Health honchos

22 08 2021

We at PPT have just seen Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s new Secret Siam column on public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul, his wealth and his politics. This is a subscriber-only post, but is well worth a read.

It begins with an extended look at Anutin’s “lavish rural hideaway … Rancho Charnvee,” which is a resort that has rooms that can be booked by the public. With its lavish accommodation, private airport, and 18-hole golf course, it is a landmark to his family’s huge wealth.

Clipped from the Rancho Charnvee website

That wealth “… comes from the family conglomerate Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction, founded in 1952 by his father Chavarat.” The latter:

… was deputy minister of finance from 1996 to 1997 in the disastrous government of prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh that presided over the collapse of the Thai economy, which in turn caused a financial meltdown across Southeast Asia. So the current coronavirus catastrophe is not the first time that a member of the Charnvirakul clan has been in a key government position at a time of crisis and failed woefully to deal with it.

In 2008, Chavarat was back, as Minister of Public Health and then as Deputy Prime Minister under Somchai Wongsawat’s pro-Thaksin Shinawatra People’s Power Party government when it was dissolved by the Constitutional Court on 2 December 2008, in a judicial coup.

The Constitutional Court ordered the dissolution of the People’s Power Party and other coalition parties, at the same time banning their chief executives. The incumbent Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, was then removed along with several other members of the Cabinet. Chavarat was spared because he was not a party executive or an elected MP. He became caretaker prime minister and sank what remained of the elected government, working with the military to hand over power to Abhisit. The turncoat was rewarded by being appointed Interior Minister in Abhisit’s cabinet, a post he held until 2011. As part of his political treachery Chavarat became the leader of the Bhum Jai Thai Party, a party tied to the dark influence Chidchob family in Buriram. He was succeeded as leader by Anutin in 2012.

Marshall observes that, in 2010, Chavarat “was caught embezzling money from a 3.49 billion baht computer leasing project, and the controversy threatened to tear apart the coalition, but in the end, Abhisit didn’t dare fire him.”

Anutin unmasked. Clipped from Der Farang.

On Anutin, Marshall notes his relationship with Vajiralongkorn:

Anutin was even willing to risk playing the dangerous game of trying to get into the inner circle of the volatile future king Vajiralongkorn. He began donating large sums to the crown prince, and sought to establish himself as a friend of Vajiralongkorn, making regular trips to visit him in Europe. Vajiralongkorn was famously obsessed with flying during this period, spending most of the year staying at the Kempinski Hotel at Munich Airport where he always had at least one personal Boeing 737 parked ready for joyrides in the skies over Europe. Adopting flying as a hobby was a great way for Anutin to bond with his new royal friend.

A leaked secret US cable from 2009 identified Anutin as a new member of Vajiralongkorn’s inner circle….

We wonder how that relationship is today, with Anutin seeking to lay off blame for the Siam Bioscience-AstraZeneca failures while he’s been health minister. How did he get that position? Marshall speculates that: “It’s all because of marijuana.” And the rural-based mafia he represents, who are working to make marijuana a valuable cash crop. Marsall again:

When the pandemic struck, Thailand’s minister of public health was an unqualified political dilettante whose only healthcare experience was making wild claims
about the medical wonders of marijuana.

If readers can, look at the whole story at Secret Siam.

Incidentally, Anutin is not the only minister engaging in heath entrepreneurialism. With scant evidence, Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin has promoted the production of green chiretta herbal pills. While there is some evidence about some of the qualities of the product, much of this is from Thai scientists keen to promote herbal medicine. Somsak’s “evidence” comes from giving pills to prison inmates and claiming “results” while clearly misunderstanding how clinical trials operate. The initial use of the pills in prisons came when the virus was raging among prisoners and vaccines were in short supply.

For ministers, there seems to be a profit motive at work rather than science and public service.

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).

Not cleaned

22 12 2014

While Prince Vajiralongkorn has been busy cleaning up – whether for personal reasons or for succession and perhaps both – it is reported at the Bangkok Post that one of his previous political allies has also been doing quite nicely.

Way back in 2009, PPT posted on some seemingly divided palace politics. That post linked to an Asia Times Online article by Shawn Crispin about Thaksin Shinawatra and the prince. Crispin stated that Thaksin had lost touch with Vajiralongkorn, “reaffirming the notion that neither is the monarchy a static institution with its relationships.” However, Crispin’s unnamed sources claimed that Thaksin “had on several occasions after returning from exile in 2008 met with Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok via his trusted associate, Sino Thai Engineering and Construction Company chairman Anutin Charnvirakul.”

Anutin’s father is Chavarat Charnvirakul, close to Newin Chidchob and a force in the military-backed Abhisit Vejjajiva government. A Wikileaks cable states:

A relatively new close associate and princely financier is banned former Thai Rak Thai politician Anutin Charnvirakul, son of Interior Minister/Phumjai Thai Chair Charavat, and executive of the Sino-Thai construction conglomerate.

This background is one reason why PPT found the Bangkok Post story on Anutin a few days ago especially interesting, and because we note that Anutin is quite a collector of antiques. We remain puzzled by the huge hoarding of antiques attributed to deposed princess Srirasmi’s relatives, many of who were close to the prince for several years.

According to the Post, Anutin still runs the Bhum Jai Thai Party after taking over the leadership from his father, and the party could become significant if the military again wants to use it in any forthcoming election, as it did in 2011, although with spectacularly little success.

Anutin is reportedly responsible for all of the party’s activities “such as looking after the welfare of party members [paying unofficial wages], and representing the party in expressing its stance on public affairs, particularly the ongoing national reform.”

We were also interested to note that Anutin’s Sino Thai Engineering “has been awarded major construction contracts, including building some electric rail lines and the new parliament building.”

Relationships matter in Thailand. They can also go spectacularly wrong.

One of those “huh?” moments

28 02 2011

This from the Bangkok Post:

The BlackBerry smartphones issued to 873 district chiefs nationwide were part of a marketing campaign by the distributor and were not funded by the taxpayers as the opposition claimed, Interior Minister and Bhumjaithai Party leader Chavarat Charnvirakul said on Monday.

“I don’t know why this has become such a big issue.

“It was part of a marketing campaign by the company’s executives, who want people to use the same model of handset,” Mr Chavarat said.

He said the Interior Ministry received the smartphones for free and they were distributed to district chiefs.

When asked by reporters if the cell phone distribution  was part of the Bhumjaithai’s election campaign, the party leader laughed and said that was “nonsense”.

Interior Minister’s adviser Chamni Buchasuk said every ministry gave out cell phones to officials.

PPT eagerly awaits the confirmation of this from the unnamed distributor and from all the other ministries. District chiefs must each be walking about with 26 phones each! No sensible commentator could ever believe that the Bhum Jai Thai Party of Newin Chidchob and Sia Chavarat could ever be involved in trying to fix elections. Even allowing that it has little choice in the matter, the Democrat Party seems accepting of the notion that their coalition partner is above board.

Meanwhile, PAD has been emphasizing corruption in the Abhisit Vejjajiva government.

Updated: Queen already back to normal

2 10 2010

As is usual and as PPT kind of predicted, the queen’s heart is miraculously “normal.” None of us at PPT are medical experts, but let’s see what The Nation says: “Her Majesty the Queen’s heartbeat was reported as normal yesterday…. The Queen was admitted on Thursday night after developing an irregular heart-beat. Doctors treated Her Majesty with high frequency radio waves, and her heartbeat returned to normal on Friday night, the Royal Household Bureau said yesterday.”

Earlier reports were a little different referring to a rapid heartbeat. The use of HF radio waves suggests radiofrequency ablation which “is a procedure that uses a catheter and a device for mapping the electrical pathways of the heart. After you are given medicine to relax you, a catheter is inserted into a vein and guided to your heart, where doctors use high-frequency radio waves to destroy (ablate) the pathways causing the arrhythmia.”

This is apparently not a a simple treatment and the condition is potentially serious.

Update: The Nation reports that the queen left hospital following her treatment. This time the report refers to “an irregular pulse” and “a rapid heartbeat” which could fit either of the conditions noted above. Interestingly, the “Royal Household Bureau said in a statement that Her Majesty’s heartbeat was now normal and she could return to Siriraj Hospital where His Majesty has been recuperating for about a year now.” The Nation says she was visited by the king and “many royalty.” Among other, non-royal visitors was a gallery of rightist royalists including: “Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda, Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, National Police Commissioner-General Wichien Pojphosri, Interior Minister Chaovarat Chanweerakul, acting Auditor-General Jaruvan Maintaka and Tourism Minister Chumpol Silapa-archa.”

Newin wins again

17 08 2010

This is old news – PPT missed it on 11 August in the Bangkok Post – but is worth highlighting. The report is that cabinet under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has “endorsed the appointment of Mongkol Surasajja as the next permanent secretary for the interior amid speculation he benefited from a close bond with Newin Chidchob.” Mongkol has been fast-tracked into the Phum Jai Thai Party ministry having “served as a district chief and deputy governor in northeastern provinces before being named governor of Buri Ram, the home province of Mr Newin.”

Mongkol is the current director-general of the Provincial Administration Departmenthaving been in the position just a few months, which followed just a few months as director of the Community Development Department. Even Minister Chavarat Charnvirakul joked about the ties with Newin.

The Democrat Party seems unable or incapable of dealing with the rising power of banned politician Newin.

More on polo

23 02 2010

PPT readers might have been a little surprised that we got onto the topic of polo – riding horses and swinging mallets at a ball – as somehow important for Thailand in the contemporary epoch. Even if it is not important, we think it is reflective of elite politics. More significantly, we see the emergence of polo as a “sport” for royal associations, especially for royal hangers-on, that it says something about the “inner circles.”

Being at the polo has been an English royal “thing” and it was taken up by Brunei and Middle Eastern royalty as a way of appearing, well, more royal in the European tradition. Initially PPT thought that polo in Thailand was a bit of a joke because the King Power sia wanted to build his own charisma. It still might be a joke – for example, they have women’s hat competitions – but it has caught on as something that is royal associated and therefore a place to be seen, especially when pink is the theme color for the King’s Cup and Queen’s Cup.

In one of those horrid magazines that the Bangkok Post keeps churning out confirming that trees are continue to be needlessly pulped, there is a whole page called “In the limelight,” and the 21 February 2010 edition features the King’s Cup.

Who was there? The Raksriaksorn family features. Then there’s Privy Councilor Air Chief Marshal Kamthon Sindvanada and some blue shirts like banned politician and King Power-backed Newin Chidchob and his family, his Interior Minister and businessman Chavarat Charnvirakul and members of his family, seen with GMM Media boss and former Thaksin Shinawatra ally Paiboon Damrongchaitham.

There’s also a bunch of business/hi-so family names: Laowanich, Thavisri, Bunyaket, Wongkusolkij, Chainam and Boribalburibhand.

The whole shindig – a kind of fun fair for the wealthy – was said to be raising funds for one of the opaque royal charities. Bonding for the rich and powerful in a way that eventually launders the gauche elements and makes new money kind of acceptable for the old establishment perhaps.

Chuan says Abhisit is humiliated

21 08 2009

PPT won’t blog at length about Abhisit Vejjajiva’s continuing struggle with the police chief’s position and the widespread opposition he faces. Clearly, Abhisit is in serious political trouble. Abhisit says: “I can find the way out.” Maybe, but he will need the support of PAD who were one of the driving forces behind Abhisit’s earlier decision-making on this police promotion and its political implications.

We link to our earlier posts (here, here, here, here and here) and also to the spate of stories in the English-language press (here, here, here, here, and here).

Our post headline is drawn from a comment by former prime minister and Democrat Party advisor Chuan Leekpai.

Update: A reader points out that we neglected this story in The Nation. We should have mentioned it as it takes the PADist line that all cops are red shirts and Abhisit is just wanting the “least red” for the next chief: “Police generals grouped in the dark, fire-hydrant red camp are Priewpan Damapong, Wongkot Maneerin and Jongrak Juthanont. Those in the not-so-glaring red are Wichien Potposri, Watcharaphol Prasanratchakit and Wiroj Phaholvech. Those in the diluted red are Patheep Tanprasert and Jumpol Manmai.”

Readers of The Nation are left to wonder if this is the only judge a potential police chief? Are any of them likely to have served well or to have good ideas for this most horrible of organizations?Apparently not: “To pick the national police chief under such circumstances [they are all red], Abhisit has to review which of their past political sins he can live with in order to effect the political cleansing of the police service.”

For The Nation, it is all Thaksin’s fault. Thaksin trained as a policeman and married a police general’s daughter, and he undoubtedly used the police for his own benefit. However, the police have been corrupt and hated for decades.

Further update: While Abhisit insists that he is still in charge, despite failing to win support for police chief nomination, Chuan has had to come out to deny that Democrat Party members are trying to replace Abhisit as prime minister. Abhisit has been reluctanrt to comment on Interior Minister Chavarat Charnvirakul’s rejection of the PM’s nominated police chief, but other Democrat Party parliamentarians have commented, with one claiming Abhisit has “the mandate.” This is interesting territory given the Democrat Party’s rejection of Thaksin’s and pro-Thaksin parties’ claims to electoral mandates in the recent past.

New: Phum Jai Thai’s amnesty proposal

19 08 2009

While PPT doesn’t see the proposal going very far, the Bangkok Post (19 August 2009: “Bhumjaithai seeks broad amnesty bill”) report on the Phum Jai Thai Party proposal for an amnesty “for an amnesty for all yellow shirt and red shirt demonstrators as a way to ease political tensions” is an interesting development at this conjuncture, especially as Phum Jai Thai doesn’t appear to have any great confidence that their proposal would be welcome.

Bangkok Pundit has some musings on the implications and timing.

Phum Jai Thai leader Chavarat Charnvirakul said the party would propose an amnesty bill to clear all charges brought for actions taken during rallies. That would benefit the People’s Alliance for Democracy’s for its rallies from 26 May to 3 December 2008 and red shirt/United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship demonstrations from 26 March  to 14 April 2009. It would also apply to police and military officers and others involved in other capacities with the demonstrations. Of course, this would not extend to those accused of lese majeste or the banning of politicians through party dissolutions.

PAD coordinator secretary-general of the New Politics Party, Suriyasai Katasila, immediately rejected it because it would “allow authorities in charge of the Oct 7 crackdown, in which two people died at parliament during a police action to clear protesters, to walk free.”

Recall that one of these deaths was a PAD member who blew himself up in a car bomb.

Suriyasai added: “We must respect the law and the wrongdoers must be prosecuted. PAD never negotiates. We trust the justice system…”. And why wouldn’t they trust a system that has yet to make any major decision that is anti-PAD?

Abhisit and the truth

3 08 2009

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is tying himself in knots over the red shirt “royal pardon” petition for Thaksin Shinawatra.

Abhisit has been reported in the The Nation (3 August 2009: “PM: Red shirts must take responsibility over petition”) as stating “I reiterate that political activities must not affect the nation’s main institution (the monarchy).… Those who receive (personal) benefit from this should stop their action.”

Then he seems to get confused, making the quite outrageous claim that “There’s an attempt to convince people that the government is obstructing the petition movement…. “The government is simply trying to inform the public of the facts.”

If he is quoted accurately, this is an outright lie. For example (in reverse order by date):

* Abhisit (here) used some of his weekly television address to attack the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, telling them they “should stop gathering signatures…”. He claimed people were being misled and reinforced the point that the “Interior Ministry had allowed people who signed up the pardon petition to withdraw their signatures by registering with the local officials because the organisers’ intention might not be appropriate.”

* Interior Minister Chavarat Charnvirakul (here) “ordered provincial authorities to launch a counter-campaign against the UDD’s petition,” and resorted to a quite old-fashioned but seriously threatening tactic of announcing that the Provincial Administration Department would “examine the identity of all the signatories to petition.” Abhisit has confirmed that this intimidation by checking names would take place.

* Army chief Anupong Paochinda (here) “has ordered commander of all army units to have their subordinates explain the correct procedures for seeking a royal pardon to the people nationwide.” Soldiers in villages and communities is direct intimidation on this issue.

* Abhisit claimed (here) hat the red shirt campaign was “manipulating innocent people.” Abhisit added, “We have to be cautious because these masterminds have complicated matters and people could fall victim to their provocations…”. At the same time, chief adviser of the Democrat Party Chuan Leekpai, “warned the government to pay close attention the red-shirts’ activities.” He claimed they were about to cause “chaos.”

* Interior Minister Chavarat (here) ordered village headman or kamnan “to arrange tables at provincial halls and district offices nationwide for people who want to withdraw their names from the petition for a royal pardon…”.

* Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan instructed the armed forces to monitor the signature campaign to endorse the petition seeking a royal pardon.

* The government (here) “warned supporters of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) that petitioning for a royal pardon for Thaksin Shinawatra will only stir up divisive emotions in Thai society.”

* Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban expressed “his concern over the matter, saying that Thais should not do anything that disturbs His Majesty the King.”

*The government (here) used the state media to campaign against “improper conduct to politicise the monarchy via the pardon petition.”

* Coalition partner, the Bhum Jai Thai Party (here), organized taxi drivers to oppose the petition.

* It is reported (here) that “The People’s Alliance for Democracy, the Privy Council and the Bhumjaithai Party have made clear they oppose the petition…”.

* It was reported here that Deputy Interior Minister Boonjong Wongtrairat from coalition partner Bhum Jai Thai Party had produced stickers opposing the signature drive and distributed them nationwide as well as erecting large billboards opposing the petition.

* Justice Minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga is reported here as slamming the royal pardon campaign and called on the red shirts to stop their campaign while questioning their motives.

* Abhisit is reported (here) to have “condemned” the UDD campaign to collect a million signatures. He accused them of bringing the monarchy into politics.

PPT considers the evidence is clear; the Democrat Party-led coalition government has opposed the petition, it has used state resources to oppose it, and it has mobilized the leading reactionary and conservative forces against the petition: the Interior Ministry, the military and the name of the monarchy. It has clearly tried to intimidate people.

This is not the first time the prime minister has mangled the truth, with one of the best examples being the case of Chotisak Onsoong (see here), accused of lese majeste.

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