have wanted to touch it. The puppets seemed to drop it pretty quickly, not least because self-appointed prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha intervened.

The reason land tax is a hot potato is that Thailand’s elite invests heavily in land, often speculatively, with the idea that it avoids scrutiny and tax, and land thus provides essentially tax-free wealth parking.

In a report at the Bangkok Post and widely reported in other media, the NGO Local Action Links (LocalAct) claims that 530 (then-)elected politicians owned land worth a total of 18.1 billion baht and buildings worth another 6.4 billion baht. The NGO said these holdings indicated “why they are opposed to a proposed land and buildings tax…”.

The error here is that none of these politicians is in the puppet Assembly. All of these politicians were ditched by the 2014 coup. The bigger point is correct: politicians, like others in the broad elite, like to buy properties for the reasons mentioned above.

The average for each of these politicians is about 47 million baht or $1.44 million, the price of a luxury condominium or a modern and well-appointed house and land in Bangkok. Averages don’t mean a great deal in terms of distribution of wealth, for as one of the tables reproduced in the Post shows, land wealth varies greatly. (We always worry about out computational skills when dealing with billions, so hopefully we have got it right.)Land 1 What is interesting in the report is the focus on elected politicians, many of whom have businesses when they enter politics, and that data are what is revealed in their self-declarations of ownership.

Why politicians? Why not the wealth of the military leaders and their puppet politicians?

Sure, the figures aren’t directly comparable, but the land and buildings declared by elected politicians is, on average, less than the average declared total assets of the military and police members of the puppet National Legislative Assembly. In an earlier post we provided these details: If a general in the armed forces, your assets average about 78 million baht, If you managed to become an admiral in the navy, you sail away with average assets of about 109 million baht. The top money secretes to the top police. The average for the police is a whopping 258 million baht.

And then what isn’t emphasized is that these politicians are tiddlers when compared with the whales of land ownership. The study showed that 14 then-MPs held land covering more than 1,000 rai while 25 had more than 500 rai and 126 held more than 100 rai. When the second table is examined, the really big landowners are Thailand’s wealthiest.

Land 2The report in the Post states: “Politicians, however, are not the largest group of landlords, according to Lands Department data.” PPT has posted on this previously.

Some of that data is presented above showing the control by Sino-Thai tycoons, with the top 10 landholders owning almost 1 million rai. That the Sirivadhanabhakdi family owns land the equivalent size to about 1,000 square kilometres, which is about the area of Hong Kong and larger than Singapore (by about 25%) might be a surprise, when it has long been thought the Crown Property Bureau was the largest landowner in the country. It would be interesting to compare values, for the CPB’s land – much of it in high-priced areas of central Bangkok – was valued at about $30 billion about a decade ago.

The Chearavanont family, with about 200,000 rai, is the family that controls the CP group, the agro-industry giant, while United Palm Oil Industry, with some 44,400 rai, is a company that has its main owners in Singapore, and tightly inter-connected and family-owned structures that include, for example, Lam Soon (Thailand).

The Forbes list of Thailand’s richest, excluding the royal family are: (1) Sirivadhanabhakdi family, $12.9 billion, (2) Chirathivat family, $12.1b, and (3) Dhanin Chearavanont, $11.5b.

The royal connections of the Sirivadhanabhakdi and Chearavanont empires are well-known. Such connections are unavoidable, but not so the links to The Dictator, the broad anti-democrat alliance and the Democrat Party.

Update: Interestingly, in a revised report, the Bangkok Post – which maintains the original story too – refers to ex-politicians, removes the table showing the Crown Property Bureau and does not mention the CPB when writing of big land owners.





Prayuth refuses to talk

4 11 2014

The Dictator, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, usually loves speaking, so long as he has a captive audience who are unable to question him. Today he was far less willing to engage in discourse as he was asked a difficult question.

Khaosod reports that Prayuth was asked about his land sales last year, worth 600 million baht to a private company connected with royalist tycoon Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi. PPT posted on this earlier.

When a reporter asked Prayuth bravely asked about the land sale, The Dictator “shot back that the media has no business questioning him on the matter.”

He declared:

“The land has belonged to me since I was a kid, it belonged to my father. So what’s the problem?…. Please stop criticising me already.”

Earlier, when asked about his wealth, Prayuth stated: “I don’t know. I don’t remember,” Gen. Prayuth said on 1 November. “I am not a businessman. Please don’t ask me about this.”

Today he declared that the purchaser wanted the land for “investment” purposes and asked: “The company wouldn’t have bought the land out of foolishness, don’t you think? If they can’t invest in the land, why would they buy it?”

Um…. How about as a payment for the loyalty and action of the then military commander in working to bring down the elected government?

 





Prayuth’s land deals

3 11 2014

Isra News has a story worth reading, but in Thai (บริษัทรับซื้อที่ดินพ่อ“ประยุทธ์”600 ล.“หุ้นใหญ่”ตั้งบนเกาะบริติชเวอร์จิน), with documents and other details that essentially says this:

In tracing the transaction of land sale by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, as disclosed in the NACC’s assets declaration list, Prayuth indicated that his father sold nine plots of land in Bang Bon district on 9 May 2013 to the 69 Property Co. Ltd. for 600 million baht. Isra’s investigative report revealed that the “major shareholders” of the company also have registered another company with the address in the British Virgin Islands and linked this company to ThaiBev tycoon Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi. 69 Property Co. Ltd. was apparently established only 7 days before purchasing the pieces of land from Prayuth’s father.

Should anyone be surprised?