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.





Be very, very careful

28 11 2016

A reader sent PPT a link to a report by an Australian journalist based in Bangkok and presented at the ABC’s Correspondent’s Report on the weekend. It’s an audio report that comes with this introduction at the website:

The death of Thailand’s revered King last month will be remembered as a turning point in the country’s history.

It’s also a topic that’s difficult to cover as a journalist, given Thailand’s extremely harsh laws against royal defamation.

A new official version of the royal anthem, sung by tens of thousands of Thais outside the palace, is the latest talking point.

Our South-East Asia correspondent, Liam Cochrane, reports from Bangkok.

There’s still some blarney in the report yet it is mainly about lese majeste censorship and self-censorship associated with monarchy, the Crown Property Bureau, the late king and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. The fear the journalist feels is palpable.





Updated: A princely sum

21 11 2016

Since the king died, there have been a spate of stories on Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, most of them negative.

In a Wall Street Journal story a couple of days ago, the focus is on the huge wealth the new monarch will inherit: “Thailand’s crown prince won’t only succeed his father as king. He will also inherit the keys to one of the world’s largest royal fortunes.”

Yes, the junta will come out and complain that the Crown Property Bureau doesn’t belong to the king/queen, but to the “institution.” It matters not, for the management is almost entirely with royal flunkies dedicated to obeying. That’s not to say that government doesn’t have a stake in it.

The WSJ states:

The multibillion-dollar wealth of the Thai crown is rarely discussed in the country. Strict lèse-majesté laws, which criminalize any criticism of the monarchy, make many reluctant to study or debate the matter, especially now, just a month after the death of the long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Oct. 13.

In the coming weeks, though, the fortune will pass into the control of an untested heir who has lived much of his life overseas. How Crown Prince … Vajiralongkorn administers it, and especially the investments in the Crown Property Bureau, is one of the most significant questions in a country where the ruling military junta has seized power twice in the past decade, in part to make sure the royal succession goes smoothly.

It says the “crown’s assets and corporate holdings are valued at over $40 billion, according to one study, more than the wealth of Britain’s royal family or the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Its glittering royal regalia includes the world’s largest cut diamond, a golden conical crown and a fly whisk made from the tail hair of an albino elephant.”

Throw in the royal’s private wealth and the public money showered on it and “protecting” it, and this is a fat, extravagant and avaricious family.

The 70-year-long reign of the dead king was one that built power, economic and political. The CPB “became a powerful cash-spinning conglomerate and one of the most influential levers in the Thai economy.” Annual income from the CPB is reported to have grown from 563 million baht in 1987 to more than more than 1.15 billion in 2015.https://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=44510&action=edit

The prince has expenses. The WSJ states that “[i]n late 2014, for instance, the finance ministry said the bureau made a 200 million baht, or $5.64 million, divorce payment, to 64-year-old Prince Vajiralongkorn’s most recent spouse.”

Given the prince’s previous behavior and the fact that all of her family is locked up and she’s hardly seen, somehow we doubt this. Even so, his international travel and living expenses are likely to be a far greater drain on the CPB than it has seen in earlier years. But who really knows? It is all a secret.

Update: Southeast Asia Globe has a story about inheritance tax in Bavaria. The prince maintains a residence in Bavaria and spends quite a lot of time there on the banks of Lake Starnberg and the story says he will be up for this tax. The story estimates it as $3.5 billion, based on reports of the assets of the CPB. An intersting claim, especially when one palace watcher says that the (military) government will pay it for him. We doubt this. The official blarney about the CPB has long been that it doesn’t personally belong to the king.





Following the money

17 10 2016

In an earlier post, PPT drew attention to France 24 and an AFP story that “follows the money.” The story noted that the dead king left “one of the world’s richest monarchies, with a multi-billion-dollar empire spanning property, construction and banks.” Some say the Crown Property Bureau is worth almost $60 billion and each of the royals is individually wealthy while also soaking up taxpayer funds. If there is a competition for the top spot, and there might still be, then there are plenty of spoils for the winner/s.

On this theme of following the money, there are a couple of other stories worth considering. One is a report at AP. It begins:

Thailand’s king, who died Thursday, was reputed to be the world’s richest royal and one of the wealthiest people on the planet.

It was a status that clashed with the carefully managed image of a monarch intensely concerned for his people’s welfare and one that Thai authorities were always anxious to correct.

But try as officials might, there was no escaping that Thailand’s monarchy, embodied for 70 years by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was a fabulously wealthy institution in a country where the widening gap between an affluent Bangkok and a poor but well populated countryside fueled years of political conflict.

The CPB “has estimated revenue of $2.5 billion to $3 billion a year, from which part of the royal family’s expenses are paid.” Huge amounts come from taxpayers, last estimated at 18 billion baht for 2016 (we can expect this to balloon for the funeral).

The story also makes this point: “The roots of the Thai monarchy’s enormous wealth lie in the privilege and power enjoyed in the pre-1932 era of absolute kingship.” That’s true, especially for property. However, the largely untold story is how the ninth reign was able to get it all under its control and was able to multiply its wealth so spectacularly. The closest thing we have to an account of this is Christine Gray’s mammoth doctoral dissertation Thailand – The Soteriological State in the 1970s.

The other article is a post at New Mandala, which has a swathe of articles following the king’s death. In Death of a monarch or an oligarch? T.F. Rhoden discusses the centrality of the monarchy for what he identifies as an oligarchy in Thailand. He says the king was the “top oligarch.”