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.





Rolling back 1932 one piece of property at a time II

7 04 2018

The palace and Crown Property Bureau have been active in recent months as they seek, for the king, to consolidate what he considers the “royal precinct.” We have previously mentioned assertions of royal control over the Bangkok or Dusit Zoo, Suan Amphon and the Ananta Samakhom Hall. And who can forget the illegal (and still unexplained) removal of the 1932 plaque that the king and the junta must have thought sullied the “royal precinct.”

The most recent territory marking involves the Royal Turf Club and the Nang Loeng horse-racing track, also in Dusit district. It is reported that the CPB has demanded the Royal Turf Club vacate the property in 180 days.

Anant Waiwitaya, a CPB legal affairs officer recently wrote to the club “to demand the departure.”

For many years the very large property has been in the hands of aged military people who benefit from gambling and while having been in operation for more than 100 years, is most recently remembered as the home of anti-Thaksin/anti-Yingluck grey activists under General Boonlert Kaewprasit’s Pitak Siam. This group was supported by all kinds of old royalists and conservatives who began the initial agitation against Yingluck. Boonlert was – maybe still is – secretary-general of the Royal Turf Club.

The CPB’s Anant noted that the lease had expires and that the Royal Turf Club had to vacate the property and its “track, five-storey stand, two six-storey parking buildings, a five-storey management building, a one-storey structure and a swimming pool.”

The CPB stated that it “had to use the land and the buildings.”

The report says: “Initiatives to relocate it were discussed during the previous governments of Chuan Leekpai and Thaksin Shinawatra.” Nothing resulted.

We see the action as another effort to create the “royal precinct,” rumored to include plans for a massive palace. The map below shows that the king’s moves over the last six months have massively expanded his territory.





Another royal money move

16 03 2018

Reuters reports that “Thailand’s king now has a stake worth nearly $150 million in the country’s biggest industrial conglomerate, Siam Cement Group Pcl, according to stock exchange data, while his close aide is in line for a board seat.”

As background, readers might recall that it was last October that it was reported that the Crown Property Bureau’s shareholding in Siam Commercial Bank suddenly declined by 3.33%, amounting to about 17 billion baht. It was then reported that these shares had been transferred to King Vajiralongkorn from the Crown Property Bureau.

The latest move on Siam Cement followed the same pattern: “The 0.76 percent stake in the king’s name in Siam Cement was acquired on Feb. 8 while there was a matching reduction in the stake of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages palace assets…”.

In total, the shares previously held by the CPB and now transferred to the king’s portfolio amounts to about $690 million. These holdings would produce a “dividend yield [of]… more than $25 million per year.”

The report continues by commenting on the secretiveness of these transfers: “The terms of the transfers have not been disclosed in public. Neither company nor the Crown Property Bureau would comment on them…. The palace has a policy of not commenting to media.”

The CPB remains the largest shareholder in Siam Cement, holding 30% of the company.

Since taking the throne, outside the CPB, the king has become “the 15th largest shareholder in Siam Cement and the sixth biggest in Siam Commercial Bank…”.

At Siam Cement, “Air Chief Marshal Satitpong Sukvimol, a close aide to the king who was made director general of the Crown Property Bureau this month, is recommended for a board seat at a March 28 annual general meeting.”

Satitpong, 69, has been responsible for managing the king’s personal affairs and assets for some time. He reportedly “became personal secretary to then-Crown Prince … Vajiralongkorn in 2005, and served on the board of national flag carrier Thai Airways International from 2009 to 2013.” The then-prince had a long relationship and “position” with Thai Airways, as well as having a personal  interest in several women with the airline.

The SCG annual report for 2017 (clicking downloads a PDF) lists former CPB boss Chirayu Isarangkun as a director of the company since 1987 until 1999 and then since 2007. The board is a coterie of old royalists, with an average age of 72. Of the 24 listed as directors and management in the company, only one is a woman. A look through the CVs of the directors reveals that most have long royal links and serve on other royal-owned companies, including those making, managing and investing the personal wealth of Vajiralongkorn and Sirindhorn. Details of retirements and nominations for the SCG Board can be downloaded as a PDF. According to this document, Chirayu will remain on the Board.

Speculation about the reasons for the king needing to control large personal stakes in two of Thailand’s largest listed companies is rife. One reason suggested is his lavish lifestyle and the need for cash rather than relying on the CPB, although the king now has more or less personal control of the CPB. Another suggestion is that he plans grand palace construction in the expanding royal precinct.

The various reports note that the CPB remains huge. The usual estimate of its assets is around $30 billion. But that’s a figure Forbes came up with back in 2011. Yet an earlier estimate by an academic came up with more than $40 billion in 2005. Since then Thai shares have performed reasonably well and land prices have increased substantially.  Our guesstimate is that the CPB, if it has done as well as the rest of Thailand’s wealthy Sino-Thai tycoons, should now be valued at between $50 billion and $70 billion. (It is possible that the CPB has been underperforming, but its operations are a secret, as is its worth.)





New privy councilor and the CPB

12 03 2018

After the unceremonious sacking of Wirach (or Virat) Chinvinitkul  earlier this month a new privy councilor has been appointed.

King Vajiralongkorn “has issued a Royal Command appointing Mr Chirayu Isarangkun na Ayuthaya as a privy councilor effective as of March 11.”

Chirayu has been Lord Chamberlain of the Bureau of the Royal Household for about a year has long been director-general of the Crown Property Bureau, In fact, since 1987, when the then king plucked him from a corruption scandal in the Prem Tinsulanonda government.

The big news is that taking Chirayu out of the CPB allows the king to appoint Air Chief Marshal Sathitpong Sukwimol director-general of the Crown Property Bureau. This means the king now has “his man” in charge of the CPB and all its loot and assets.

Sathitpong was the king’s secretary when he was made caretaker and manager of his personal assets and interests in early 2017. Considered a trusted confidant, back in 2014, Sathitpong played the role of secretary to the prince and was involved in bringing down the family of the estranged wife, then Princess Srirasmi and in reorganizing the palace’s troops.