Updated: More changes at the CPB

7 01 2019

There have been more changes announced for the Crown Property Bureau, the largest privately-held conglomerate and investment business in Thailand, owned by King Vajiralongkorn.

Back in July 2017 the junta’s National Legislative Assembly met in secret session to change the law on the CPB, giving the king complete control.

At that time, the legislation provided the king with sole authority over royal assets. Whereas the Ministry of Finance and its minister previously had nominal roles in managing the CPB and its board of directors, the legislation gave the king the power to appoint a board of directors for the CPB.

Since then, there have been a series of changes for the CPB, with directors sacked and other brought in as the CPB became populated by the king’s men (rather than his father’s men), CPB shares became the king’s, large tracts of urban land being taken by the CPB, and the king becoming the final arbiter in disputes over what is considered royal property.

The latest change to the board of directors is fascinating. As the Bangkok Post reports, the king appointed Privy Councilor Ampon Kittiampon and current Army commander Gen Apirat Kongsompong to the CPB.

Ampon was appointed to the Privy Council in October last year and came from the junta NLA. A few days ago, The Economist stated:

King Vajiralongkorn has also put his stamp on the privy council, a body which has a role in naming the heir to the throne, among other things. It once contained individuals who opposed his becoming king at all. Now it is stuffed with loyal military men.

Ampon is not military, but he’s loyal.

The Economist also commented on Gen Apirat: “The army, too, is receiving a royal makeover. The commander-in-chief appointed in September, Apirat Kongsompong, is the king’s man.”

Gen Apirat’s appointment seems unusual. We can’t recall serving officers being appointed to the CPB’s board. If any readers can recall a similar appointment, let us know.

What is clear is that the CPB is now the king’s CPB. It is also stuffed with military personnel – 8 of the 11 directors carry military and police ranks – with several of them having served the military junta.

Update: A reader passed this on to us. It is a statement by a military watcher: “The appointment of Wongthewan faction leader and Army Chief Apirat to the Crown Property Bureau board offers the latest indication of the Traditional Institution’s preference for Apirat over Prayut/Prawit. Growing army fissures could give rise to a counter-coup by Apirat against the junta.” PPT has no idea if this guess is correct but we would note that there are plenty of junta loyalists in the palace’s boards and that Apirat is secretary for the junta. Even so, the king is certainly punting on the future.





The Economist on the king

4 01 2019

The Economist’s story on Thailand this week will be banned in Thailand. It deserves to be widely read, so we reproduce it in full:

A royal pain

As the army and politicians bicker, Thailand’s king amasses more power
He appoints generals, patriarchs and executives, and disposes of crown property as he pleases

3 Jan 2019

IT HAPPENED IN the dead of night, without warning. In late December security forces showed up with a crane at a crossroads in Bangkok and whisked away the monument that stood there. No one admitted to knowing who had ordered the removal, or why. Police stopped an activist from filming it. The memorial itself, which marked the defeat in 1933 of putschists hoping to turn Thailand back into a royal dictatorship, has vanished. It is the second monument to constitutional monarchy to disappear under the military junta that has run Thailand since 2014: in 2017 a plaque celebrating the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932 was mysteriously replaced with one extolling loyalty to the king.

Making hard men humble

The current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has been on the throne for two years. He has unnerved his 69m subjects from the start. When his father, King Bhumibol, died in 2016, he refused to take the throne for nine weeks—despite having waited for it for decades. The delay was intended as a mark of respect, but it was also a way of signalling to the military junta that runs the country that he was determined to make his own decisions. It was only this week that a date was set for his coronation: May 4th. King Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time abroad, in a sumptuous residence near Munich. He even insisted on tweaking the new constitution, after it had already been approved in a referendum, to make it easier to reign from a distance.

King Bhumibol was on the throne for 70 years. Partly because of his clear devotion to the job, and partly because military regimes inculcated respect for the monarchy as a way of bolstering their own legitimacy, he was widely revered. Official adulation for the monarchy endures, but in private King Vajiralongkorn is widely reviled. His personal life is messy: he has churned through a series of consorts, disowning children and even imprisoning relatives of one jilted partner. He has firm ideas about the decorum he should be shown—the picture above shows the prime minister prostrating himself before him—but little sense of the respect he might owe anyone else: his cosseted poodle, elevated to the rank of Air Chief Marshal, used to jump up onto tables to drink from the glasses of visiting dignitaries. The tedious tasks expected of Thai monarchs, such as cutting ribbons and doling out university degrees, he palms off on his more popular sister.

Writing about such things in Thailand is dangerous. The country’s fierce lèse-majesté law promises between three and 15 years in prison for insulting “the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”. In practice, it has been used to suppress anything that could be construed as damaging to the monarchy, whether true or not, including novels that feature venal princes and academic research that casts doubt on the glorious deeds of the kings of yore.

As his critics are cowed, the king has focused on accumulating personal power. In 2017 the government gave him full control of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), an agency that has managed royal land and investments for decades and whose holdings are thought to be worth more than $40bn. In 2018 the CPB announced that all its assets would henceforth be considered the king’s personal property (he did, however, agree to pay taxes on them). That makes the king the biggest shareholder in Thailand’s third-biggest bank and one of its biggest industrial conglomerates, among other firms.

With the help of the CPB the king is reshaping an area of central Bangkok adjacent to the main royal palace. The bureau declined to renew the lease of the city’s oldest horse-racing track, the Royal Turf Club, leading to its closure in September after 102 years. An 80-year-old zoo next door closed the same month. The fate of two nearby universities that are also royal tenants remains uncertain. The CPB has not revealed the purpose of the upheaval; Thais assume the king just wants an even bigger palace.

King Vajiralongkorn has also put his stamp on the privy council, a body which has a role in naming the heir to the throne, among other things. It once contained individuals who opposed his becoming king at all. Now it is stuffed with loyal military men. The royal court is ruled with “iron discipline”, according to one local businessman. Leaks about the king’s disturbing conduct have dried up. Some former favourites have found themselves in prison. Hangers-on who traded on their royal connections have been shown the door.

The king’s authority over religious orders has also grown. In 2016 the government granted him the power to appoint members of the Sangha Supreme Council—in effect, Thai Buddhism’s governing body—and to choose the next chief monk, known as the Supreme Patriarch. He did so in 2017, elevating a respected monk from the smaller and more conservative of Thailand’s two main Buddhist orders.

The army, too, is receiving a royal makeover. The commander-in-chief appointed in September, Apirat Kongsompong, is the king’s man. Over the next two years he will supervise the relocation of a regiment and a battalion out of Bangkok, ostensibly to relieve crowding. Security in the city will fall instead to the elite Royal Guard Command, which is directly under the king’s control.

Many contend that it is the king who has pushed the army to hold the oft-delayed election that has at last been called for February 24th. This is not to suggest that the king is a democrat (his actions suggest anything but). Rather, the contest is likely to lead to a weak, chaotic government, which probably suits him well. The constitution the army designed makes it hard for elected politicians to achieve a parliamentary majority. But even if the army retains power behind the scenes, it will have surrendered absolute authority. Either pro-army types or democrats would probably seek royal support to govern, strengthening the king’s position however the vote turns out.





Monarchy, “ancient traditions” and neo-feudal property relations

5 11 2018

One of the things PPT repeatedly pointed out following succession was the attention the king gave to clawing back what he believes to belong to the monarchy and, specifically, the king.

Since accession, King Vajiralongkorn has overseen a rapid unwinding of arrangements regarding the relationship between crown and state that were put in place after the 1932 Revolution. These arrangements were to establish a separation of state and crown, not least in terms of the state’s funds and the those of the crown and the monarch.

The military junta agreed that the king could have total and personal control of the Crown Property Bureau, making that Bureau’s assets his personal property.

Before he came to the throne, it has been widely assumed that Vajiralongkorn was little more than a dumb hedonist. However, the efforts he has made to challenge decades-old arrangements that have long annoyed the royal family suggest that he has imbibed the anti-1932 bile that has circulated in the family. He’s showing that he follows a line of royal relatives who plotted and schemed against the People’s Party and its legacy.

The most recent change to these arrangements, reported at Khaosod, should send shivers through all property owners and businesses.

Yet another revision to the law governing the king’s assets has been promulgated.

The amended Crown Property Act “redefines the king’s possessions to include what the monarchy had accumulated under ‘ancient royal traditions.’ King Vajiralongkorn has the final say over what is included in the category.”

Further, the arbiter of disputes over, say, a plot of land, is none other than the king himself: “Any dispute over what assets are considered Crown Property under the royal ancient traditions must be referred to His Majesty’s judgment…”.

Presumably this means that, if he wants your land or other assets, the king can simply take them.

Some of this has been seen already (see here, here and here), but this retrograde law makes everyone vulnerable.

Feudalism is being restored in 21st century Thailand.





King and Privy Council

14 10 2018

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a well-known critic of the monarchy. He has a new article at The Diplomat. Most of it, though, will be familiar to PPT readers. However, it is worth remaking some of his points.

He focuses on the recent reorganization of the Privy Council and notes that the:

king’s decision to evict old members of the Privy Council close to his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the stripping of the power from its president, General Prem Tinsulanonda, as well as the appointment of his close confidants as new Privy Councilors, suggests that, more than just a process, this is part of the growing aggrandizement of political power of Thailand’s new King….

In fact, the king has not really done anything that should not have been expected. Any new king would want to have his most trusted advisers in place.

The dead king made sure he had pliant royalists as advisers “working outside the constitutional framework to compete with other elite groups for administrative and political power.”

They protected and advanced the king’s and monarchy’s positions:

Successive coups have over the years strengthened the partnership between the Privy Council and the military. The Privy Council played its part in endorsing past coups, including the most recent one in May 2014. Prem, in the aftermath of the coup, openly praised the coup makers for being a force that moved Thailand forward. This underlined the quintessential role of the Privy Council as an engine behind the Thai politics.

In the past reign, the link with the military mostly revolved around Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and, to a lesser extent, Gen Surayud Chulanont. The Privy Councilors

… constructed a complex web of relationships as a way to sanctify the royal power above other institutions outside the constitutional framework. In his overt intervention in politics, Prem placed his trusted subordinates in key positions in the bureaucracy and in the army. He had an influence on the defense budget, and dominated national security and foreign policy, and thus the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Pavin also notes that the:

Privy Council under Prem also had its members seated on boards in major conglomerates including Bangkok Bank, Charoen Phokphand, the Boonrawd group, and the Charoen Siriwatanapakdi business group. For the Privy Council, reaching out to these powerful factions was as crucial as allowing them to reach in, thus consolidating a network of interdependence. The Privy Council’s strong ties with the bureaucracy, the military and businesses effectively circumscribed the power and authority of the government of the day.

The new king wants similar influence, but he’s been busy pushing the old duffers aside. Prem is infirm, doddery and being made essentially powerless:

On October 2, Vajiralongkorn added three more Privy Councillors to its team: Amphon Kittiamphon, currently advisor to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha; General Chalermchai Sidhisart, former army chief, and; Air Chief Marshal Chom Rungsawang, former Air Force chief. This latest move can be regarded as Vajiralongkorn’s plot in strengthening his political position by setting up a new trusted team to replace the old one—the team that has its links with the current military strongmen.

At present, 10 of the 16 councilors have been appointed by the current king. He can appoint another two. At the same time, he has already ditched three he appointed, presumably because they annoyed him about something or other. So the “trusted team” is being put in place, but there’s still some work to do or dying to be done.

Pavin also mentions the “law was enacted in regard to the ownership of the rich Crown Property Bureau…, [where] crown property assets reverted to the ownership of the king with the bureau’s investments now being held in Vajiralongkorn’s name.”

He might have mentioned that the king is now personally the largest shareholder in both the Siam Cement Group and the Siam Commercial Bank, the latter ownership having been seen in stockholder information fairly recently. (We also think Pavin should update the $30 billion assets of the CPB/king. That was from data collected in 2005 and imperfectly updated in 2011. We would guess that the real figure is closer to $50-60 billion.)

Pavin is undoubtedly right that while “many predicted that Vajiralongkorn, perceived as having lacked moral authority, could become a weak king.” As he now says, “He is quickly proving them wrong.”





Updated: Money matters

19 08 2018

Readers may recall the changes made to the Crown Property Bureau in June and the somewhat murky associated share transfers at two of Thailand’s biggest firms, Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement Group that preceded that. These changes were demanded by the king and approved by the military junta.

Reuters reports that one of the flow-ons of these deals is that:

Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn is now the largest shareholder in the country’s biggest industrial conglomerate, Siam Cement Group Pcl, data from the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET), published on its website on Saturday showed.

It shows the king as having a 33.30 percent share, making him the biggest shareholder in the construction and industrial supplies firm. The monarch’s holdings in the company have a value of nearly 180 billion baht ($5.43 billion).

Data for the Siam Commercial Bank has not been updated. There the CPB is till listed as the second top shareholder (19.61%) while the king is listed with 3.33%. Presumably that will change soon.

Update: We corrected the link and the data in the final paragraph above.





Explaining ownership of the royal billions

16 06 2018

In the past, during the previous reign, several governments and palace propagandists have sought to “explain” that the Crown Property Bureau’s wealth is not the king’s personal property to do with as he sees fit. Some have even suggested that the CPB is some kind of fund for the nation. Ambassadors have frequently made this point when defending one of the world’s wealthiest monarchies.

Yet this ruse used by royal and royalist propagandists is no longer possible.

An AFP report at The Japan Times states that the CPB has issued an “explanatory note” that makes it crystal clear that King Vajiralongkorn “has been granted full ownership of the palace’s billions of dollars of assets under a law passed last year…”.

This was a point made in earlier accounts, and some argue that in practice this has been the case for decades, but now it is official.

The assets of the CPB are probably now about $60 billion, “although the monarchy does not publicly declare its wealth and is shielded from scrutiny by a draconian lese majeste law.” The CPB has “a vast portfolio that includes massive property ownership and investments in major companies.”

Last July’s amended a royal property law means “all ‘Crown Property Assets’ are to be transferred and revert to the ownership of His Majesty, so that they may be administered and managed at His Majesty’s discretion…”.

The “explanation” is not dated but is widely available, including at the CPB’s website.

It states that “all of the CPB’s shareholdings will also ‘be held in the name of His Majesty’.”

It also states that “previously tax exempt CPB assets will now be liable to taxation ‘in line with His Majesty’s wishes’.” We wait to see how this develops.





Rolling back 1932 one piece of property at a time III

12 04 2018

PPT has been posting on the king’s and Crown Property Bureau’s efforts to (re)secure the so-called Royal Plaza, rolling back changes that were made when the monarchy was put in its (proper) place as a constitutional monarchy rather than a grasping, absolutist and despotic regime.

While the CPB “declined to confirm reports Wednesday that it was evicting two state universities built on land it owns in Bangkok,” Khaosod reports that the CPB was “formulating a response to reports the palace would terminate leases with Suan Sunandha and Suan Dusit universities when they expire in five years.” Apparently, the big shots were flummoxed that “the news got out.”

The report continues:

A former residence for King Rama VI’s family members, Suan Sunandha was turned into a university by the civilian government following the 1932 revolt that overthrew absolute monarchy. The same revolution also gave birth to Suan Dusit University in 1934.

The land abuts other plots the CPB has been reclaiming for the monarchy.

We should add that we think the final claim in the report is in error. It sates that with “more than 16,000 acres under its oversight, the Crown Property Bureau is the largest landowner of Thailand.” In fact, while its lands may well be the most valuable landholding, we believe the largest landowner title belongs to the Sirivadhanabhakdi family of beer and whiskey fame.