Catching up on the monarchy

8 08 2017

PPT has been posting regularly and yet we have not been able to post on all the stories in the media we’ve found interesting on or related to Thailand’s most feudal of institutions. Thus, this post is a catch-up. We will list several of these stories, from the past week or so, with little comment and just a quote of interest from each one:

Thai dissident’s lonely fight to keep history alive

Carrying a bucket of cement and a heavy bronze plaque, Ekachai Hongkangwan set out across Bangkok’s heavily-policed Royal Plaza in late June to perform a solo act of D-I-Y dissent.

But the 42-year-old was quickly bundled into a police van before he could lay down the metal disc – an exact replica of a monument that was mysteriously removed in April, sparking fears officials were trying to whitewash history.

The attempted restoration was a dangerous and rare act of subversion in a country smothered by an arch-royalist military and where criticism of the monarchy is being purged at an unprecedented rate.

Silencing dissent: digital capitalism, the military junta and Thailand’s permanent state of exception (we are not exactly sure how an exception becomes permanent)

In the last three years of military rule in Thailand, arrests and prosecutions for defamation, sedition and offences under the Computer Crimes Act have soared. Human rights advocates, democracy campaigners and ordinary citizens have been threatened, harassed and detained in military camps. The junta have sought to silence public discourse on every conceivable aspect of their rule. Global social media platforms are ground zero in this repression, and each month citizens are arrested and detained for what they post, share and like on Facebook.

Thai King’s Birthday Celebrations Mark Consolidation of Power

Thailand to celebrate birthday of assertive new King

The new monarch has shaken up the palace. A law quietly passed in April by Thailand’s interim assembly allowed him to consolidate control over five agencies which handle palace affairs and security. These agencies, which previously reported to the prime minister and defence ministry, remain funded by the state, but need not return revenue to the treasury.

A Straits Times examination of over 100 notices published on the Royal Gazette website since January shows the palace has promoted over 200 employees, removed or demoted over a dozen, as well as appointed over 100 more – many of them senior government servants.

All these moves have taken place amid tighter enforcement of Thailand’s lese majeste law, under which individuals have been jailed not just for insulting or defaming royalty, but also for trying to profit from their connections to the palace. Open discussion about the king, already constrained under the previous reign, has withered.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn expands his territory – but at what cost?

Change is afoot in Thailand. Amidst continued instability and uncertainty, King … Vajiralongkorn asserts more control. This move puts the ruling military junta in check.

The king now has full control of the agency that manages the holdings of the monarchy. Details about the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) are shrouded in secrecy. But it is worth at least US$30 billion thanks to significant holdings and investments, estimates suggested.

The Frontlines of Cyber Repression: Thailand and the Crop Top King

This post is the first of many in which we will begin the process of documenting the digital frontlines of cyber repression. By building better awareness about cyber repression, we hope this blog series will help illustrate current examples from across a wide spectrum of states and highlight actions being taken to push back on repression.

Trial of Yingluck sparks deeper crisis for Thailand

Why must she be eliminated at this point in time? The political elites are increasingly concerned about their position of power now that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away last October, is no longer on the political scene. Under Bhumibol, their political interests were firmly secured through the monarchy network, which had dominated political life for decades. Without Bhumibol, Thailand has moved into an uncertain phase under the new controversial king, Vajiralongkorn. Those political elites fear that the Shinawatras might exploit political uncertainties to regain power.





All that money and the Crown Property Bureau

28 07 2017

No one who has decided that monarchy matters in Thailand will be happy about the headline recently at the ASEAN Economist: “Clown king nears crisis point.”

Taylor McDonald’s piece uses material from Andrew MacGregor Marshall, now described as a “veteran observer of the Thai monarchy,” and apparently drawn from a recent BBC interview. Marshall, who previously argued that there was a succession crisis in Thailand, is cited in this report as declaring that “the situation was becoming increasingly unsustainable.” He is quoted as believing that as “details of the king’s lifestyle spread, the kingdom was approaching a ‘crisis point’…”.

We are not sure that there is any more crisis now than over the last decade or so, although Marshall’s account of the king’s cruelty, womanizing and his grab for power while re-feudalizing the palace are all undoubted, we have yet to see “crisis.” Some speculate that the crisis comes after the previous king is cremated.The article makes this point:

How much longer Thailand’s inflexible generals will tolerate Vajiralongkorn as their head of state will have to be seen. He will no doubt go down, along with the Emperor Caligula, as a key case study used by republicans arguing against constitutional monarchy.

While we may hope that this king gets the boot, the fact is that the deep political change needed in Thailand – an end to the monarchy – remains unlikely. That’s our speculation.

But to the point of this post. What caught PPT’s attention in the article were comments about the Crown Property Bureau.

The article states: “A close aide of Thailand’s King … Vajiralongkorn was this month named head of the agency which manages the monarchy’s vast holdings after legal changes giving the king total control of the Crown Property Bureau.”

About a week or so ago, secretly considered changes to the law governing the CPB were announced, giving the king absolute command over it. That change, the article notes, mean it is no longer possible for royalist regimes to claim the CPB is not the king’s but held “in trust for the nation.”

The CPB website continues to allow the download of a chapter on crown property in the palace-approved book King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A Life’s Work, which begins the chapter this way:

Since 1936, the law has made a clear distinction between property that belongs to the king as a person and that which belongs to the crown as an institution. The Crown Property Bureau (CPB) exists to manage the property of the crown. This property does not belong to the king in his private capacity, but to the monarchy as an institution which continues from reign to reign. This rather special category of property arose when an absolute monarchy, under which the king was lord over his realm and everything in it, both people and property, evolved into a constitutional monarchy that exists within a vibrant globalised economy.

By legal definition, the CPB is a juristic person. It is not part of the palace administration, nor is it a government agency, nor is it a private firm. It is a unique institution. It is also a rather mysterious institution.

The distinction between crown and person is now removed by the changes made by the military junta, responding to the king’s demand.

A later part of the chapter is about The Crown Property Act of 1948 which:

… reconstituted the CPB as a juristic person, independent of government and not placed under any ministry. The minister of finance remained as the ex-officio chairman of the CPB board. Other board members were to be appointed by the king. One of these would hold the post of director-general of the CPB and have full executive power.

That was also changed a couple of weeks ago. Now the king has control of the CPB. As the article states, this change “removes any pretence that the assets are for anything other than the private use of the eccentric king.”

Air Chief Marshal Satitpong Sukvimol is now the “chair the bureau, a role which was previously held by the finance minister.” The report states that “Satitpong is Vajiralongkorn’s long-serving private secretary and was put in charge of the king’s private property in January.” The linking of the king’s private property and that of the crown, long a fiction in reality but maintained in law, is now gone, giving Vajiralongkorn control over a vast economic empire. PPT estimates that the CPB controls assets of about $55-60 billion and his personal property is likely to be at least another $10 billion.

The changes at the CPB go further, with the king putting other trusted favorites on its board. The table below shows the board before and after the change. THe sources are the 2016 Annual Report by the CPB (it can be downloaded) and the Thai version of the CPB’s webpage on the Board of Directors:

As can be seen, those added are all former or current military and police officers, all of whom have been close to the prince-now-king and have seen promotions under his new reign.

We can return to Marshall’s comments. He says that the king “seems determined to reassert the rule of monarchy and he doesn’t want all these rules and regulations … he wants everyone to know that he controls the money…”. He’s got that. He also notes that the “king is notoriously spendthrift.” That’s true and he now has a huge pile of loot to use.

We recall that the monarchy and state were almost bankrupted when King Vajiravudh governed through cronies and was spendthrift. It remains to be seen whether Vajiralongkorn will cause the same level of disquiet that was seen under Vajiravudh and which inexorably led to the 1932 Revolution.





A feudal king

26 07 2017

One of the themes of the new reign has been the accumulation of power to the king. Since his December 2016 accession, King Vajiralongkorn has managed a rapid unwinding of arrangements regarding the relationship between crown and state that were put in place following the 1932 Revolution.

That process has seen constitutional change demanded and received, control of formerly state offices associated with the palace handed over to the king and the king gain unfettered control of the Crown Property Bureau and its great wealth.

It has also seen a large reorganization of palace staff as Vajiralongkorn purged masses of people including many formerly considered close to him. These purges seemed to begin with his third wife, Srirasmi.

A further step in the king’s massing of wealth and power in his palace has been a refeudalization of the king’s relations with those in the palace. The most recent example of this has been revealed by exiled historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul. He shows that at least 11 women have been royally granted the family สิริวชิรภักดิ์ /Sirivajirabhakdi.

This royal attention to young women seems to indicate that a return to 19th century  concubinage and a royal harem will be another retrogression introduced in this reign.





Updated: King’s power

18 07 2017

For some time there have been rumors that King Vajiralongkorn was seeking to take full control of the Crown Property Bureau. A Royal Gazette announcement on the weekend and reports in the Thai and international media make that takeover official.

Interestingly, the takeover of the CPB by the king was discussed by Andrew MacGregor Marshall in his book A Kingdom in Crisis. He said:

The prospect of Thaksin [Shinawatra] and the crown prince using the vast wealth of the Crown Property Bureau to transform Thailand and elevate a new ruling class at the expense of the old terrifies the oligarchy that runs the country.

If the oligarchs were terrified, half of that prediction have now come about. The Thaksin part of the equation seems to have been nullified by the 2014 coup and the military dictatorship’s efforts to destroy Thaksin and other identified enemies of regime, crown and tycoons.

At least that’s what they must be hoping.

Khaosod reports that the puppet National Legislative Assembly has passed a new law on the control of the Crown Property Bureau. (We assume that the NLA again met in secret session to do this deal for the king. We assume this because the previous new laws made following demands from the king have been made secretly.)

This new legislation, passed on Sunday, gives the king “sole authority over royal assets.” This is claimed to be the first change made to the law since 1948.

Whereas previously the Ministry of Finance and its minister had nominal roles in managing the CPB and its board of directors, this is now gone. Now, “the power to appoint a board of directors to manage the crown property rests solely with King Vajiralongkorn, and not a government official as delineated in previous laws.”

As Khaosod notes, this is the “latest move by the military government to cement King Vajiralongkorn’s control over palace affairs.”

Yet it is far more than this. Allowing for the growth of property prices, the CPB probably controls assets of $40-60 billion. Arguably, it is the most powerful and wealthiest conglomerate in the country.

The king now controls this mammoth business empire. More importantly, the new law also “prohibits any effort to take away any part of the royal assets without the king’s approval.” This provision has potentially wide-ranging implications for the future of the monarchy and further reduces the state’s authority over the monarchy.

The king now controls all aspects of the monarchy’s wealth and power, and in legal terms, he is now the most powerful monarch since 1932 and, on paper, is more or less independent of the state’s control that was established in 1932 and the years after.

As an AFP report notes, this is the “latest move by an increasingly assertive monarch to consolidate his power.”

While the previous king relied on networks of influential alliances, the power of the military and a personal capacity to politically intervene when he deemed this necessary, the new king is acknowledging his unpopularity and has joined with the military junta to consolidate and expand the monarchy’s economic and political power.

Update: Reuters adds some further detail to this change. It notes that the changes to the law “places the management of crown property under the direct supervision of the king. It states that the bureau’s properties, in addition to the king’s private properties, will be managed ‘at His Majesty’s discretion’.” It allows the king to “assign the Crown Property Bureau, any individual or agency to manage the properties and assets.”

Clearly the old claim that the CPB was not exactly the monarch’s property is out the window. The king’s personal property is indistinguishable from that of the CPB.

Interestingly, “Crown property, but not the king’s private property, had previously been exempted from tax,” and the “amended law says both could now be subject to tax, though it did not elaborate,” suggesting that there’s plenty of wriggle room.





Quick updates

16 04 2017

Remembering April 2010. Prachatai has two recent reports worth reading: first, 10 Facts about the 10 April Crackdown: 7 years of unhealed wounds; and second,
#10AprilWhereAreYou: memories of a massacre.

Fraud and lese majeste. We posted that police were considering pressing a lese majeste charge against a woman who allegedly cheated thousands of tourists by promising a trip to Japan and then leaving them stranded at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Latest reports are that there is insufficient evidence of lese majeste. That’s a surprise.

That library and the CPB. The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority has “defended” its new library with few books and its allocation of funds. It states: “about 295 million baht was spent on improving the historic building and installing facilities while the 30-year leasing contract between the BMA and the Crown Property Bureau for the site has cost the BMA 600 million baht, or 20 million baht a year.” That confirms our earlier post. The BMA says: “The library hopes to buy about 45,000 books with its budget but the rest of the library’s stock is expected to be donated by companies and people. The library is big enough to hold more than 100,000 books.”

 





Library, princess and the loot

10 04 2017

Many readers will have seen various stories in the media about the failures of the education system in Thailand. The royalist-run universities do poorly when compared with peer institutions everywhere else. Elementary and secondary education is way behind most other places, populated by sometimes dull and nasty teachers who enforce notions of hierarchical Thainess over education. And so on.

So it was that there was some jubilation that one of the first new libraries in the capital, หอสมุดเมืองกรุงเทพมหานคร Bangkok City Library. At 4,880 sqm, it is the largest of the capital’s 36 public libraries. It opened last Friday:

[the] three-story library opened its doors in Bangkok’s old town Friday with tens of thousands of books and a lending service expected to launch in three weeks.

At the Bangkok City Library on Ratchadamnoen Road, Thais and foreigners alike can peruse more than 41,000 volumes. When the lending service launches April 28, it will only be available to Thai nationals.

Junta-appointed governor, Pol. Gen Aswin Kwanmuang was effusive when he presided over the opening: “Come on and check it out…. Your brains will become filled with knowledge! The library is for everyone, not just students.”

But, wait. It turns out that it was, perhaps, maybe, a sort of “soft opening.”

Khaosod reports that “[l]ess than 24 hours after opening with much fanfare, Bangkok’s largest public library shut its door and will not open again for three weeks.” Huh?

The management of the new library issued a statement that the closure is because “it needs to prepare its facility to host a royal visit by Princess Sirindhorn, who will attend the library’s formal opening ceremony on April 28.”

Three weeks of preparations for the portly princess!

The one-day opening was, the library bosses now say, a “system test.”

Then this:

The facility was built at a cost of nearly 900 million baht, about 300 million of which was used for construction and maintenance, while the rest was paid to lease the land from the Crown Property Bureau. Its budget for book acquisition was set at 5 million baht, and officials said they’re still accepting book donations.

Books = 5/900 million baht (0.56%)

Crown Property Bureau = 595/900 million baht (66.11%)





Tax evaders, tycoons and the palace

3 04 2017

When the subject of tax comes up, one thing can always be taken for granted in Thailand: the elite will not lose anything for they are skilled tax minimizers and evaders.

In the Bangkok Post to day there are a couple of stories that can be brought together. First, we have news that “[e]vading taxes worth 10 million baht or more, or fraudulently filing for tax refunds of 2 million baht or more through collusion, shall be considered a money-laundering offence…” under a new law.

The notion that tax evasion is money laundering strikes us as strange, but you get the picture. The tax authorities want to be seen as going after tax evaders, something they have never done much of in the past, except in politicized cases.

So, we should see the Revenue Department go after “politicians” from previous regimes. We should also expect that the Department will examine the taxation records of the unusually wealthy who report huge wealth when they get junta perk positions. We can be pretty certain none of them paid tax on it.

That set us thinking. What about Police General Somyos Pumpanmuang? He is now head of the Thailand Football Association,  had long business relationships with mining companies, and at the time of his retirement as Thailand’s top cop, was one of its wealthiest policemen. Somyos was known to have ordered police to support companies he had previously worked with. He was so wealthy that he gave rewards to cops out of his own bag of money. Has he ever been taxed?

We can also wonder whether the 50,000 baht a month that was claimed and then unclaimed as income by metropolitan police chief Pol. Lt. Gen. Sanit Mahathavorn  was ever taxed? The lucky Sanit was on the payroll of the giant alcohol and beverage producer Thai Beverage Plc owned by one of Thailand’s wealthiest Sino-Thai tycoons, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi. Sanit’s total income was also claimed to be mammoth. Was that taxed?

While on companies and wealth, we wonder how much tax is paid by Charoen and his other fabulously wealthy fellow tycoons? They get great business deals from the corrupt state and from their unusual relationships, but how much do they “give back”? And we don’t mean the piddling corporate social responsibility ruses, we mean real tax.

Readers might recall the contract for the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center which went, without going to a bid or to any significant renegotiation, to N.C.C. Management & Development Co., a company in the gargantuan business empire of Charoen, reputedly worth almost $14 billion. Naturally, he’s also close to the palace.

Which brings us to another Bangkok Post story. Charoen has revealed “plans to develop a new mixed-use project to be called ‘One Bangkok’ on the 104-rai of land that formerly housed Suan Lum Night Bazaar on the corner of Witthayu and Rama IV roads.”

It seems odd that the “development will be joint venture by two companies owned by Mr Charoen, TCC Assets (Thailand) Co and Frasers Centrepoint Limited (FCL).” There must be a tax deal there somewhere.

The mammoth development will be on a lease the “TCC Group secured … from the Crown Property Bureau in 2014.”

Before the site was the Suan Lum Night Bazaar from 2001 to 2011, it was the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School, established in 1958 “next to Lumphini Park in Bangkok…”. It moved in 2000, and allowed the tacky Night Bazaar to be built. Now, how did that land get back to the CPB? Was the military paying a peppercorn rent? Or was it “returned” to the CPB as so many other properties were. Did the CPB pay any taxes?

These deals can be exceptionally lucrative. Princess Sirindhorn is estimated to personally rake in about $54 million a year from the property she owns around the Siam-Rajaprasong area, and we know she isn’t paying tax.

Tycoons as royalists and royals, along with their helpers in the senior reaches of the civil and military bureaucracies don’t ever seem to be “threatened” with taxation.