Rich still doing very well

6 06 2015

Forbes has published its latest Thailand Rich List. There are no real surprises for the mega-rich in Thailand continue to do well through political instability and military coup. The ranking of Thailand’s 50 richest is available from Forbes.

CP’s agribusiness tycoon, the aging Dhanin Chearavanont, is the country’s richest man with a net worth of US$14.4 billion. Next is beverages and land tycoon, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi,with a net worth of $13 billion. moneybags

The list does not include the monarchy, which is covered in another Forbes listing. The monarchy’s combined wealth, which is mostly managed by the Crown Property Bureau, is variously estimated at $40-50 billion. This is equivalent to the total combined wealth of the top 3-4 tycoons in this Forbes list.

Most of those on the list have close connections to the palace, although they are big enough to split their bets when there is political agitation. As we noted last year, since 2011, the assets of the mega-rich have increased very substantially, and this has continued in this listing.

Thaksin Shinawatra and his family ranked 10th, as they were in the last listing, with the same combined assets:

Dhanin Chearavanont; US$14.4 billion
Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi; $13 billion
Chirathivat family; $12.3 billion
Chalerm Yoovidhya; $9.6 billion
Krit Ratanarak; $4.7 billion
Vanich Chaiyawan; $3.95 billion
Santi Bhirombhakdi; $2.9 billion
Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth; $2.8 billion
Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha; $2.5 billion
Thaksin Shinawatra; $1.7 billion

Forbes states: “This list was compiled using shareholding and financial information obtained from the families and individuals, stock exchanges and analysts, the Stock Exchange of Thailand and regulatory agencies.” It is not clear whether it includes land holdings.

A seminar on the Crown Property Bureau

15 04 2015

PPT understand that material from Asia Sentinel is sometimes blocked in Thailand, especially if it contains royal news. This means that the new article “Thailand’s Crown Property Bureau: Economic Brake?” is blocked.

By an anonymous correspondent, the article reports on a seminar in March at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore [opens a PDF adverting the seminar]. The headline story is that academic Porphant Ouyyanont reckons that Crown Property Bureau “is the elephant in the country’s economic room, controlling a full 15 percent of its economy and, … acting as a significant brake on economic growth.”

Porphant is reported as stating that “… the quality of Thai capitalist firms has remained poor as most economic growth has stemmed from the monopoly of major Thai business firms tied to the CPB…. This has resulted in low-value added economic performance coupled with high barriers to entry for new businesses, thus keeping small businesses stagnant and undeveloped.”

The claim in the article that the Crown Property Bureau is not held by the royal family “and doesn’t belong to the king although it manages the king’s property” is, we think true but also misleading. Legally, this is the position put by defenders of the bloated CPB and the monarchy. Practically, though, with the king appointing six of members of the bureau’s governing board, and the power of the CPB having reverted to the king years ago, the CPB is effectively held by the royal family.

The related claim that the CPB “pays no taxes” is also true but also misleading. Many of the CPB largest stock holdings are in public firms, and as far as PPT is aware, these firms pay taxes. What isn’t taxed are other holdings, including the huge land holdings. Proposals to implement a property tax exclude the CPB and other royal holdings.

The article also states that the “most complete record of the bureau is contained in The King Never Smiles, an authoritative biography of King Bhumibol…”. We think this is also misleading and would direct readers to Porphant’s own 2008 study, but which is behind a paywall. Readers without access might find the  update he did for his bit in the sanitized big book biography [downloads a PDF that is not banned in Thailand] of some use.

Lese majeste in temple dispute

8 04 2015

Lese majeste is a political crime and under the military dictatorship this use of the draconian law has been substantially enhanced. It has also been used to destroy the family of the estranged wife of Prince Vajiralongkorn. In he past, we have also noted the law being used for other personal disputes.

A recent instance that appears tho fit the personal category has been reported at The Nation. In that report, several complainants have gone to the police to urge them ” to investigate if a recent comment made to media by the Wat Kalayanamit’s chief adviser, Watchara Phromcharoen, violated the Criminal Code’s Section 112 regarding lese majeste.” Claiming to be descendents of the founders of Wat Kalayanamit in Thon Buri, some “30 residents presented to Bupparam police the evidence, including a CD record of the televised programme ‘Kom Chad Luek’ on Nation TV on March 19.”

Watchara was a phone-in guest who provided information about a temple restoration project, and claimed these were “carried out under the auspices of the Crown Property Bureau.” The police have been urged police to investigate if Watchara’s comment “was tantamount to lese majeste.”

Of course, the CPB is not included in the jurisdiction of the lese majeste law. But that doesn’t seem to bother the complainants. They are miffed because they say the “renovations at the temple destroy our good memories and the history of our family legacy so …[we] can’t accept it and will fight [via legal actions] until the end…”. Some of the temple’s residents have been fighting eviction. But does this warrant lese majeste accusations?

The Department of Fine Arts confirmed “that the temple’s renovation of four buildings – which had received DFA approval – was under Crown Property Bureau sponsorship since 2011 but he said the temple carried out renovation on 22 items in the compound. The DFA had filed 15 cases against it; 10 cases have been dropped by public prosecutors but five cases were ongoing. He said the DFA would ask the temple to demolish new unauthorised structures this month.” Renovation is currently postponed.

Lese majeste seems to be a law for all seasons, all disputes and all people. This is the result of monarchy madness and mad monarchists.

Updated: Land, wealth and influence

28 03 2015

One of the recent “debates” in the puppet National Legislative Assembly had to do with land tax. This issue has been around for decades, and neither elected governments nor authoritarian and military regimes have wanted to touch it. The puppets seemed to drop it pretty quickly, not least because self-appointed prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha intervened.

The reason land tax is a hot potato is that Thailand’s elite invests heavily in land, often speculatively, with the idea that it avoids scrutiny and tax, and land thus provides essentially tax-free wealth parking.

In a report at the Bangkok Post and widely reported in other media, the NGO Local Action Links (LocalAct) claims that 530 (then-)elected politicians owned land worth a total of 18.1 billion baht and buildings worth another 6.4 billion baht. The NGO said these holdings indicated “why they are opposed to a proposed land and buildings tax…”.

The error here is that none of these politicians is in the puppet Assembly. All of these politicians were ditched by the 2014 coup. The bigger point is correct: politicians, like others in the broad elite, like to buy properties for the reasons mentioned above.

The average for each of these politicians is about 47 million baht or $1.44 million, the price of a luxury condominium or a modern and well-appointed house and land in Bangkok. Averages don’t mean a great deal in terms of distribution of wealth, for as one of the tables reproduced in the Post shows, land wealth varies greatly. (We always worry about out computational skills when dealing with billions, so hopefully we have got it right.)Land 1 What is interesting in the report is the focus on elected politicians, many of whom have businesses when they enter politics, and that data are what is revealed in their self-declarations of ownership.

Why politicians? Why not the wealth of the military leaders and their puppet politicians?

Sure, the figures aren’t directly comparable, but the land and buildings declared by elected politicians is, on average, less than the average declared total assets of the military and police members of the puppet National Legislative Assembly. In an earlier post we provided these details: If a general in the armed forces, your assets average about 78 million baht, If you managed to become an admiral in the navy, you sail away with average assets of about 109 million baht. The top money secretes to the top police. The average for the police is a whopping 258 million baht.

And then what isn’t emphasized is that these politicians are tiddlers when compared with the whales of land ownership. The study showed that 14 then-MPs held land covering more than 1,000 rai while 25 had more than 500 rai and 126 held more than 100 rai. When the second table is examined, the really big landowners are Thailand’s wealthiest.

Land 2The report in the Post states: “Politicians, however, are not the largest group of landlords, according to Lands Department data.” PPT has posted on this previously.

Some of that data is presented above showing the control by Sino-Thai tycoons, with the top 10 landholders owning almost 1 million rai. That the Sirivadhanabhakdi family owns land the equivalent size to about 1,000 square kilometres, which is about the area of Hong Kong and larger than Singapore (by about 25%) might be a surprise, when it has long been thought the Crown Property Bureau was the largest landowner in the country. It would be interesting to compare values, for the CPB’s land – much of it in high-priced areas of central Bangkok – was valued at about $30 billion about a decade ago.

The Chearavanont family, with about 200,000 rai, is the family that controls the CP group, the agro-industry giant, while United Palm Oil Industry, with some 44,400 rai, is a company that has its main owners in Singapore, and tightly inter-connected and family-owned structures that include, for example, Lam Soon (Thailand).

The Forbes list of Thailand’s richest, excluding the royal family are: (1) Sirivadhanabhakdi family, $12.9 billion, (2) Chirathivat family, $12.1b, and (3) Dhanin Chearavanont, $11.5b.

The royal connections of the Sirivadhanabhakdi and Chearavanont empires are well-known. Such connections are unavoidable, but not so the links to The Dictator, the broad anti-democrat alliance and the Democrat Party.

Update: Interestingly, in a revised report, the Bangkok Post – which maintains the original story too – refers to ex-politicians, removes the table showing the Crown Property Bureau and does not mention the CPB when writing of big land owners.

The dictatorship and Wharton

15 03 2015

Not that long ago, PPT posted about another foray into U.S. academia by royalist interests. That post was about the University of Michigan as royalists forked out loot, with the Crown Property Bureau to promote their interests. There had been a similar doling out of dosh at Harvard (as if it needs it!). Both efforts to curry favor in the U.S. were under the current military dictatorship.

The most recent link to U.S. universities is a “conference” in Bangkok, organized by The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Our attention was drawn to this event by a report that The Dictator, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, was a keynote speaker at the Wharton Global Forum Bangkok.

The Wharton Dean states that the Wharton Global Forum Bangkok will see “industry and academia will come together to debate ideas and explore new pathways for exploiting the possibilities and mitigating the pitfalls of today’s borderless world, and Asia’s central role in this rapidly changing business environment.”

Shouldn’t we expect him to know that there is no academic freedom in Thailand under the military dictatorship? Shouldn’t he know that some academics have had to escape Thailand while others are prevented from presenting views that are not in line with those of the dictatorship? Surely business schools, which repeatedly talk of good governance and corporate social responsibility, should be ashamed that this meeting is under the auspices of the world’s only military dictatorship, with The Dictator as a keynote speaker.

Shouldn’t Wharton be ashamed that it provided The Dictator with a platform to lie – he claimed his government had never infringed human rights – and to attack the very notion of electoral democracy.

Why would Wharton lend its name to the military dictatorship? One reason is that one of the Chairmen of the event is multiple military junta servant and minor prince Pridiyathorn Devakula. He’s been finance minister for both the 2006 and 2014 military junta backed and appointed governments and he’s a Wharton alumnus. That, however, is probably not sufficient to get a big conference for the military dictatorship. That requires money, and Pridiyathorn is not short of a baht. In fact, he is listed as an event sponsor. That requires a payment of $50,000.

The lead sponsors include a bunch of Sino-Thai conglomerates close to the military dictatorship and the monarchy: Double A, Bangkok Bank, CP, Land & Houses, PTT, and the Crown Property Bureau -controlled Siam Cement Group. No doubt most of this lot were happy enough to fork over $100,000 each when Pridiyathorn  and the dictatorship came knocking.

Money for monarchy

5 03 2015

A local press report in Michigan has alerted PPT to another foray into U.S. academia by royalist interests. It is recalled that last August, it was reported that, as “human rights in Thailand deteriorate under a military junta, Harvard is collaborating with key supporters of the recent coup to create a permanent Thai Studies program at the university.”

The Daily Press reports that the “University of Michigan has received $2 million to establish the Thai Professorship of Theravada Buddhism.” Innocuous at first glance, especially when the university states that “the gift will enhance one of the largest Buddhist studies programs in North America” and that the “holder of the endowed chair will teach courses and conduct research to advance knowledge of Thai Buddhism.” The chair is to be in the “Department of Asian Languages and Cultures in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.”

Plenty to research given scandals involving fascist politics, sex, drugs and money in Thai Buddhism.

However, the report also notes that the “gift comes from Amnuay Viravan, the former deputy prime minister, finance minister and foreign minister of Thailand, with matching support provided by the Crown Property Bureau of the Ministry of Finance of Thailand.”

PPT’s only mention of Amnuay is in a post about the military junta’s cabinet, where the 1997 economic meltdown involved him and a current member of the the military dictatorship’s cabinet. Amnuay is an alumnus of Michigan and has previously donated. Yet in the context of the Harvard collaboration, the Ann Arbor gift is worthy of scrutiny.

One of the points made in the earlier srticle about Harvard was this:

At the Harvard fundraiser I attended in Bangkok last August, [coup supporter] Surin [Pitsuwan] used the word “beachhead” to describe the envisioned role of the Thai Studies program. His choice of a word with military and strategic connotations is significant. Having overthrown a series of elected governments and facing growing criticism from cold-war allies, the conservative establishment is working hard to rebuild its legitimacy abroad, and setting up a program at Harvard would be an important victory. Surin announced donations from several tycoons, and said he was seeking funding for the program from the King’s Crown Property Bureau, which manages the monarch’s wealth of more than $30 billion.

Given that the same Crown Property Bureau is involved and that the Ministry of Finance has splashed taxpayer funds into this, is Michigan a second “beachhead?

Finance is headed by the wealthiest military sycophant, the minor prince Pridiyathorn Devakula who must have taken this promotion of Buddhism with Thai taxpayer’s money to the military junta for approval. We have no doubt that such a splurge is a part of laundering the dictatorship’s image.

The Crown Property Bureau  is involved because it is burnishing royal credentials when the monarchy is seen as supportive of illegal putsches and is under pressure from the negative publicity of that, the disappearance of the aged king, presumably near death, and the succession of a crown prince demonstrated as grasping, vindictive and dangerous.

Money for Buddhist studies seems meant to wash away many sins and lends credibility to a fascist and royalist regime.

Updated: Two views on monarchy

6 01 2015

Regular readers will know that PPT often re-posts Ji Ungpakorn’s work on Thailand. In a recent post at Ugly Thailand, he asks: Does the Thai King’s immense wealth give him political power?

His answer to this is made in the context of his acknowledgement that the king:

… owns a huge capitalist conglomerate, in the shape of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), and … he is also the richest person in Thailand…. The CPB owns a large number of shares in the Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement. It also owns huge amounts of land, often in prime real-estate sites…. The monarch is formally in charge of its investments. The King also has a separate private fortune.

Even so, Ji asks: “But does immense wealth and being nominally in charge of a huge conglomerate automatically confer political power?” His answer is that it doesn’t and makes a kind of Poulantzian argument about the state being relatively autonomous of the capitalist class.

Yet Ji wants to make the state even more autonomous than this, arguing that the king “is beholden to the military for his wealth.” More than this, the king has no power over the armed forces. Even so, Ji acknowledges that the king “cannot be separated from political power, but not because he or the institution of the monarchy are powerful. It is because those who have real political power use him as a tool.”

We are not so sure (see below), but we do agree with this:

Nor can he be separated from his role in perpetuating Thailand’s gross economic inequality. That is why the monarchy should be abolished and its vast wealth nationalised for the benefit of ordinary people.

 Here’s an article that says why PPT prefers to see economic and political power as intertwined. It is from The Independent and looks at broader issues associated with the sex scandal enveloping Britain’s Prince Andrew and written by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown:

As you know by now, Prince Andrew has been accused by a woman known as Jane Doe 3 of being “forced” by Jeremy Epstein to have sex with him when she was a teenager.

Of course, Buckingham Palace denies the allegations. However, as Alibhai-Brown says,

The story will not end there, but for now that is all we can say on this particular scandal. It should, however, raise questions about our monarchy, its role and position, the devious, secret way it operates.

She’d be jailed in Thailand. No local journalist has dared touch any of the scandals, sexual and otherwise, in the royal family. But British law does not prevent reasonable questioning of the monarchy and royal behavior.

She looks at the roots of the deviousness and secretiveness of the monarchy:

The Magna Carta is now 800 years old…. The document did not give every subject fundamental equality and rights. It was a charter by and for the upper classes. Still, there will be events marking this much mythologised moment throughout 2015.

… OK, so let join in with this latest national commemoration, part truth, part fantasy. It may encourage us all to contemplate and renew our faith in liberty, freedoms, fundamental human rights and democracy, which came much later.

Alibhai-Brown continues:

But how is that possible when the family at the top of the social structure undermines every one of the ideals and principles that our nation proclaims at home and abroad?

She mentions “Prince Andrew … cavorting with insalubrious billionaires and vicious autocrats.” She observes:

Human rights? Why should an ageing, playboy prince care about those? Prince Charles is matey with Arab despots too. The next time you feel the urge to denounce Robert Mugabe, remember these royal appeasers. Yes Blair, Clinton and Bush also had unsavoury friendships. But they lost power, eventually. Our royals can carry on sleazing indefinitely.

That’s because they aren’t elected but are of the right blood. That blood, the privileges it presents and the access to power and wealth taint the monarchy:

Freedom of speech and expression is held up as a shining British value. But the Queen and her brood can and do stop the media and authors from pursuing legitimate investigations and asking tough questions. They can come down so heavy that seasoned journalists shake with terror and give up.

The BBC has been persuaded from broadcasting two programmes fronted by Steve Hewlett, a much respected multi-media man. If we, the people, had been allowed to watch the programmes, we might have seen how the Palace used scheming spin doctors to erase Diana from national memory and replace her with Camilla, and how Prince Charles’s actions go way beyond his constitutional role and so on. I don’t blame the BBC. Lawyers employed by the royals are like Alsatians, fiercely protective and very sharp.

Imagine what the reaction would be if, say, Tony Blair stopped the BBC from broadcasting a critical programme on his activities. Britons would be outraged. But with the Royal Family, there is only quiet acquiescence. We are subjects after all, the great brainwashed.

They have particular benefits that result from blood and privilege: “The Queen, the Duke, her children, and grandchildren are not covered by the freedom of Information Act.”

Once in a while, we get to hear of private jets and costly jaunts, but the conversation is quickly shut down by a largely loyalist fourth estate. What about power? As Owen Jones writes in his book, The Establishment: “In practice…members of the Royal Family have a powerful platform from which to intervene in democratic decisions. Prince Charles, the designated successor to the throne has met with ministers at least three dozen times since the election…’ His correspondence with ministers is still kept from the public eye. Transparency is for only for plebs and politicians, it seems. The royals sit among the clouds, at the summit of the secret state and look down on us.

If we accept this settlement we cannot be a proper democracy. When some – whether wicked, stupid, or even wonderful – inherit limitless privileges and untold wealth, and are handed the highest positions in society, we, the rest, are lesser beings. Humans in Britain are not born equal, cannot be equal.

We will not have a credible meritocracy until this unholy edifice is dismantled. I know monarchists will say privileged families are found in strong republics too and that this system gives us stability and unity. All bosh. Wealth is indeed passed on by the rich everywhere, but  they are not subsided by their nations, and they are not revered.

Blood and wealth make for a social, political and economic order that is unequal, unfair and maintained by state, capitalists and others who benefit from the maintenance of hierarchy. To quote Ji, this system is “perpetuating Thailand’s gross economic inequality. That is why the monarchy should be abolished…”.

Update: A reader points out another interesting approach to succession, this time in Britain. Nick Cohen at The Guardian comments on a banal and likely interventionist King Charles III, when he get his hands on the throne. If you doubt this, look at the claims made by the next king’s supporters, speaking for him. Blood, wealth and hierarchy mean political access.


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