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.





Imprisoned

11 06 2017

Almost a week ago, Pavin Chachavalpongpun had an op-ed at The Japan Times. In it, he stated:

Inside the sprawling Dhaveevatthana Palace in Bangkok is a prison built to lock up those betraying the trust of the new Thai king, Vajiralongkorn. On March 27, 2012, during the Yingluck Shinawatra administration, the Ministry of Justice issued an order regarding the construction of a prison within Dhaveevatthana Palace on a 60-sq.-meter plot of land. Named Buddha Monthon Temporary Prison, it is under the authority of the Klong Prem Central Prison.

Dhaveevatthana Palace or Residence, in Bangkok’s west, was one of Vajiralongkorn’s residences, favored until he ditched and demeaned his former consort, then Princess Srirasmi.

Pavin had mentioned this prison previously. He makes several claims about the prison and how the royal residence is used.

What is more interesting is the response of Thailand’s ambassador in Japan, in a letter to The Japan Times. It is interesting because it says little other than “we object.” Here it is, as published:

Regarding the column by Pavin Chachavalpongpun in the June 3 edition, while Thailand respects freedom of opinion and expression, this right has to be exercised responsibly in order to protect the rights and reputation of others.

In the article, several unsubstantiated claims were made by Chachavalpongpun, who, to the best of my knowledge, has never been to the palace in question.

As Chachavalpongpun himself acknowledged, there is a lack of information about the palace and that rumors thus play an important part. The article is biased and reflects the author’s hidden personal agenda. It is intended to offend the institution of monarchy, which is one of the main pillars of Thai society and highly revered.

I therefore strongly object to the publication of this article.

BANSARN BUNNAG
THAI, AMBASSADOR TO JAPAN

Several of Pavin’s claims are unsubstantiated, but that is the nature of reporting on a monarchy that is made as opaque as possible and where any real commentary on it risks years in jail. What is substantiated is that the prison exists – it was announced in the Royal Gazette, as Pavin says – and that former Grand Chamberlain Jumpol Manmai was held there.

So Bansarn and the military junta he represents may object but they are unable to convincingly deny the refeudalization of “justice.” Officials like Bansarn are imprisoned too; they cannot escape having to defend a decrepit royalism.





Planking for dead monarchs

6 05 2017

Planking was a short-lived fad that had dopes worldwide posting photos of themselves and others prostrated and face down in various spots and situations.

Not in Thailand, where it is an enforced “display” of “loyalty” to dead and living feudal potentates.

Activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, recently elected to head the Chulalongkorn University Student Council, has said that he might campaign for students to be able to decide whether to abide by the royalist university’s demand that students prostrate themselves before the statue of King Chulalongkorn at an annual ceremony.

The idea of belly-flopping before a statue of a dead king who just happens to be the king who ruled that his subjects didn’t need to prostrate themselves, seeing the practice as feudal and uncivilized, is weird in itself. But, then, the administrators want to enforce hierarchy just like their allies in the junta.

Now Netiwit has been chastised by The Dictator, who is a big fan of the royal belly-flop.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha sent a message to Netiwit and to the Chulalongkorn administrators when he said the idea that students to be given the choice was a terrible idea. He warned: “This could tarnish the reputation of the institution…”. He referred to the royal planking as a “good tradition.” He said prostration was “charming.” Charming like torturing Army recruits, perhaps, as it maintains the appropriate social order and required hierarchy.

Good traditions, he said, need to be preserved, as they were “charms” of the country. He displayed his historical ignorance by declaring prostration a display that showed people “proud of our good history and it should be preserved.”

It would be useful if Prayuth could actually read and understand the history of King Chulalongkorn’s decision on prostration. We can help, quoting from Wikipedia:

In 1873, the Royal Siamese Government Gazette published an announcement on the abolition of prostration. In it, King Chulalongkorn declared, “The practice of prostration in Siam is severely oppressive. The subordinates have been forced to prostrate in order to elevate the dignity of the phu yai. I do not see how the practice of prostration will render any benefit to Siam. The subordinates find the performance of prostration a harsh physical practice. They have to go down on their knees for a long time until their business with the phu yai ends. They will then be allowed to stand up and retreat. This kind of practice is the source of oppression. Therefore, I want to abolish it.” The Gazette directed that, “From now on, Siamese are permitted to stand up before the dignitaries. To display an act of respect, the Siamese may take a bow instead. Taking a bow will be regarded as a new form of paying respect.”

In fact, Prayuth wants prostration for all the reasons the king abolished it.

We have no problem with Prayuth rubbing himself along the ground, but forcing others to do it is oppressive, harsh and does little to elevate his dignity.

But here’s what’s worse than this. Prayuth’s historically false claims were made “in a keynote speech at Mahidol University on the roles of Thai universities.”

That any university considers Prayuth worthy of addressing its academics and students is an insult. We are sure that does not occur to the royalist anti-democrats who control all of Thailand’s universities.

Netiwit responded: “Who is the nation’s embarrassment?” He went on to say that “in the eyes of young people like him, Prayut had tainted the country’s reputation for more than three years after staging the 2014 coup and restricting human rights.”

Netiwit added some home truths that will enrage The Dictator: “He should respect the rules of the country. If he has political ambitions, he should form a political party…. By staging the coup, he did not abide by the rules.”





The stolen plaque and repression

25 04 2017

Pro-democracy activist and former lese majeste detainee Akechai Hongkangwan has been “detained at the 11th Military Circle after attempting to submit a complaint regarding the missing Siamese Revolution plaque at Government House on Tuesday.”

The stolen plaque, presumably now buried, melted down or at the bottom of a lake in southern Germany is a subject added to the long list of items that may not be discussed in refeudalizing Thailand.

The Nation reports that a “police officer at Ladprao Police Station told the Thai Human Rights Lawyers (THRL) group that the activist had been detained according to an arrest warrant…”. Yet it is the military thugs who have him.

It is not clear what the charge could be. Perhaps the dastardly crime of asking about a missing plaque? Or perhaps the equally terrible crime of addressing The Dictator. More likely, there’s no real charge and that The Dictator is simply miffed that the activist asked about anything.

The report says a “security agency source” has said that the activist “had been invited” for something the military thugs call “a talk to create some mutual understanding…”. The “misunderstanding” is that the “the activist attempted to submit a complaint calling for an investigation regarding the missing [stolen] plaque.”

The military junta and The Dictator seem to believe that no-one can complain about this vandalism. That can only be so because the theft has the highest fingerprints on it. “The source said officers were afraid his actions could create confusion in the public.” Really? Everyone knows that this was a royal/royalist act of historical and political vandalism involving the deliberate destruction of public property.

Vandalism, military abductions and repression are likely to be the hallmarks of the new reign.





A feudal future beckons

21 04 2017

Yellow shirt commentators do not worry much about military dictatorship. They see military dictatorship as “normal” for Thailand.

While most yellow shirts still believe that the military is the only thing standing between them, an election and the hated Thaksin Shinawatra, it is also clear that not all yellow shirts expected an enforced royal dictatorship that fosters Thailand’s refeudalization.

Nonetheless, yellow shirt anti-electionism and royalism naturally promotes refeudalization.

The symbolic removal of the 1932 plaque is not just a royalist act of political and historical vandalism. It is also one more step by the military junta that marks the path of Thailand’s refeudalization.

The attraction of a feudal political arrangement for the military dictatorship is that it has no truck for notions that the people are sovereign.

In this sense, while symbols can have multiple meanings, expunging those that can be used by those who demand popular sovereignty is a part of the military’s palace alliance and its 20-year plan for a “reformed” Thailand.

This is part of the reason why The Dictator is both mum on the removal of 1932 commemoration plaque and protective of the royalist plaque that replaced it. It is pretty clear that this vandalism initially caused fear among some in the junta. Now, however, they have fallen into line, knowing that by their own design, they are politically bound to the reign.

That the opposition and agitation over the removal of the plaque has largely come from those the junta considers the “usual suspects” has also meant that protection of feudalism and its symbols is an easy and “natural” decision.

The most recent act of protection has been to accuse opposition figure Watana Muangsook of “a computer crime for posting on Facebook that the missing 1932 Revolution Plaque is a national asset.”

As Prachatai explains it:

On 19 April 2017, Pol Gen Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, the Deputy Chief of the Royal Thai Police (RTP), revealed that the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) filed a complaint against Watana Muangsook, a politician from the Pheu Thai Party, for breaching the Computer Crime Act.

The police apparently think that the use of the term “national asset” is threatening and false.

Watana was due to report to the police. He is the second to face charges or detention over the plaque. Like Srisuwan Janya, Watana has called for the “return of the missing plaque and for prosecution of those responsible for its removal.”

No one associated with the removal of the plaque has been named, arrested or charged. The chances of this happening are pretty much zero.

As one correspondent stated, everyone knows who is behind this act, but no one can say for fear of lese majeste and jail.

Expunging the symbols of 1932 expunges notions of popular sovereignty. That serves the interests of the military-monarchy alliance where King Vajiralongkorn looks like a throwback absolutist.





Updated: Who took the plaque?

18 04 2017

Being on holidays and out of Bangkok for a few days, the social media frenzy surrounding the political vandalism of the People’s Party plaque has been a bit difficult to follow.

This post is quite a bit out of the ordinary for PPT as we are getting into very heavy speculation with little to go on other than joining some dots together. We are posting now because we think this is a very dangerous reactionary trend in Thailand, one that goes far beyond that of the military junta.

We think we know why it is difficult to follow, but more on that below.

The vandalism was not a minor bit of pilfering. This had to be a fair sized and well-planned operation.  After all, the historic plaque had to dug up and stolen on a day with light traffic and replaced with another plaque commemorating nothing significant, but displaying ridiculous monarchist graffiti.

That piece of royalist metal pap was set in cement, or so the pictures suggest, and that takes time to set, so this was not a snatch and grab raid.

This is all suggesting an operation that could only have been done by the authorities or with their connivance. (We will pretty much ignore the predictable ultra-royalist cheering that another step to re-establishing feudalism has been taken.)

The junta and its minions, including the police, are Sgt Shultzing this. They know nothing.

But, oops, someone complained. This brings one of those police responses which is the response you get when you just know that something is being hidden or that the cops have their private parts in an important vice.

Then some unexpected persons decide to protest, and the cops quickly get agitated and see off these more-or-less unknowns operating for reasons that are not entirely clear. It’s a small group and hardly threatening, but the cops feel differently. This is suggesting the motive behind the removal is somewhere reasonably high up.

This is followed by serial prodder of regimes, Srisuwan Janya of the Association for the Protection of the Constitution, showing up at the junta’s “public service centre” to “submit a letter to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha asking him to look for the 1932 Siamese Revolution memorial plaque…”.

So far The Dictator has been silent, suggesting that the normally talkative general is feeling unable to comment. It is as if he feels constrained, dumbfounded or fearful.

Odder than that, when Srisuwan shows up, soldiers are waiting and he is “whisked away in a military van … for talks at the 1st Cavalry Regiment…”.

That suggests there’s something to hide and that the regime is jittery as hell.

And then there’s the linking of the plaque and the earlier “order” about three overseas bloggers, seeking to criminalize and prevent contact with them.

We think there’s a story here of orders coming from the king. Of course, we have no evidence, but the fingerprints are there. There’s a fear that the banned bloggers are able to soak up leaks from close to the palace and that they will publicize them.

They already publicized the odd behavior of one of the king’s favorite concubines just meters from the plaque a month or so ago.

There’s a perspective emanating from the palace that suggests a desire to roll back 1932 as an aberration. In fact, the view is that the 17th century was a time when kings ruled with few constraints on their often aberrant behavior. Don’t be surprised to hear of suggestions that pre-Bangkok laws might still be useful in contemporary times.

We kind of hope our speculation is wrong.

Update: We think that Pavin Chachavalpongpun’s latest post at New Mandala, on the fear that infects palace circles and which infects much else, should be read with this post. He makes some excellent points about the reign after just a few months.