Opaque stuff

28 04 2019

Of course, under Thailand’s military junta, there’s been a lot of things that is not explained, are  opaque and behind closed doors. Like election results.

However, a couple of recent reports deserve mention for their lack of transparency.

First, the now more or less broke State Railway of Thailand has “decided to grant the concession for the 220 billion baht high-speed rail project linking three major airports to the consortium led by Charoen Pokphand Group (CP).” The decision means the SRT has only a couple of weeks to submit the draft agreement to its board of directors.

For CP, this is yet another triumph that will make it even more powerful and will drive the link to China, so close to the heart of its controlling family. Yet the project has been been criticized.

The story on CP, the junta and the EEC has not be fully explained. That the project is heavily promoted from the public purse requires investigation,

Second, there’s been some perplexed commentary on why the Ombudsman has become involved in making decision regarding constitutional matters. The links between that office and the junta need to be unpicked.

Third, no thanks to the junta, the Bangkok Post the Bangkok Post has shone some much needed light on the Election Commission’s recent fad for using “media ownership” as a means for eliminating some successful anti-junta candidates from the “election.” What remains unclear is how a candidate from Future Forward could be disqualified under these media provisions when his company did no media work.

If the junta gets its way, there’s another four years of wheeling, dealing and no transparency.





Updated: Censorship for the junta by big business

14 03 2019

PPT doesn’t usually spend much time considering the letters pages of newspapers. However, a few days ago, a letter to The Nation caught our attention.

A reader observed political censorship by True Visions, a CP company. Unfortunately, no one at PPT subscribes to True Visions, so we are unable to confirm the details. Readers might let us know.

The reader reckoned that “[f]ollowing the 2014 coup, subscribers of True Visions became accustomed to brief interruptions to international news stations, signalled by the on screen announcement, ‘Programming will be resumed shortly’.” Most of these interruptions were “triggered by reports relating to the Thai Royal Family … [and the] strict lese majeste law and the potential responsibility of broadcasters for airing content deemed inappropriate.”

But something has changed, says the reader. As elections approach, “the interruptions caused by the True Visions censors have become longer and more frequent.” These are not about the monarchy.

The letter writer points out that “international news stations post their reports online, the more curious viewer is, in many cases, still able to access the missing content…”. What this demonstrates is that “most recent interruptions are of a strictly political nature.” He points to several stories censored to protect the junta.

He wonders how much this censorship extends from English-language reports to Thai cable television.

One can speculate why it is that the country’s richest richest non-royals are backing the military junta.

Update: We just posted this and went off to look at Prachatai where we found they had a story on this topic. It refers to “Al Jazeera’s news broadcast on True Visions cable TV momentarily stopped on the morning of 8 March.” It continues:

The BBC’s broadcast, also through True Visions, was also briefly cut both on 7 March and the morning of 8 March, and the same message was shown on the screen. Jonathan Head, BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent, tweeted “It’s sadly routine now. Thailand is preparing for an election, but the climate of military intolerance persists.”





Updated: Things that make you go, hmm

15 12 2018

There’s a lot going on, so this is a catch-up on a few media stories worth considering. And these are all from the Bangkok Post!:

Watana gets off: The Criminal Court has found Puea Thai politician and junta critic Watana Muangsook not guilty in a quite ridiculous charge related to comments he made about the vandalism associated with the stealing of the 1932 plaque from the Royal Plaza.

The court said Watana’s comments:

were opinions that could not be deemed a computer crime. They posed no threat to security…. The court said his messages could be considered in the context of academic freedom and his criticism of authorities did not reflect ill intent.

The ridiculousness of the charge is that the junta has never done anything to find those responsible for stealing the plaque and replacing it with a royalist plaque that could easily have been composed in the palace. Of course, the authorities have done nothing because they know exactly who ordered its removal and replacement.

EC makes false promises: By now readers know that we think the Election Commission is totally compromised. So a promise to be clear about the election is simply impossible. Where it is closer to the truth it is in stating: “This is all about establishing credibility by generating information that is reliable and correct for the international community.” What EC president Ittiporn Boonpracong might have said was that the EC’s job is establishing credibility for the junta’s election by generating information that obfuscates. After all, that’s its track record to date. That impression of the EC’s bias is reinforced when Ittiporn mumbles that “foreign envoys did not appear to have any concerns about predictions by some critics of that the poll would be ‘less than free and fair’.” Of course, no one expects a free or fair election. Even the Bangkok Post has been forced to question the EC’s “independence” and “credibility.” Is the EC’s task just to give “credibility” to the junta’s rigged election?

Parliament has no home: The parliament building has been closed and will be given to the king. So the bureaucracy of the parliament and the puppet National Legislative Assembly is homeless. Why the Royal Household Bureau can’t wait for a few months is never explained by the fearful Thai media. Consider the fact that the NLA seems to have been caught unaware by this move and has only just begun to look for a expensive, temporary home. Why’s that?

The Eel jailed: The exceptionally slippery Tharit Pengdit and Suthep Thaugsuban used to be tight, at least when Suthep was managing the crushing of the red shirts. They later fell out and became enemies as DSI led investigations into Suthep’s role in the gunning down of protesters. The enmity was further deepened when Suthep accused Tharit of defamation in February 2013. This had to do with corruption over police buildings under the Abhisit Vejjajiva regime. In two court cases in 2015 and 2016, Tarit was found not guilty. Suthep appealed to the Supreme Court. So the question is why Tarit suddenly decided to plead “guilty” before the case was concluded and why is he now jailed for a year. That makes you think.

Guess who?: In a two horse race between consortia of some of the biggest and best-connected Sino-Thai tycoons for the contract to build a high-speed railway connecting three major airports, the one led by CP has won. As well as winning, they get a state subsidy of almost 120 billion baht. Makes you wonder how rich the richest non-royals can get.

Update: The authorities have assured Thailand that CP didn’t “win” the bid for the HSR. They just had the lowest bid and negotiations are now needed with the CP consortium in order to determine whether they will win. Funny way to do tendering, but we are willing to bet on the outcome, as we were before the two bids were opened.





Another lese majeste acquittal

15 11 2018

The change to the prosecution and conviction of lese majeste cases continues to move in a better direction.

Khaosod reports that “Sakan Saengfueng … walked free today [14 Nov] after spending nearly five years in jail…”.

He had earlier been convicted in an alleged bomb plot and spent 4 years in jail on that score. Sakan and two other alleged red shirts were arrested in April 2009 “on suspicion of plotting to bomb the head office of Charoen Pokphand…”.

When he was to be released, “Sakan was then held in custody after other inmates accused him of royal insult.” In 2014 these inmates allegedly “complained to guards that Sakan insulted the monarchy while watching a TV documentary on King Rama IX.”

This led to a lese majeste charge and Sakan was “detained shortly after his release in 2017. He was denied bail and sent back to jail for the next seven months.”

Interestingly, like Tom Dundee, Sakan initially pleaded not guilty but agreed to cop a guilty plea. However, the court did not accept this. Remarkably, the court “said Sakan’s remarks ‘needed interpretation’ and were not evidently critical of the Royal Family as alleged by the plaintiffs.” Because of this and a lack of evidence, like Tom, Sakan was acquitted.

The state may appeal, but in the current climate this seems unlikely.





Keeping tycoons with the junta

6 08 2018

We have posted a lot on the military junta’s campaigning and not enough on how The Dictator maintains his relations with the Sino-Thai tycoons.

Fortunately, the Bangkok Post has provided some insights on this process.

Before getting to that, however, a reminder of how well the really rich have done under the junta. A while ago we compared 2014 wealth – the year of the coup – and 2016 wealth. The totals for the top 10 show that their combined wealth has increased by almost $16 billion over that period. The top two families have increased by more than $9billion. Not bad pickings.

More loot awaits: “Activists and workers’ unions have demanded land development plans be immediately excluded from the terms of reference of the high-speed railway set to link Don Mueang, Suvarnabhumi and U-Tapao airports, alleging it would monopolise involvement in the megaproject down to ‘a few large firms’.”

Activist Srisuwan Janya said granting land rights to the firm that wins the rights for the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) railway project is “unnecessary.”

What’s necessary is throwing out infrastructure projects that produce great wealth for the big conglomerate that wins – we would bet on a CP or a Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi being involved. Based on previous experience, we might also expect that some bureaucrats and political leaders will also benefit.

Those funds lubricate a whole 1980s-like political system, dripping corruption.

In this case, the winning firm gets “both operation and land development rights under a 50-year concession.” That’s after the 200 billion project is completed.

Srisuwan explains: “These firms will just be receiving the land around the railway as an added bonus at cheaper rates, compared to the actual, substantially higher value of such land.”

The reports adds that the State Railways “must hand over the land it owns around the Bangkok-Rayong route to the winning firm, including 150 rai in the Makkasan area.” That’s smack bang in central Bangkok and a prime piece of real estate worth billions of baht.

That’s ample lubrication.





Junta learning from China

31 10 2017

Over the years, there have been efforts to suggest that various Thai leaders in politics and the economy have turned to China in part for reasons of ethnic loyalty. Certainly, several Thai leaders have been of Chinese extraction and some Sino-Thai tycoons at CP and the Bangkok Bank (to name just two) have been early and long active in “giving back.”

But what does this mean in practice, especially when China’s economic rise has been noticeable for decades and its political sway has been increasing for some time? And, consider that almost all of Thailand’s wealthiest, including the dead king, were Sino-Thai. Chineseness has seldom been a hot political issue since Phibun’s time and a period when the OSS/CIA were worried about the “overseas Chinese” as a “fifth column” for Chinese communism.

The most recent effort we can recall was by Sondhi Limthongkul, in some accounts claimed to be China-born and the son of a Kuomintang general. Back in the days when the People’s Alliance for Democracy – dominated by Sino-Thais of the Bangkok middle class – declared that they too were loyal to the nation (and the monarchy).

When we look at the current military dictatorship, for some time shunned by the U.S. and by some major countries in Europe, the draw of China became important. While on a well-worn path, where China was already a major trading partner, the significance of China rose substantially for the regime as it sought to arm and boost the economy. But one of the attractions does seem to be, as one academic has it, mutual authoritarianism.

But we don’t think we have ever seen such an enthusiastic embrace as that provided by the junta’s 4th generation Sino-Thai Wissanu Krea-ngam in an interview with the official Xinhua news agency on the day the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China concluded.

Speaking of the amendment to the CPC Constitution that made “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era a new component of the party’s guide for action,” Wissanu was enthusiastic, declaring:

Xi’s thought makes “Chinese characteristics” more prominent, the Thai deputy prime minister said.

He praised China for being very good at accomplishing its goals efficiently as can be proved by the anti-corruption campaign that started five years ago.

He said he believes that the new goals set at the 19th CPC National Congress will be accomplished as before.

“The Chinese set long-term goals and ask people to do it together. That is something we can learn from, as we are also working on a 20-year national strategy to guide the development of Thailand,” Wissanu said.

“It is just magical that we have consistent policies or strategies as China put forward the Belt and Road Initiative. We have Thailand 4.0 and ASEAN … has ASEAN Connectivity,” Wissanu said, adding that China and Thailand can still find a lot of aspects to cooperate in the future.

Maybe he’s just noticing economic opportunities? But those have been evident for decades. Wissanu seems attracted by the Chinese model of marrying authoritarianism with markets. That seems pretty close to the junta’s aims.

 





Taxpayer-funded royalism

30 06 2017

The effort to “regularize” the junta’s irregular approval of to push through that tower mega-project (worth about half of a Chinese submarine, depending on the price quoted by the Treasury Department), have quickly deteriorated to claims about monarchy, as we predicted.

Prachatai reports that the earlier claims about income and tourism have quickly been ditched. The Treasury Department “has clarified that the controversial 4.62 billion baht Bangkok Observation Tower project is a public-private partnership project to honour the late King Bhumibol.”

That should stop all criticism.

Even if Finance Minister Col Apisak Tantivorawong has said that the Treasury Department will only get 70 million baht from a 30-year lease from the Bangkok Observation Tower Foundation, “which is much lower than the market rate for land in the area,” that’s okay, because this project will “honour the late King Bhumibol.”

Even if the minister “clarifies” that there’s no open bidding because “[i]f it was open for bidding for private developers, no one might be interested because the value of the project is quite high. Also [we] don’t know whether it will be worth the investment,” that’s okay because “[t]he top [of the tower] is for an exhibition about the scientific work of the [late] King.”

(We will leave aside the claims of “science” associated with the dead king.)

Even if the Treasury Department “clarifies” that “the project is social not commercial,” that’s okay because the “land for a project to honour the late King Bhumibol.”

Then there’s the “Bangkok Observation Tower Foundation” which is now said to comprise 50 private companies and financial institutions who share a similar vision on how the land should be developed…”. No mention now of Charoen Pokphand or the royal-linked and owned Siam Piwat or of the royal-linked Magnolia Quality Development Corporation

But, as we know, they head the “Foundation.” They also develop the neighboring “Icon Siam, a mega-riverside shopping complex…”. An observation tower will obviously “enhance” traffic through their new mall.

Profits will roll in and part of them will be due to the taxpayer’s investment in a the “social project.” And the profits can be huge.

Military-dominated governments have long supported, with public funds, royal “projects” that are money-making. Think of the whole area around Princess Sirindhorn’s palace, the multiple malls there, with hotels and offices. It makes billions of baht a year. Icon Siam and its associated, taxpayer-funded tower will potentially make even more.

The taxpayer’s return on the tower will be about 2.3 million baht a year. What a deal! No wonder the military junta needs to protect this project.