Military and monarchy as Siamese twins

10 12 2017

The Asia Times has another long commentary on Thailand’s political predicament by Shawn Crispin. There’s some interesting bits and pieces.

For one thing, it is stated that in “the lead-up to the cremation of … King Bhumibol …, authorities rounded up 42 suspects at check points around the royal ceremony…”. Further,

Rights groups and diplomats monitoring the arrests say the detained suspects likely face prosecution on national security-related charges for threatening the ceremony, including under the penal code’s harsh lese majeste provision that shields the royal family from defamation, insult and threat.

It is interesting that Crispin credits The Dictator “for steering a smooth succession from Bhumibol to Vajiralongkorn, a delicate transition many feared could spark instability.” To be honest, we think the “delicate transition” was a bit of a beat up.

The next royal big deal, he says, is “Vajiralongkorn’s formal coronation, now seen as astrologically auspicious to be held in March…”.

Crispin asks “how stable is the transition from royal old to new, and how serious is the threat posed by anti-monarchists supposedly lurking in the shadows?”

He notes that Vajiralongkorn “has set a tone for his reign in moves that diplomats and analysts say shows his intent to shake-up royal institutions in terms of personnel, protocol and operations.”

That’s somewhat bland for what he’s doing, which is erasing all notion of popular sovereignty in favor of a monarchy that is independent of all checks and balances introduced after 1932.

Crispin says that the “Royal Household Bureau has also openly targeted those found to have abused their palace positions or association for personal gain.”

That’s somewhat bland for what somewhat bland for what’s happened. Rather, the new king has been purging the palace and appointing his trusted allies.

One interesting observation is that “[c]hampions of the new reign say the housecleaning is overdue and that ill-deeds grew in the latter years of Bhumibol’s reign when he was hospitalized for ill-health.”

That’s what might be expected, but it is one of the first statements of the fact that the new reign is embedding in a manner that is essentially neo-feudal and that shifts political and economic power to the palace.

The notion that the new palace will “challenge the big business families that have long leveraged royal connections to corner sectors of the economy, a commercial domination that has grown since the 2014 coup” seems to come out of nowhere, but it is known that the king maintains relations with several Sino-Thai tycoons.

It isn’t clear to us that Vajiralongkorn taking “full control of the Crown Property Bureau …[and] the board of the palace’s Royal Project Foundation,” seems like him establishing his dominance and lining his pockets rather than a challenge to the big tycoons.

Crispin is correct to note that the military junta has “unquestioningly” done the palace’s bidding, but adds a note:

Thailand’s military and monarchy have long had a symbiotic relationship, with the former sworn to the protection of the latter, but the new emerging balance between the two powerful institutions is still being determined under Vajiralongkorn’s young new reign.

Both General Prayuth Chan-ocha and the king are self-centered and erratic, leading to concerns that the two may clash.

Crispin is also on the money when he notes that the king is asserting authority of Bangkok-based military units, He refers to the “absorption of military combat units, including the First Region Command’s First Infantry Division, a top-fighting force, into the king’s personal guard.”

That division “was recently moved from the military’s main command in Bangkok to Vajiralongkorn’s secondary Tawee Wattana palace on the capital’s outskirts, with certain soldiers transferred upcountry.”

On the transition to an “elected” government, Crispin observes the junta’s reluctance and suggests that “anti-monarchy elements remain bent on undermining the royal institution…” may be a “reason” for further “election” delays. at a still uncertain juncture of the succession.

He reckons that there are 1,000 lese majeste complaints “still under police investigation…”. That’s a whole lot of anti-monarchists and a whole lot of justification for ongoing military repression.

For the moment, the junta and the king remain joined as Siamese twins in neo-feudal repression.





More secret palace deals

9 12 2017

In a secret consideration, the junta’s puppet National Legislative Assembly (NLA) has approved “adjustments to the law that manages the safety and security of … the [k]ing and members of the [r]oyal [f]amily.”

After the event, it is reported that the NLA “voted unanimously to approve an amendment to the 2014 Law of Royal Safety in line with the 2017 Constitution, as well as a new law concerning the Royal household.”

The amendment to the 2014 law reportedly “authorises the Principal Private Secretary to … the [k]ing to provide security services to the monarchy rather than a committee chaired by Chief of Aide de Camp General to … the [k]ing, as stipulated in the old law…”.

The previous committee “included military commanders and other relevant officials…”. Whether there will be a new committee is apparently up to the Principal Private Secretary. That person:

… will also be in charge of security and safety services for … the [k]ing and members of the [r]oyal [f]amily whenever they travel abroad…. The old law commissioned the Aide de Camp Department [of the military] and the Foreign Ministry to take care of their safety. Under the new law, the Principal Private Secretary … will plan and command safety measures for … the [k]ing….

The 2014 Law on Royal Safety also “authorised the prime minister to be involved in the approval of safety plans for … the [k]ing and members of the [r]oyal [f]amily.” That role is now gone.

It is reported that the “amendment will be promulgated in the Royal Gazette later,” and that the “content of the new amendment was not available to the public during the NLA debate.”

This is another move consolidating palace affairs in the king’s hands and a process of removing all vestiges of civilian control of the monarchy and palace that were put in place in 1932 and after.

Earlier, the NLA had approved the transfer of the Royal Household Bureau, Office of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary, Royal Aide-De-Camp Department, Office of Royal Court Security Police and Royal Security Command, formerly under control of the Ministry of Defense, the Prime Minister’s Office and the police, to the king.

He’s continuing the process of making the monarchy independent of any notion of civilian and parliamentary control. The previous justification for the move was that issues related to the king and his family could not be served by the state bureaucracy.

Not that long ago, the arrangements for control of the fabulously wealthy Crown Property Bureau were passed to the king in another secret set of dealings.





Good rich king, bad rich king

25 10 2017

Are we the only ones who have detected a change in the way that critics of the monarchy are writing about it?

While we recently posted on the ninth reign as a bloody era where thousands of citizens were disappeared, jailed, tortured and killed by the state, usually operating in the name of the monarchy and, for the most part, supported by the king, other commentaries seem to be eulogizing that reign.

An example, and it is one of several, is a New York Time op-ed by Matthew Phillips, a historian in Wales.

Phillips repeats several of the lines from Bhumibol hagiographies and palace propaganda:

Thailand’s previous king … is credited with transforming Thailand into a modern nation-state and unifying the country during times of political turmoil.

The author might acknowledge that this is pure propaganda that ignores real history.

Then in 1946, Bhumibol ascended to the throne, and after a discreet first decade….

The author doesn’t seem to think it important to mention the death of King Ananda Mahidol or the royalist efforts to pin that on innocents and to send political opponents into exile. We would have thought that period was pivotal for the rise of a royalist military.

A military coup in 1958, pro-American and high on Thai pride, placed the (U.S.-born) king at its center, and the Thai public reacted enthusiastically.

We can’t help wondering about how public enthusiasm is measured? By the bodies that piled up under General Sarit Thanarat’s despotism?

King Bhumibol is often credited with foiling a Communist movement during the Cold War, liberalizing the Thai economy and keeping the country together despite its often-fractious politics.

Again, he is “credited” with these superhuman feats, but it is usually palace propagandists making these points.

The rest of Phillip’s article is quite good, so we are not sure why he repeats these lines of hagiography. In other stories, it seems the authors are pining for the past 70 years, comparing that era with what they think is going to be an awful reign under the erratic and narcissistic Vajiralongkorn.

The good bits seem to us to build on several insights from Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. The previous king and his advisers came up with the propaganda device that made its wealth a sign of merit and allowed others to share in it.

On the funeral, he notes that “… there is little discussion over the expense of King Bhumibol’s cremation.” He adds that, “for the monarchy, has been to make royal wealth seem sacred, and any contribution to it appear virtuous.”

He notes the growth of royal wealth under the dead king.

The royal family, thanks in part to a raft of projects with business, academia, the arts and charities, has implanted itself at the center of Thailand’s cultural and social life — apparently far from the messy, brutal realities of capitalism and political gamesmanship. Giving money or labor to a royally endorsed project has come to be seen as a good deed, and so an opportunity to improve one’s chances of an auspicious rebirth in the Buddhist reincarnation cycle.

… Bhumibol’s material legacy also is great. The Crown Property Bureau, the agency that manages the royal finances, has vastly expanded its business portfolio. Neither the bureau’s assets nor its operations are entirely known, but the Thai monarchy is now thought to be the world’s richest, with an estimated fortune of at least $30 billion. Under … Bhumibol, the royal family of Thailand has become fabulously rich….

No debate there, although the figure is probably closer to $50 billion now. And the new king has control of it. The “fun” is about to begin.





Updated: Big deals for the Crown Property Bureau

7 10 2017

In a somewhat bland Bangkok Post article it is reported that the “Crown Property Bureau’s shareholding in Siam Commercial Bank (SCB), Thailand’s third-largest bank by assets, has declined by 3.33%…”.

That amounts to about 17 billion baht or more than half a billion dollars.

The CPB remains the bank’s largest shareholder after the transaction on 2 October. There were few other details.

SCB shares fell every day following the transaction in a market that reached a 24 year high.

The Post provided no other detail or any analysis suggesting fear at work.

Sure enough, a Reuters report suggests murky trading. It states that the shares “have been transferred on behalf of King Maha Vajiralongkorn from the Crown Property Bureau…”.

The report adds that the Securities Commission “filing by the Crown Property Bureau did not identify the ultimate beneficiary of the shares, nor did it indicate if any money had been paid for the shares.”

This is an odd “transaction.” It may have been a sale, but we don’t know. (PPT could not locate the announcement at the SCB website or those of the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Securities Exchange of Thailand.)

Reuters states that the CPB confirmed the transaction but declined comment further. An official reportedly said: “It is his majesty’s private affair so I cannot comment further…”.

The SCB also “declined to comment on the transaction in its shares.”

That’s odd for a publicly listed firm and will probably worry some institutional investors. If we were SCB shareholders we’d be very concerned about this lack of transparency. After all, SCB is supposed to be a public company, not a royal plaything.

This isn’t the only recent deal that lacks transparency. Back in late 1994, there was a deal done to buy most of Kempinski, the hotels company. The annual report for that year stated:

It was the SCB that headed up this takeover, with its chairman becoming the chair of Kempinski. When the economic crisis hit, Dusit Thani “sold its share of Kempinski Hotels to its partner, the Siam Commercial Bank…”. Exactly how this was done is unclear as the SCB was struggling at this time.

In a remarkably opaque statement at the Kempinski website, it is stated:

In 2004, the Thailand Crown Property Bureau took over a majority holding in Kempinski AG, which enabled the company to extend its portfolio even further by means of a global expansion strategy and to develop new markets.

How the CPB obtained Kempinski from SCB is unclear. The same site then adds, equally opaquely:

After 13 years, in February 2017, the two existing shareholders formalised previous plans for an equity transfer between them and the majority shares are now held by the existing Bahraini-shareholder while the shareholder from Thailand now owns a minority.

Some say the “equity transfer” was worth one billion Euros. That means about $1.6 billion in two known but opaque deals in 2017. These coincide with the king’s formal expansion of his power over royal loot.

Update: The Nikkei Asian Review states that it is King Vajiralongkorn who “has personally become a major shareholder in Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) following the transfer this week of shares held by the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) valued at about $500 million.” It adds: “report filed with the SEC by the Crown Property Bureau, it was stated that the 3.33% holding had been transferred to King Vajiralongkorn, but there was no indication as to whether there was any payment for the stake.”

The motivation for such a transfer remain unclear.





Updated: Royal wealth and the squeeze on the taxpayer

13 09 2017

Academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun has recently published an op-ed at The Japan Times. “A very wealthy monarch grows wealthier” examines the July “reorganization of the Crown Property Bureau, to pave the way for his [King Vajiralongkorn’s] control of this financial wing of the monarchy.”

Pavin observes that:

The new legislation was approved by the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, which appointed Vajiralongkorn as the sole authority over royal wealth. This dismantled the traditional mechanism put in place by his father … who appointed a government official to manage the crown property. Instead, under the new bill, Vajiralongkorn will set up a board of directors to oversee his assets.

We don’t think this is entirely accurate. It is odd to call the previous arrangement “traditional.” Rather, laws that have been revised a couple of times since 1932 established that the Minister of Finance would chair the CPB (as Pavin later notes). It is that governmental link that has been removed and the CPB made the preserve of the king. Pavin is right to note that:

There are two key characteristics of the legislation. First, the king is entitled to appoint the board members, as well as to remove them, at his discretion. Second, the law prohibits the taking away of royal assets without the king’s approval.

As others have noted, this new arrangement means the “Crown Property Bureau is the corporate arm of the monarchy, performing as the major shareholder of the kingdom’s biggest cement company and one of the largest commercial banks.” It’s also correct that “the most valuable assets owned by the royal family are huge swaths of land, much of it in prime areas in central Bangkok.”

Pavin is also correct to argue that “the financial status of the monarchy [the CPB and private wealth combined] has dominated Thailand’s economic landscape. The super-rich status of the king played a vital part in buttressing the political power of the royal family.” Likewise, it is certainly true that part of the CPB’s business success “derived from special privileges granted to the monarchy in conducting business” without transparency or accountability.

Then there’s the capacity of this fabulously wealthy monarchy to leech off the taxpayer. Not only does the CPB pay no taxes (its listed companies do) but there’s a seemingly bottomless money pit that takes money from the taxpayer and redistributes it to the richest of Thailand’s rich.

The much touted “royal projects” are funded by the taxpayer – thank General Prem Tinsulanonda for that redistribution when he was unelected premier. And then there is the cash spent on the “operations of the Bureau of the Royal Household and the expenses of the monarch and his extended family members,” along with bags of money for “promoting” the monarchy.

Despite the wealth of the Crown Property Bureau, the monarchy is allocated generous funds from the government for private and public expenses. Around $170 million annually in state funding covers the salaries of staff working in the Royal Household Bureau and other palace offices, including protection provided for the royal family by the security forces.

Pavin reckons the “budget for the promotion of the dignity of the monarchy,” was almost $400 million in 2003, increasing to $438 million in 2015.

We looked at the 2016 and 2017 budget years in documents available from the Budget Bureau (Thailand’s Budget In Brief), and we think the figures are striking. In 2016, the amount for “upholding, protecting and preserving the monarchy”under the National Security Strategy, on its own, comes to about $555 million. As can be seen in the attached snip, there’s more in the budget for “unified reconciliation.”

The interesting thing is that when one goes through the budget lines provided it is decidedly unclear if the strategies listed as 2.1 and 2.2 overlap the roughly $340 million for royal projects, royal travel, royal bureaus, royal vanity projects and so on. Given that every ministry and department will spend oodles on royal promotion not covered under the programs above, we are thinking that, in 2016, the monarchy cost Thai taxpayers something like $700-800 million.

How does this look in 2017? The format provided is different, but we located this:It seems highly unlikely that the programs have changed this much. Rather, the changed format is suggestive of covering up the huge amount on “upholding, protecting and preserving the monarchy” in 2016. What we do observe is that the second program has gone up by about 60%. In looking at details of funding to royal projects, royal travel, royal bureaus, royal vanity projects and so on, there has been a 37.8% increase, thanks mainly to the creation of a budget line for the Chulabhorn Research Institute (about $115 million). The total budget in these lines in 2017 was $472 million. We might guess that the total taxpayer bill for all things royal is around $1 billion.

(Correct us if you think we are wrong in our calculations.)

Whatever way you look at it, this fabulously wealthy king and royal family, worth perhaps $50-60 billion, also leeches off the taxpayer to the tune of another $1 billion a year.

Update: Somsak Jeamteerasakul wants to challenge some of the points made by Pavin:

Pavin’s article contains some significant errors or misleading statements, and this post doesn’t correct them, even repeats them. For instance. it’s not “right to note” the “two characteristics” of the new legislation. Those two were already there in the previous law. In fact, the second ”characteristic” is quite misleading to put it that way, both in the case of the previous law (article 7 which was more suit to describe as Pavin does, but still isn’t entirely apt) and the new law (article 8 last para., which doesn’t really mean what Pavin says; it is not about [others] ‘taking away’ royal assets at all, just saying that the king-appointed committee couldn’t sell or make any transaction of the asset without his formal approval). Pavin was also wrong to say the late king “appointed a government official to manage the crown property”. The next sentence is also mistaken: “instead, the – no, it’s not something King X does ‘instead’; his father also did. Pavin was wrong again to say “Under King Bhumibol, the board of directors for the royal assets answered to the finance minister.” In both the letters of the old law (read carefully article 4, nothing about ‘answered to’ at all) and in practice (for 70 years, finance ministers of all successive governments did have any say in the management of the CPB). In consequence and in this context, Pavin’s next sentence is also incorrect: “NOW, it is independent of the government.” It isn’t “now” that the CPB is ‘independent of the government.’; it had always been since 1948.

As we said above, there were some problems with Pavin’s characterization of the new law, but Somsak is rather picky on this stuff, being immersed in the detail. We don’t believe that Pavin states that the “two characteristics” are new in the new law. Somsak prefers a very careful reading, and that’s fine. We pretty much agree with his other points.

However, we were more interested in taxpayer funding to the monarchy. As we said above, we are keen to know if our calculations are wonky.





CPB and more shopping

24 08 2017

A major reshaping of Bangkok’s Lumpini area is planned. The Crown Property Bureau is about to make another fortune. Yukako Ono reports on this at the Nikkei Asian Review.

The CPB has made several prime pieces of real estate available for large major urban redevelopment projects.

The biggest of these is with the TCC Group, “the family-owned conglomerate known for brewery subsidiary Thai Beverage,” owned by Sino-Thai tycoon and heavy investor in royal futures, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi and his family.

The CPB is leasing land to TCC for up to six decades for its One Bangkok project, “the nation’s largest-ever private redevelopment project, valued at 120 billion baht ($3.6 billion).” Ono says this “vast mixed-use complex will cover 167,000 sq. meters along Witthayu Road, an area home to Japanese, U.S. and British embassies as well as luxury hotels. That prime location drew redevelopment proposals from 21 bidders.” It will include “[f]ive office buildings, five hotels, three condominiums and a shopping mall will take over the location, which used to field a Thai boxing stadium and a night market.”

Part of this land is an area that was an area that was taken from the royals after 1932 but returned to them at an undisclosed time.

Up the road, “hotel operator Dusit International has joined hands with Central Pattana, a property development unit of retail giant Central Group, to close the … Dusit Thani … hotel and replace it with a 36.7 billion-baht mixed-use project that is to include a new Dusit hotel and shopping mall. In extending its property bureau [CPB] lease for the land, Dusit was able to gain an additional 8,000 sq. meters of real estate.”

The property bureau [CPB] itself is participating in the redevelopment boom through fully owned subsidiary Siam Sindhorn. Its first project, an 89,600-sq.-meter hybrid facility, is set for full completion in 2019.

Siam Sindhorn opened a condo at the site earlier this year, which the company says contains interior furnishings and utilities from across the globe. A 30-year lease commands an average of 240,000 baht per square meter, about twice the average going rate for Bangkok’s city center. Siam Sindhorn has begun marketing the development to investors in China, Japan and Western nations.

More upscale shopping, more luxury condos, more luxury hotels. Remember the CPB propaganda about helping small shophouse owners?





Updated: Royalism undermines popular sovereignty

14 08 2017

Everyone knows that the prince, now king, began his purges of the palace from late 2014, when he “divorced” Srirasmi. Dozens of her family and associates were jailed. Then there were the clearances that saw “unreliables” ditched, deaths in custody, lese majeste jailings and the use of a personal jail. Some fearful palace associates, now out of favor, fled the country.

This was followed by an aggregation of control to the palace. The constitution was secretly changed to accord with the king’s desires and then secret meetings of the puppet assembly gave him control over formerly state bureaucratic departments and the vast wealth of the Crown Property Bureau to the king.

Has he finished? Probably not. Fear and favor mean that an erratic king will lose interest in some people and some things and will need to be rid of them. Then he’ll desire control over other people and things.

But one of the other things that is noticeable is the “normalization” of the reign, as if nothing has changed or that the changes made are in line with the normal activities of the king and palace. Yet even this “normalization” has been a process of promoting a heightened royalism.

The media has been used recently to promote royalism. The excuse has been the queen’s 85th birthday, with a series of “stories” about “people nationwide” celebrating her birthday. Many of the photos showed military men and bureaucrats doing the celebrating.

The Dictator was especially prominent, leading the junta in an alms-giving exercise for 851 monks at the Royal Plaza, claiming it was also a tribute to the dead monarch.

More specific propaganda pieces have dwelt on “merit” and filial piety. For example, the Bangkok Post has run pictures of the king, his mother and Princess Sirindhorn making merit together.

Other royal stories include a donation to of 100 million baht to Siriraj Hospital, with the king thanking the hospital for taking care of his father. The money is said to have “come from revenue from selling his diaries featuring his drawings…”.

While we might doubt that so much money can be made from the sale of a collection of childish drawings, the junta’s support for the king has been strong and maybe it bought many diaries and distributed them.

But back to deepening royalism. The Nation reports on a “revival” of Kukrit Pramoj’s restorationist story “Four Reigns.” Kukrit was an incessant promoter of royalism, ideologue for the dictatorial General Sarit Thanarat, booster for King Bhumibol and diplomat for royalism translated for foreigners.

The Four Reigns is now Six Reigns. According to The Nation, the “restaging of Thailand’s most commercially successful musical play is more pro-absolute monarchy than ever.”

The play opens with the scene in which the spirit of Mae Phloi starts to recount her life story and confirm her unwavering love for “kings”, and the background is the familiar image of people gathering outside the wall of the Grand Palace paying respect to the late King Bhumibol.

And with the last scene showing Thai people paying respect to King Vajiralongkorn, the play now covers six, not four, reigns.

Clearly, the play … tries, more clearly than the original novel, to prove … that Thailand was much better before 1932 than after. This outdated attitude doesn’t sit too well in 2017 Thailand, as we try to build our political system from “military junta under a constitutional monarchy” to “unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy”, a kind of democracy that is already difficult to explain to our friends from many countries.

This royalism can only deepen as the cremation of the dead king approaches and as Vajiralongkorn and the junta further embed his reign and undermine notions of popular sovereignty.

Update: The new king is the old king propaganda continues, with two stories at The Nation of the king’s donations to 300 flood victims and 39 students in the south. We should add that there is no evidence provided of where the funds come from. Like royal projects, it may be that “donations” are all taxpayer funded.