Maintaining authoritarian monarchism

26 11 2016

It may seem odd that “a special event in Bangkok next month to mark the birthday anniversary” for the late king, on his former birthday of 5 December, and described as “huge” is being overseen by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

It seems that the dead king has to be properly handled and managed to be made a series of ceremonies that will accord him the status of figurehead. That’s important for the monarchy, the military dictatorship and also for Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

The aim is to maintain the previous king’s “aura” for the institution of the monarchy in anticipation that the person of the new king is not bringing any of that with him when he takes the throne. Maintaining the aura of the monarchy is important for the military junta as it “protects” the monarchy and manufactures and protects authoritarian Thailand.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, writing in Khaosod, explains some of this:

The reason why the military government is still very vocally vowing to have these two dozen or so people extradited to Thailand has become a performance for the sake of the domestic audience of royalists and ultra-royalists to reinforce the military’s claim to leadership in loving and revering the monarchy.

By vocally pursuing these anti-monarchists, the regime inadvertently contradicted it own oft-repeated claim that all Thais love and revere the monarchy without exception.

Any shade or nuance between those who totally love and revere the monarchy and those who oppose the institution often gets buried in repeated performance of loyalty, however.

These performances are likely to continue as markers of loyalty to the regime and the monarchy and as a means to repress opposition.





Updated: Accession on Tuesday

25 11 2016

It looks like Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn will be promulgated as king on 29 November.

We deduce this from a Khaosod report the states that the junta’s puppet assembly “will convene for a special session on Tuesday to be televised nationwide.” As a puppet parliament, this special session has been “ordered by the military government but did not specify a topic for the meeting.”

All puppet members of the puppet assembly are required to be present.

The giveaway on the nature of the meeting is in this: “Media are not allowed to speculate on the purpose of the session.”

Something could still go wrong, although we assume that the junta has consulted the prince and appropriate astrologers.

Update: The Dictator has spoken to the the Joint Foreign Chamber of Commerce of Thailand. Appearing to confirm the above, he states: “Everything is stable. And in a short time, we shall have a new King.”





Updated: A princely sum

21 11 2016

Since the king died, there have been a spate of stories on Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, most of them negative.

In a Wall Street Journal story a couple of days ago, the focus is on the huge wealth the new monarch will inherit: “Thailand’s crown prince won’t only succeed his father as king. He will also inherit the keys to one of the world’s largest royal fortunes.”

Yes, the junta will come out and complain that the Crown Property Bureau doesn’t belong to the king/queen, but to the “institution.” It matters not, for the management is almost entirely with royal flunkies dedicated to obeying. That’s not to say that government doesn’t have a stake in it.

The WSJ states:

The multibillion-dollar wealth of the Thai crown is rarely discussed in the country. Strict lèse-majesté laws, which criminalize any criticism of the monarchy, make many reluctant to study or debate the matter, especially now, just a month after the death of the long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Oct. 13.

In the coming weeks, though, the fortune will pass into the control of an untested heir who has lived much of his life overseas. How Crown Prince … Vajiralongkorn administers it, and especially the investments in the Crown Property Bureau, is one of the most significant questions in a country where the ruling military junta has seized power twice in the past decade, in part to make sure the royal succession goes smoothly.

It says the “crown’s assets and corporate holdings are valued at over $40 billion, according to one study, more than the wealth of Britain’s royal family or the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Its glittering royal regalia includes the world’s largest cut diamond, a golden conical crown and a fly whisk made from the tail hair of an albino elephant.”

Throw in the royal’s private wealth and the public money showered on it and “protecting” it, and this is a fat, extravagant and avaricious family.

The 70-year-long reign of the dead king was one that built power, economic and political. The CPB “became a powerful cash-spinning conglomerate and one of the most influential levers in the Thai economy.” Annual income from the CPB is reported to have grown from 563 million baht in 1987 to more than more than 1.15 billion in 2015.https://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=44510&action=edit

The prince has expenses. The WSJ states that “[i]n late 2014, for instance, the finance ministry said the bureau made a 200 million baht, or $5.64 million, divorce payment, to 64-year-old Prince Vajiralongkorn’s most recent spouse.”

Given the prince’s previous behavior and the fact that all of her family is locked up and she’s hardly seen, somehow we doubt this. Even so, his international travel and living expenses are likely to be a far greater drain on the CPB than it has seen in earlier years. But who really knows? It is all a secret.

Update: Southeast Asia Globe has a story about inheritance tax in Bavaria. The prince maintains a residence in Bavaria and spends quite a lot of time there on the banks of Lake Starnberg and the story says he will be up for this tax. The story estimates it as $3.5 billion, based on reports of the assets of the CPB. An intersting claim, especially when one palace watcher says that the (military) government will pay it for him. We doubt this. The official blarney about the CPB has long been that it doesn’t personally belong to the king.





Waiting for change

20 11 2016

Readers may be interested in another story that claims that there is opportunity for political change following the death of the king. This one comes from Foreign Policy. We earlier mentioned a similar claim about change being expected here.

The authors are Raphael Mimoun who is “the executive director of Build A Movement, an organization that researches nonviolent movements and trains activists on strategic nonviolence, digital security, and the role of civil society in democratic transitions” and Joseph Brennan “is an independent researcher and consultant on democracy and political movements in Southeast and East Asia. He is the cofounder of Zoba, a travel startup that analyzes political and security risks.”

We are not sure that these positions make then informed observers of Thailand’s political future.

Their op-ed has a lot of detail and interpretation about politics in recent years, not all of it accurate. For example, it argues that, since the May 2014 military coup, the “democratic opposition has remained internally divided and mostly passive on the national stage.”

We are not sure why the authors make no mention here of arrests that targeted red shirt leaders and organizers to the village level and continuing heavy repression. They account for much of the “passivity.”

They do mention repression later, but too late for the point they are making here. In fact, much of the detail they present contradicts these initial claims.

Political change for the authors will come from “the adoption of the junta’s constitution this August — and even more significantly, after the death of the … King … several weeks ago…”. The authors argue that “a new political landscape has been taking shape.”

We think they are misinformed on the provisions of the junta’s constitution. More on the monarchy below.

The claim that the “junta has consolidated its power and gained an electoral mandate, but lost the popular legitimacy it derived from a beloved and revered king” seems odd, although we think they mean the junta’s draft charter was “passed” in a referendum and that the legitimacy from the king dies when he passed away. Either way, the claims are dubious, and we are being polite.

The junta and these authors seem the only ones to consider the “referendum” to have been an act of electoral legitimation.

Remarkably, the authors confuse the Democrat Party with the “democratic opposition.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ignoring the repression that they do mention, the authors think the “democratic opposition” only needs a bit of organizing to overthrow the military dictatorship. That seems both arrogant and misunderstand the regime.

They claim that “the impending death of king Bhumibol had kept opposition groups indecisive, as they knew it would destabilize the junta’s power base if they only waited.” They add:

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is a divisive figure who enjoys far less legitimacy. Already facing growing challenges to its authority, the monarchy — and thus the military junta — is likely to lose a great deal of its popularity during the royal succession.

We do not think this is at all accurate. In any case, the regime has been consolidating its power and preparing for succession for some time. The heavy use of lese majeste is an act of repression that says much about how succession is being managed. The regime is emphasizing monarchy as “the institution,” building a king’s “great” legacy and preparing the ground for the next king. At the same time, the military has clearly seen itself as the senior partner int he military-monarchy alliance of some 60 years.

The organizer-authors believe that “following a period of mourning for the … king — the dust will settle and a new political landscape will come into being.” They assert:

In this new environment, the democratic opposition will be able to organize and mobilize far more effectively for a return to democratic rule. It will be able to capitalize on the unpopularity of the new king, mobilizing populations who were unwilling to challenge the junta and its royal mandate. It will also be able to unite various groups around common strategies and campaigns, now that the uncertainties of the referendum and the king’s health have passed. These campaigns might target the new centers of power, or use elections as mobilizing opportunities, or focus on uniting both major parties against the junta.

We think this is mostly nonsense. The “elections” might be a way to organize for the opposition, but the outcome of the election is already known – more junta control. The elections will also allow the junta to identify and target opponents, as they did in the “referendum.”

We don’t presume to know what Thai activists or the “democratic opposition” can or should do. Oppositions to repressive military rule in Thailand have not usually emerged from opposition unity or from elections. Rather, they tend to come from sparks generated by a corrupt and arrogant regime. They also have tended to have a long gestation period. Whatever happens, it is Thais who will decide their political future and their response to the junta.





Protecting “greatness”

20 11 2016

The New York Times carries an Associated Press report on the huge increase in Thailand’s internet censorship, which has also appeared at Khaosod.

The military dictatorship has presided over the shut down  1,370 websites in October. That’s more than the 1,237 they had blocked  over the previous five years.

censored

The past month reflects the junta’s efforts to allegedly “protect” the dead king’s “reputation” as a “great” king. The crackdown is doubly significant as it is also meant to “protect” Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn as he unsteadily moves towards accession to the throne.

Thai authorities are thought to be particularly concerned with websites with content about Vajiralongkorn, the 64-year-old designated heir to the throne who lacks the popularity of his father. The public at large has long traded rumors about Vajiralongkorn’s finances, hot temper and other matters. Three stormy marriages are a matter of public record. But critical news reports from abroad about Vajiralongkorn are commonly blocked in Thailand.

The third significance is in protecting the military junta, which has tied its tank to the prince’s succession.

The report states that the military junta has purposely used the king’s death to eliminate “online remarks” about the late king and members of his remaining family and “[s]ince the king’s death, Thailand has charged more than 20 people with making anti-royalty statements [lese majeste], requested deportations of suspects from at least seven countries and attempted to wipe out content it finds offensive from websites and social media.”

Junta members and Deputy Prime Minister Air Chief Marshal Prajin Junthong tong “explains” the situation using one of the junta’s “Thainess” cliches: “Thais have been attacked by websites that twist the truth…”.

The junta’s “truth” on the monarchy is usually a treacly fairy tale.





“Unexpected” military domination

16 11 2016

The Washington Times has a story that begins:

Hopes that the death of the longtime king might create room for political liberalization are quickly fading as the military-dominated government moves swiftly and skillfully to consolidate its grip on power.

Who thought that the king’s death would result in any kind of liberalization? We are lost on this one. Some predicted succession chaos. But was there any serious commentary that the death of a monarch in an ultra-royalist country dominated by a military dictatorship would lead to liberalization?

The story is on much firmer ground when arguing that since the death of the king, things have actually become more authoritarian:

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the onetime army chief and staunch royalist who seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup, has taken firm charge of the elaborate funeral arrangements and extensive public security amid the nation’s grief-stricken confusion. Analysts say there are few signs of political vulnerability for Mr. Prayuth [they mean The Dictator], despite the loss of a monarch who was a key backer of the military over his 70-year reign.

The Times is also on firm ground on succession:

The military also appears to be firmly in charge of the timing and imagery of the transfer of the monarchy to Maha Vajiralongkorn, announcing last week that the 64-year-old crown prince will ascend to the throne early next month.

And this is surely true:

Shoring up his standing with conservatives and monarchists, Mr. Prayuth’s postcoup policies have largely focused on defending Thailand’s “old money” elite against social climbing “nouveau riche” rivals while expanding the government’s powers through a rewrite of the constitution.

… his supporters appear to be sticking with him in the aftermath of the king’s death. They expect him to maintain Thailand’s stability and investment worthiness during the monarchical transition. Mr. Prayuth has used the final years of the late king’s reign to consolidate his own political base.

There’s no doubt that the military junta has purged the military, police, bureaucracy, judiciary and legislature to ensure its political longevity and to change the rules of politics. This political blitzkrieg will take years to unpick.

We are baffled, though, why the succession is considered a highly uncertain time. The coup and the military junta took all uncertainty out of succession over the past years.





Another royal fraudster arrested

14 11 2016

In a case that adds to a long list of royal fraudsters, Prachatai reports that 48 year-old Wandi Laikhlaidok has been arrested by police in Nakhon Sawan.

Wandi is alleged to have posed as a nurse working on royal projects. This claim was used to defraud villagers in the province but also in north, northeast and central provinces, presumably over a considerable period.

She was arrested on 11 November 2016 and alleged to have committed “defamation, fraud and lèse majesté.”

The number of such lese majeste cases is now in the dozens, suggesting massive fraud, across the country. Cases have involved claims about royal projects, the late king, Prince Vajiralongkorn and Princess Sirindhorn.

The use of lese majeste in some of these cases is obviously political, such as when those close to a royal – such as the Suwadee family – are locked up. In Wandi’s case, she seems to be a simple grifter and the lese majeste charge only makes sense in a neo-feudal royalist regime.





Jaran on the human rights abyss

9 11 2016

Jaran Ditapichai, from The Organisation of Free Thai for Human Rights and Democracy and a political exile in France, having fled lese majeste charges, has an article at EurActiv.com on human rights in Thailand.

He says the human rights situation is “likely to get worse before they get better…”.

Jaran takes the view that the “special circumstances surrounding the succession” mean human rights abuses will grow.

A “marriage of convenience” between the military regime and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorm will be in control for “an extended period, under the pretext of stabilising the country, and a return to democracy will be delayed to 2018 or later.”

The new king, when he eventually succeeds, will be “unpredictable and will not have the aura of his father, so the military regime will clamp down even further to ensure that no negative views are expressed on his reign…”.

Since the king’s death, “police have so far prosecuted some 23 people for lèse majesté.”

The military-monarchy twinning and “paused royal succession” will see “the military regime continue to destroy or undermine all democratic forces…”.

He’s pretty much spot on.





Succession and rewards

31 10 2016

As a Reuters report claims that military sources say the regime “is making preparations for Crown Prince …  Vajiralongkorn to ascend the throne on December 1…”, the fate of the draft constitution, meant to be signed by 9 November, remains unknown.

The news on succession comes as the prince departed for Germany. But the prince may again surprise the regime: “…this timeframe also depends on His Royal Highness.”

That seems like a maybe.

funeralWe do know the prince has been happy with his new spouse at the moment. Questions were raised on social media about why she was at the late king’s funeral dressed in uniform, as seen in the two pictures in this post.

The answer, according to a Khaosod report is that she was an official guard for the prince.

It was announced late last week that the prince “has granted a royal decoration to one of the officers in his royal guard unit.” Guess who?suthida-guarding

The report states: “Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhya received the Rattanabhorn Medal on Sept. 4, but the news was only made public on Sunday via the the Royal Gazette website, which publishes government and royal announcements.”

His spouse “has been serving in the Ratchawanlop Guards, a unit of bodyguards protecting the Crown Prince, since 2013. She was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general in August 2015.”

The Knight Grand Cross, another royal award was handed out “to 16 other officers serving in the guard corps.”





The junior partner

31 10 2016

Readers will surely find a new Foreign Policy op-ed by Paul Chambers of considerable interest.

It begins with the statement of a view: “The military cooperated with the royal family for decades – but now it wants a subordinate, not a partner.” While the article doesn’t really follow through on this claim, there does seem something to the notion of a transition.

Chambers notes the “unstable interregnum where a junta-led military is enforcing an arch-royalist order” and where Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has not taken the throne, “leaving the future of both the monarchy and military unclear.”

He observes the long symbiotic relationship between monarchy and military:”The alliance between military and monarchy dates back to 1957-1958, when twin coups eviscerated the country’s young democracy, and they have since dominated the nation together, with the monarchy as junior partner.”

We are not sure we agree that the monarchy has been the junior partner throughout that period, and note the rise of the monarchy from 1973 until about 1978, when the military pushed back; the remarkable abdication of leadership to the palace under the regime headed by General Prem Tinsulanonda; and the further rise of influence after the 1992 events. To be sure, since about 2006, the monarchy has been in decline as the military has risen.

Chambers predicts that “unstable interregnum” could see “the military … soon insist that the monarchy’s quiet subordination become more explicit. A reassertion of the military’s role as palace guardian would permanently solidify its prerogatives and legitimacy.”

In looking at the military’s rise, Chambers notes that the draft constitution “enshrines a whole set of new powers for the military, most notably immunity to civilian oversight of its personnel and budget and a 20-year plan impervious to later government intervention.”

He also observes that the “junta has sought to follow Prem’s example of connecting to the palace, symbolically linking itself to the monarchy’s past…” and has promoted the prince’s public image. With a new reign (maybe) upon Thailand, Chambers says that “the armed forces will be tasked with both protecting the palace and acting as its representative.” He suggests that as the “new monarch comes to depend more on the military to prop up his own legitimacy, the power of the armed forces will only increase.”

The argument then loses steam and coherence in guessing about the future. That the military has increased its power over the throne, however, seems certain. After all, the monarchy has essentially been without a (active) king, not since 13 October, but since about 2006. Predictably, the generals have filled the political space.