With 3 updates: Corrupt military

15 02 2020

The calls for reform of the Army following the Korat murders are almost deafening. Some are from those who previously more or less supported the 2006 and 2014 military coups. Other critics are ardent yellow shirts.

But, really, wasn’t all of this corruption known before? It was for us, and we have posted on it dozens and dozens of times. The unusual wealth, free digs for senior officers, the use of the lower ranks as slaves by the top brass, “commissions,” scams, nepotism, the impunity on torture and murder, etc. It has all been widely known.

Clipped from Khaosod

Naturally enough, the criticism of the military flows across into the military-backed regime, led by generals. One reported comment was an expression of “hopelessness” at responses to Korat from both Army and regime. Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha was seen as gruff and uncaring in his response while Gen Apirat Kongsompong’s tearful media conference was seen by some as theatrical.The two are seen as part of the same regime and they are both men who have benefited greatly from the corrupt system.

Of course, Apirat’s response is also political as he is angling to take the premiership after Gen Prayuth, to continue the Army’s political dominance.

One of the public responses has been skepticism that “the army chief’s vow to bring transparency to the barracks” is real. As one person commented to reporters, “there is no reason why those in power will make sacrifices…”.

We at PPT are not so skeptical because Gen Apirat obviously views the current criticism as an opening for critics and a threat to the Army’s role in the economy and politics. For the moment, he is unable to shut down critics. And, he needs to respond. He’s said:

There are many projects among army personnel who collaborate with businessmen including real estate and loan sharking businesses. I know that and there will be generals down to colonels who will go jobless this month and in the coming months….

Sacking underlings is one thing. Attacking the toxic culture of a feudal military requires much more that this.

But the political threat to the military is acknowledged by Gen Apirat and he knows he has to be seen to be doing something.

As the Bangkok Post reports. “[p]olitical activists are pushing for an investigation into what they describe as the army’s administrative errors, which they believe was the root cause of the massacre in Nakhon Ratchasima…”.

The Future Forward Party and other opposition parties are demanding investigation and reform.

A group known as The People’s Party for Freedom, Democracy Restoration Group (DRG) called on the “House of Representatives’ committee on military affairs” to conduct “an investigation into the army’s alleged mismanagement” of armories and poor security. More significantly, it also demanded “that businesses run by the army, especially those managing army-owned land for commercial purposes” be investigated.

This is a big deal. Consider, for example, the role of the military in the Eastern Economic Corridor, controlling the airport and port in the project as well as tracts of land that are being converted to commercial use. And, the military controls millions of rai of land.

The group also demanded “that the authorities look into certain members of top brass, who have abused their authority for the benefit of themselves and their families.” Here the group is pointing to the “military housing project … in which the gunman was reportedly cheated by his superior and his superior’s family, [as]… clear evidence of blatant abuse in the army…”

But there’s much, much more. Think of the crony Senate and the nepotism of Gen Preecha Chan-ocha, among many, many others. Consider how it is that Can anyone remember the Rolls Royce corruption case and how nothing happened? Does anyone recall the corruption allegations over the Army’s expensive Rajabhakti Park homage to dead kings?

And then there’s the declared wealth of the military members of the junta’s administration, showing huge and unusual wealth in 2014:

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 …[where] the average for the top brass in the police is a whopping 258 million baht.

Even declared unusual wealth was never investigated. For confirmation of this, for readers with access, a recent academic article detailed some of this. This is what the paper’s abstract states:

After the military coup of 2014, 143 serving and retired generals of the Royal Armed Thai Forces submitted asset declarations to the National Anti-Corruption Commission on being appointed to the military junta’s National Legislative Assembly. By analysing these declarations, this article demonstrates that a cohort of wealthy generals has emerged, which leads to the article’s central concern: how is it that despite the political reform project of the 1990s, military leaders were able to evade scrutiny and become wealthy? It is argued that behind the lack of scrutiny of the military’s wealth accumulation was a structure of fear that severely undermined the capacity to enforce regulations and which enabled the military to evade the constitutional forms of scrutiny elaborated in the 1997 Constitution. That structure of fear emerged in a context of an elusive political settlement when the apparatuses of the state were occupied by competing regime framers, leading to a re-assertion of military power.

The Korat event has led to an outpouring of accusations and complaints, some of it from soldiers:

Lawyer Atchariya Ruangrattanapong said he was compiling a list of soldiers who had made similar complaints about being caught up in shady loans or real estate deals with superior officers.

“There are plenty of cases at the moment…”.

Atchariya also praised the military for transferring Col. Uthai Fangkratok and Lt. Col. Tee Permpol to “inactive duty” within the Second Army Region, which covers Thailand’s northeastern region where the rampage took place.

“Thank you commander of the Second Army Region for the actions after we exposed the scam,” he said in a Facebook post on the Help Crime Victims Club page.

Despite our comment above, there’s ample reason for skepticism about the “optics” around “doing something.” Critic Titipol Pkadeewanich of Ubon Ratchathani University declares: “It is just a show…”.

For one thing, Gen Apirat is not allowing any independent investigations. He has:

… ordered 2nd Army commander Lt Gen Thanya Kiattisan to conduct a “straightforward” and speedy investigation into the shooting, said a source who asked not to be identified.

Two other working teams have been told to look into soldiers’ welfare provisions and businesses run within the barracks as well as take action against any personnel found to be involved in dishonest deals, the source added.

Maj Gen Rachit Arunrangsi, chief of the Army Welfare Department, and Lt Gen Ayut Siwiset, chief of the Directorate of Personnel, are in charge of the two panels.

While he has “threatened to suspend any business-oriented army projects that are found to have irregularities,” again, it is an internal investigation.

Bolstering skepticism, it has been widely reported that Gen Apirat’s statement that “retired army officers must move out from their official residences…”, has exceptions. No prizes for guessing that Gen  Prayuth, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan and Gen Anupong Paojinda will be first among those keeping their Army-supplied houses. This is because they make a “contribution to society.”

Other “retired generals who now serve as Senators; and retired army generals in the Privy Council” also have taxpayer-funded free accommodation on bases, cloistered from the rest of the population, feeling comfortable among the groveling and hierarchy of the forces, using military slaves and more.

While they suck on the public teat forever, they are being “recognized” for their “contributions” to the military, conducting military coups, strengthening impunity and slaughtering red shirts. And, they have strengthened the military’s systematized corruption.

Who can forget the taxpayer-funded years of free accommodation  for now dead Privy Council President Gen Prem Tinsulanonda in a house that the Army has since “donated” to the king. Where does current Privy Council President Gen Surayud Chulanont live?

It is not just that those at the very top engage in nepotism, corruption and sweet deals, setting a poor example, but it is systematized: those at lower levels engage in corruption that funnels funds up into the higher ranks.

Update 1: Is it only a coincidence that Gen Prayuth has ordered the Fine Arts Department to produce “shows” on “Thailand’s war history to bolster patriotism among Thais.” The aim is to strengthen “unity” and promote “awareness of the roles of key institutions — the nation, religion and monarchy — in helping overcome crises…”. Given that most of the propaganda will be about the military, their “reputation” will also be bolstered.

Update 2: The op-eds criticizing the military are raining down like political confetti. Some of them seem to express surprise at the size of corruption revealed, while neglecting to mention some of the biggest military scams or to ask why it is that the military brass gets away with murder and crime. Other op-eds get right to the point: “The Thai army is a closed system governed by feudal authoritarianism which breeds corruption and abuse of power.” Read them all.

Update 3: Prachatai reports on a rally of:

a hundred people [who] gathered in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) yesterday (13 February) for a candlelight vigil to mourn the victims of the Nakhon Ratchasima mass shooting … and to demand that Gen Apirat Kongsompong take responsibility by resigning from his position as army chief.





Taxpayers and official glorification

11 02 2020

We were struck by yet another big dip into taxpayer’s pockets for even more glorification of dead King Bhumibol.  The military-backed regime has decided to shovel 864 million baht (US$27 million) to “build a museum dedicated to the royal cremation of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej … in Pathum Thani’s Klong 5…” to be run by the Fine Arts Department.

The new 7,200m² “royal museum … will resemble the royal crematorium…” and will “be located on a 32ha plot of land, it will also house the Supreme Artist Hall, the King Rama IX Archive, and the national museum warehouse of the department…”.

It is planned to “consist of five major zones to exhibit every angle of the royal cremation” and “will display art pieces and materials used to construct and decorate the Royal Crematorium, including the royal urn, royal coffin, and 132 sculptures used to decorate the royal crematorium.” It is expected to open in 2022.

864 million baht is chicken feed in the billions of baht used for all kinds of taxpayer-funded glorification. Yet it adds to other museums that maintain the elements of royal cultural hegemony: the supposedly largest museum in Southeast Asia, the Rama 9 Museum, the National Museum of Royal Barges, and the Royal Elephant National Museum, to name just a couple.

Every year, billions of baht flow into this kind of glorification of royals. Can anyone come up with the real figure on how much of the people’s money supports this feudal family? How much is wasted on palace propaganda?





On neo-feudal restorationism

2 02 2020

Pravit Rojanaphruk deserves considerable praise for daring to take up the case of the royalist vandalizing of statues commemorating the 1932 revolution and its leaders.

His latest op-ed “Why Did Statues of a Former PM Have to Go?” is a must-read. While he can’t name names, his view that this latest act of royalist erasure is cause for deep concern: “the removal of two bronze statues of him is something all Thais should be worried about.”

1932: The end of the absolute monarchy announced

On the lack of any explanation for the recent acts of cultural vandalism, he says:

To this day, I never received any straightforward answer from those running those facilities why the statues had to go. On my visits, it seemed to me that the military personnel were under a lot of pressure to remain taciturn, perhaps because the answer may be too complicated for the public to understand.

Phibul

In fact, most Thais have a pretty good understanding of these events. They know that King Vajiralongkorn is seeking to further aggrandize the monarchy. They know that the king has been land grabbing and is now building a huge palace precinct that “requires” the erasing of all other symbols of 1932 and the end of the absolute monarchy.

As Pravit has it, “If statues of someone so influential to modern Thailand could be removed without a trace, modern Thailand as we know it is in deep trouble.”

He observes:

Scholar Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian noted in her book “Thailand’s Durable Premier” that Pibulsongkram’s own goals were most likely to “permanently eliminate the rule of absolute monarchy and its deep-rooted prestige and influence over the people in the country.”

Could this be the reason why, in a climate where concerted attempts are being made to restore and revive the supreme dominance of the monarchy, that Pibulsongkram statues must go?

Yes, that’s it.

And he adds that Plaek Phibulsonggram’s ghost “and the ghosts of his fellow revolutionaries who overthrew absolute monarchy, are still a haunting threat to some. And to the powerful, ghostly threats must be exorcised.”

Probably, but we know that both his father’s and his mother’s families were vehement opponents of the 1932 revolution and that his father loathed Phibul.

Pravit concludes: “In the end, it is not just the memories of Pibulsongkram that are at stake – but that of modern Thai history itself.”

That’s true. But it is also Thailand’s political future that is at stake. Will the royalists overcome democrats and can the palace complete the more than 80 year struggle to undo the 1932 revolution?





Royal infection

31 01 2020

It seems that in neo-feudal Thailand, any utterance from a royal is newsworthy. That apparently includes even Ubolratana, who “resigned” her royal status but still enjoys her “princessness” as a member of the royal family and the king’s elder sister.

As the regime arrests people for spreading “fake news” on the Wuhan coronavirus, perennial attention-seeker (non)Princess Ubolratana,

took to social media to question the government’s inaction as well as giving her own experience of trying to avoid the coronavirus in Bangkok. The government said the repatriation could begin by Feb. 4, but added that they have yet to secure permission from the Chinese authorities.

“I don’t know what the government is waiting for. They’re starving over there!” she wrote in response to a comment on Instagram.

“Starving” in Wuhan is not something that has regularly come up in reports from Wuhan, except from one tabloid story about a panicked Thai student.

In another report, another woman “all kinds of rumors online” and some shortages of food as people in Wuhan stocked up.

Other reports are of the Chinese government ordering

… farmers to step up vegetable production, opened roads for delivery trucks and is punishing those trying to profit in order to keep feeding residents of the locked-down city….

Why Ubolratana should be telling the government what to do is reflective of Thailand’s royalist fever. Should she be more careful in her public attention-seeking? Of course she should.

Evacuations are not easy, and returning people who may add to the infected population and require considerable forward planning and preparation as well as Chinese permissions. The BBC lists the countries evacuating citizens and it it clear that its really only Japan and the US that have arranged flights so far.

Many foreign nationals in Wuhan also hold Chinese passports, which further complicates things.

Until yesterday, “World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday that the UN health body “does not recommend the evacuation” of foreign nationals from virus-hit Hubei province as he called on the international community to remain calm.”

Like the average social media user, perhaps Ubolratanta should have a bit of a think before tweeting. Not least because the royal virus in Thailand means she’s an “influencer.”





Buffalo manure “democracy”

27 01 2020

A few days ago the Bangkok Post included a report that “Thailand was the biggest mover in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 Democracy Index, rising 38 places in the global rankings…”. That was a surprise. More astounding though, The Economist Intelligence Unit considered that the military junta’s “conversion” of itself into a military-backed regime with a government manufactured out of what should have been an electoral defeat makes Thailand a “flawed democracy” rather than what was previously a “hybrid regime.”

PPT has been a collective fan of The Economist’s coverage of Thailand’s politics in recent years. However, this “ranking” suggests that its Intelligence Unit has lost its IQ.

How on earth does The Economist Intelligence Unit decide that: “The biggest score change in Asia occurred in Thailand, which finally held an election in March 2019, the first since the military coup in May 2014. Voters had a wide array of parties and candidates from which to choose, and this helped to restore some public confidence in the electoral process and the political system…”. It seems that the “election led to improvements in the scores across all five categories of the Democracy Index, but the sharpest increase was recorded for electoral process and pluralism.”

How on earth does The Economist Intelligence Unit decide that Thailand is a “flawed democracy”? It defines these in this manner:

These countries … have free and fair elections and, even if there are problems (such as infringements on media freedom), basic civil liberties are respected. However, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.

This puts Thailand in the same category as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Italy and Indonesia. This is nonsensical, but that’s what the “numbers” say to The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Thailand is a country where political repression is widespread, an election was rigged over several years, opposition parties were dissolved, the courts have been made political bodies, “independent agencies” made tools of the military-backed regime, activists are beaten, arrested, threatened, disappeared and murdered, the military has a parallel administration and operates outside the law and with impunity, the Senate was selected and appointed by the junta and operates for it…. Do we need to go on? And need we say that for four months of 2019, the country was a military dictatorship.

Thailand is no longer a “hybrid regime,”which The Economist Intelligence Unit defines as:

Elections have substantial irregularities that often prevent them from being both free and fair. Government pressure on opposition parties and candidates may be common. Serious
weaknesses are more prevalent than in flawed democracies—in political culture, functioning of government and political participation. Corruption tends to be widespread and the rule of law is weak. Civil society is weak. Typically, there is harassment of and pressure on journalists, and the judiciary is not independent.

That sounds like Thailand. More academically-based definitions seem to fit Thailand too, as summarized at Wikipedia:

A hybrid regime is a mixed type of political regime that arises on the basis of an authoritarian as a result of an incomplete democratic transition. Hybrid regimes combine autocratic features with democratic ones, they can simultaneously hold political repressions and regular elections. The term “hybrid regime” arises from a polymorphic view of political regimes that opposes the dichotomy of autocracy or democracy…

So we ask again, how on earth does The Economist Intelligence Unit come up with this stuff?

According to one account:

How did the EIU come up with a scoring system that is supposedly accurate to two decimal places? What it did has the semblance of rigor. It asked various experts to answer 60 questions and assigned each reply a numerical value, with the weighted average deciding the ranking. Who are these experts? Nobody knows.

The Economist Intelligence Unit has responded to such criticisms, but, in fact, still gives the unnamed experts 60 questions with a 3-point scoring system: 0, 0.5, 1. It also claims to use other measures:

A crucial, differentiating aspect of our measure is that, in addition to experts’ assessments, we use, where available, public-opinion surveys—mainly the World Values Survey. Indicators based on the surveys predominate heavily in the political participation and political culture categories, and a few are used in the civil liberties and functioning of government categories…. In addition to the World Values Survey, other sources that can be leveraged include the Eurobarometer surveys, Gallup polls, Asian Barometer, Latin American Barometer, Afrobarometer and national surveys. In the case of countries for which survey results are missing, survey results for similar countries and expert assessment are used to fill in gaps.

With all of this (pseudo-)science – such as the Asian Barometer – The Economist Intelligence Unit gave Thailand a score of 6.32.

PPT did the 60 questions (see the appendix to the report) and came up with a score of 4.50, which would have Thailand ranked closer to Pakistan, a so-called hybrid regime.

We’d suggest that The Economist Intelligence Unit might spend a little more time reading The Economist on Thailand’s democratic failure and efforts at re-feudalization.





Isan memory

26 01 2020

As a kind of pushback on the re-feudalization being pushed by military-backed regime and the king’s palace, Prachatai curates an excellent Thai-language discussion of memories of the 1932 revolution and it memorialization in the northeast. Worth a look even if Thai is not your language.





With a major update: Re-feudalization and repression

26 01 2020

Somsak Jeamteerasakul has posted another before and after picture of the destruction of symbols of the 1932 revolution and the People’s Party. This time at the Field Marshal P. Phibulsonggram House Learning and History Center in Chiang Rai:

Meanwhile, yet another critical report seems to have been removed from the Khaosod news website.In this case, an opinion piece by Pravit Rojanaphruk titled “Opinion: The Talibanization of Bangkok’s Architectural Heritage” about the erasing of post-1932 architectural style from Rajadamnoen Avenue, has gone.

When one looks for the article at the site, the return is:

It was there.

And it was circulated:

And it was re-posted in Thailand:

Frustratingly, PPT didn’t copy the article before it was taken down. If any reader has a copy, please email us.

The last time this happened it was a news story about the trouble caused by Princess Sirivannavari when she and some rich friends had a holiday in the south and officials closed land and sea to allow her to have fun with “security.” Ordinary Thais lost income and work while taxpayer funds were burned.

As far as we can tell, in neither case has Khaosod explained why the articles have been disappeared. We assume the management and owners came under pressure. But from where? From notions of self censorship? Or from the regime? Or from the palace?

The fear about commenting on anything royal is reinforced. The erasure of memory and history gathers pace.

Update: Thanks to readers, including @barbaricthais and “a republican reader,” we have located the deleted Khaosod op-ed by Pravit. It is clear that the equating of royal vandalism and Talibanization annoyed/scared/worried some. The op-ed is reproduced here, in full, but without the pictures:

What struck me as rather disturbing as I met with people along the Ratchadamnoen Avenue to discuss the upcoming renovation is their sense of fear.

Very few whom I interviewed wanted to be identified. Some even said they did not want to talk at all about what could be the most significant change to the landscape of the historic avenue in 80 years.

The reason is rather straightforward. All of the ten art deco buildings along the avenues are to be replaced with a new “neoclassical” pastiches per instruction from the Crown Property Bureau, who owned the structures since the time when it was still under the oversight of a civilian government that overthrew absolute monarchy in 1932.

In the present time, the agency is a different kind of entity. Following a vote in 2017 by the junta-appointed rubber stamp parliament, the Crown Property ceased to be under the control of state and was placed under the supervision of new monarch, King Vajiralongkorn.

In early 2019, the Crown Property Bureau invited tenants of these art deco buildings along the 1200-meter stretch of the avenue to a meeting, and informed them that a decision has been made to replace the structures with a neoclassical façade.

Words of the meeting were relayed to me by one of the participants, who was apparently at a discomfort of discussing the topic, but I assured him there was nothing to worry; what he told me was perfectly in line with the Crown Property’s very own announcement of the plan on Jan 17.

Not everyone is thrilled by the makeover. Critics like Chatri Prakitnonthakan, an expert and author on buildings from the era of the revolution that toppled the absolute monarchy, told me the new façade will be “fake” because it’s more like applying a veneer on art deco architectural structure which is fundamentally different.

He also suspected a deeper agenda. Chatri said art deco architecture in Thailand symbolized a break from feudal absolutism. He believes there is a sinister attempt by some people to exact revenge on the long-dead revolutionaries by removing any relics related to their memories.

No matter what your political ideology is, Thailand has lost enough architectural heritage when its old capital Ayutthaya was sacked by the Burmese in 1767; the city was also subject to a series of looting and vandalism by both Thais and Chinese merchants in the centuries that followed.

Bangkok is relatively new, anointed as the capital in 1782. Why, then, are we defacing and deconsecrating the few architectural legacies and monuments that we have?

Let us not Talibanize our tangible heritage, our past, our history – lest we end up not knowing who we are, where we came from and surrounded by Disney-like environ.

In the fast-developing megacity of Shanghai, the Chinese managed to preserve many buildings constructed by former colonial powers despite the bitter history. Thais should also learn to cherish material cultures, buildings included, that speak about a crucial portion in our history, instead of trying to deface what we do not like.

Many have given up, resigned to the fate that one of the most historic landmarks in Bangkok’s Old City will be Disneyfied with the shallow neoclassical veneer.

Some even fear that Democracy Monument, the most visible memorial to the birth of parliamentary democracy in 1932, might be either altered or removed altogether eventually. Some have begun taking selfies with the symbolism-filled monument in a half-nervous jest. Just in case.

And if the renovation is truly inevitable, I hope they save at least one art deco building on Ratchadamnoen Avenue: the imposing Royal Hotel at the southeastern end of the avenue.

It was opened in 1943 by none other than the revolution’s co-leader Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram, and has since played a role in several key moments of Thai political history. Like when it was a safe haven for protesters in the May 1992 uprising against the military rulers, until soldiers invaded it, beating and forcefully arresting those inside.

I wonder if anyone will launch any campaign to save these historical relics at all. Given the current climate of fear and sensitivity of the issue, I wouldn’t be surprised if many will think more than twice before lending their signature – or even change their mind afterwards.