With 3 updates: Constructing the monarch

29 07 2019

As we have pointed out previously, when succession came in 2016, there were some commentators who had been predicting a crisis and an unraveling of the monarchy. Part of the “crisis” had to do with King Vajiralongkorn’s vengeful, thuggish and nasty persona, well known in Thailand. Those characteristics, along with his lust for women and loot, defined his life as crown prince. He was also known to think of himself a military man and imposed “military discipline” on those around him.

Self-crowned

There was no crisis, and King Vajiralongkorn has established his reign and palace in a series of moves that were marked by a legalism that saw him establish clear personal ownership of royal wealth, clear out those he distrusted or felt insufficiently supine, and establish greater constitutional powers for the throne.

Many international commentators regularly make the trite observation that the current king does not have the same esteem as his long-serving father. This is obvious, but this seems a way of pointing to the king’s checkered past and odd personality.

But, as this year’s king’s birthday demonstrates, the palace propaganda machine is hard at work, concocting an image for the still new king. For all of his personal foibles and the great fear associated with his erratic and narcissistic behavior, for the palace propaganda machine, nothing much has changed and it uses familiar and tried and true methods.

For example, he is now “our father,” just as his father was, continuing the paternalism that marks monarchy and which is, when required, used politically.

Yesterday, the newspapers were drenched in palace propaganda. In propaganda, that which is false and concocted can become “truth” if repeated often enough. And there’s plenty of that in the invention of Vajiralongkorn’s image. We won’t go through it all as there simply too much.

One example is the creation of the king as “sportsman.” Of course, this links to his father’s image, based on his making and sailing in tiny yachts for a time in the 1960s. Vajiralongkorn, who once played some football with minions and who, late in life, took up cycling. That, as far as the propagandists are concerned, makes the king “majestic in sports.” This concocted story will be repeated year after year and people will come to accept it and perhaps believe it.

The other thing to note in the current flood of propaganda that constructs the monarch is the king as military man. His father took on this persona in the 1960s and 1970s, but he was not military trained. The new king is, and is proud of this.

The propagandists say the king has “specialises in military affairs, thanks to his illustrious military background.” They mangle politics with claims that “Thailand is a democratic country with the King as the head of state and for a large part of the nation’s history, the head of the armed forces as well.”

The politics of this – in a country dominated by military politicians – is emphasized:

Thai soldiers hold His Majesty in high regard and are ready to give up their lives for his cause because there is no higher honour for a Thai soldier than to serve the country, people and the King.

We may be forgetful, but we do not recall these claims being made for his father. In an era of military and military-backed government, an armed forces drawn ever closer to the king means a more interventionist king. It also means that the military and bureaucracy are those at the top of the political heap and are ever more closely intertwined with the throne.

We have previously posted on the Jit Arsa 904 “volunteers” that have been created as a force for the king and to burnish and propagandize his image. A couple of the “tributes” to the king play up this group. Such activities have multiple winners, with the king seen as a great man and the “volunteers” getting reflected merit. But, another of the stories reveals – we don’t recall this in past reporting – that the Jit Arsa scheme is a military operation. It states:

The Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) serves as the coordinator of the project. It has set up a regional coordination centre in each of the four regions: the Central Plains, Northeast, North and South.

Given ISOC’s political role, taking over from the junta, and its history of political destabilization, surveillance, repression and murder for various military regimes and for the military itself, the overt linking to the throne is cause for considerable concern.

Update 1: As if there hadn’t been a succession, the king’s birthday message reflected his father’s mantra of “prosperity” flowing from doing one’s “duty.” The king was only addressing the already prosperous – “royal family members as well as senior officials led by the parliament president, prime minister and the Supreme Court president” – but the message is carefully relayed to the hoi polloi. The report also recounts that the king further elevated his first daughter, changing her royal title from the relatively undistinguished Her Royal Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha Narendiradebyavati to the breathtaking Her Royal Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha Narendiradebyavati Krom Luang Ratchasarinee Siripatchara Maha Watchara Ratchathida. Tucked into the end of the report is the news that the king also “granted Maj Gen Thanpuying Sineenart Wongvajirapakdi the title of Chao Khun Phra Sineenart Pilaskalayanee.” That’s his favored consort.

Update 2: The regime gave the king a very expensive birthday present. Reuters reports that the king “will be exempt from tax on some of his land property…”. It wasn’t that long ago that there was some fanfare when the Crown Property Bureau lost its tax-free status as its assets came under the king’s direct ownership. However, a new announcement now says “some of the king’s lands and establishments will now be exempt from tax…”.

Lands and establishments that are “used in state affairs, royal affairs, or used by agencies under the king” will be exempt as will properties “used in other affairs by the king or members of the royal family, for public interests, or used as religious places. Royal properties that “do not fit the above descriptions” will also be tax exempt for those “… parts that are used for non-profit purposes…”. Millions and perhaps billions will be kept in the royal pocket.

Update 3: Some time ago the then crown prince let it be known that he wanted to be a more “traditional” king. Since Vajiralongkorn has been king he’s been realizing that ambition, grabbing land and making royal wealth more obviously his, wringing increased powers from the junta and gaining command over thousands of troops and police. Now he’s gone a step further. When we mentioned above that he gave a title to his favorite consort, this act was more significant than we thought.

Khaosod reports that the title bestowed is “Royal Noble Consort,” making Sineenat the first official consort taken by a king since King Chulalongkorn Vajiravudh. That the event was televised, with the king anointing her while seated with the queen tells Thais that neo-feudalism is upon them.

Sineenat also received a bunch of royal decorations: “The Most Illustrious Order of Chula Chom Klao, 1st Class; The Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, Special Class; The Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand, Special Class; and Rattanaporn Medal, First Class.”





Updated: Junta’s government goes, repression retained

16 07 2019

According to the Bangkok Post, the “outgoing junta government held its last meeting on Monday…”. We are not sure whether that means the junta has held its last meeting but guess this means the depleted cabinet met one last time. Anti-democrats will be in tears.

But this means little in terms of political repression. That continues, mostly run by the military and the Internal Security Operations Command.

As reported by Khaosod, junta legal fixer for the junta and who will be the fixer for the junta’s “new” government, Wissanu Krea-ngam “told reporters the power to detain people without warrants will rest with the counter-insurgency agency operating under the Prime Minister’s Office [ISOC]…”.

While he says that this power “won’t be invoked,” when political push comes to shove, watch this change. Wissanu added that “those who pose threats to national security or the monarchy will merely be questioned and warned.” In other words, they will “have [their attitude] adjusted.” He said they would not be detained.

Wissanu defended retaining these repressive powers: “It’s okay to retain such power, however, because it’s a power to oversee peace and order.”

Look forward to more of the same from the “new” government.

Update: The Bangkok Post quotes ISOC spokesman Maj Gen Thanathip Sawangsaeng who seems to contradict Wissanu. He stated: “I insist that the Internal Security Act does not authorise any detention or order for anyone to undergo an attitude change…”. The detention bit seems to match Wissanu’s claim, but not the attitude change bit. What’s going on there?





No change, more repression

10 07 2019

Despite claims that the military government is ending, it remains in place, essential a government of the junta, headed by the junta’s prime minister who will also be the post-junta/junta-backed prime minister.

The (almost) end of the rule by junta government has some useful attributes. For example, as reported by the Bangkok Post, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha issued a decree stating:

The NCPO [junta] issued announcements and orders to facilitate administration and national reform and to promote unity and reconciliation among people. Now that the implementation of some of them have been completed, they no longer serve a purpose….

All offences under the NCPO orders, whether committed before or after this order takes effect, will be in the jurisdiction of the courts of justice [not military courts]. The cases being tried by the military court will also be transferred to the courts of justice….

And, despite having used Article 44 just yesterday, Gen Prayuth says he won’t use it again.

Even so, “[s]ome special laws enacted by the junta’s absolute power will stay in place even after the new government takes over…”. As has been noted previously, however, many of the activities of the junta have been sucked up into the military and in particular, the Internal Security Operations Command.

As the Bangkok Post notes in an editorial about recent attacks on activists and repression and threats to opponents, this is the style of “rule of a repressive military regime, not a civilian one.”

It notes that “state surveillance on activists remains ongoing and the same kind of heavy-handed suppression of political dissent can be expected under the new civilian government,” confirming that the junta “has already ensured that such a campaign will be led by the military … [and] Isoc…”.





Never trust an Army boss II

7 07 2019

Back in February we observed that no one should ever trust the commander of the Royal Thai Army. At that time, Gen Apirat “pledged … that the army will remain neutral in this election…”. That was a fabrication and a lie.

He’s at it again.

Army watcher and occasional propagator of its propaganda, the Bangkok Post’s Wassana Nanuam conveys a message from Gen Apirat that is another lie. The basic point of the first report (of two that seem essentially the same), is that Gen Apirat “will wash his hands of politics after the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) [the junta] is dissolved once the new cabinet is sworn in.” He states: “From then on, I won’t make political comments nor will I get involved with politics in any way. I’ll perform my duty strictly as a professional soldier…”.

But, that is just silly and deceitful. For one thing, the junta – of which he is secretary-general – has constitutionally created a senate spot for the Army boss. That is, for Gen Apirat. In other words, he is a part of the political process as structured and rigged by his junta.

He’s also deputy chief of the Internal Security Operations Command, which is scheduled to take over many of the junta’s roles when the junta dissolves. ISOC has been embedded in politics from the national to the local levels [clicking opens a PDF].

As an aside, but interestingly, he provided the clearest signal yet that the Army is to remain US-aligned. With the Army now more cashed-up than it has been in decades – thanks to the military junta doubling its budget – and with an authoritarian-friendly regime in the US, look for this relationship to strengthen further.

Perhaps the biggest issue in Thailand’s politics is the one seldom discussed in the media is the relationship between the Army and the monarch. This is one aspect of politics where the Army has played – and will continue to play – a major role. The junta used ISOC and the Army to squash the anti-monarchism that sent shivers through the palace and the royal-aligned ruling class. That fundamental aspect of politics is also the Army’s most fundamental task.

So never trust an Army boss and don’t believe Gen Apirat’s claims.





Loans, Prawit and ISOC

1 07 2019

A few days ago PPT posted on Gen Prawit Wongsuwan’s backslapping regarding title deeds allegedly returned to debtors following the intervention of ISOC, Army police and administrative officials who claim to have magically convinced “loan sharks” to return land title deeds to the owners who had hocked them.

What amused us about the report was the data, which we questioned.

Interestingly, while not questioning the data, the Bangkok Post has questioned the program in an editorial. It notes that it was “deputy Democrat Party leader Nipit Intarasombat [who] floated an allegation that the return of land title deeds to debtors … was fake…”. He claimed that after the ceremonies fronted by Gen Prawit, “returning” the title deeds, “the documents were given back to the creditors…”.

Gen Prawit has denied this, but the allegations come from a man at the top of a “coalition partner,” which makes the whole idea of the junta’s ongoing “government” all the more fragile.

More significantly, the Bangkok Post recounts that:

… at another ceremony to hand back title deeds on Thursday, a group of 30 debtors of loan sharks from several provinces in the Northeast showed up uninvited to file a petition to Gen Prawit…. They said they were given back title deeds at previous ceremonies but when they went back home the police seized back the documents from them. They were then forced to repay debts or sign new borrowing contracts to get back the title deeds.

Will these villager be denied? Will they be harassed or arrested?





ISOC, loans and claims

28 06 2019

Deputy Dictator Gen Prawit Wongsuwan has been in debate with even persons from parties meant to be on his side of politics over his much-vaunted insertion of the Internal Security Operations Command, military police and other military personnel into a program that “manages” what are claimed to be “compromises” on land mortgages with so-called loan sharks.

A report in The Nation is about some backslapping by Gen Prawit as he ” led officials to visit Lop Buri to give moral support to the ISOC, Army police and administrative officials involved in tackling this issue.”

What amused us about the report was the data provided. Now, of course, this is a newspaper report that may well have garbled some of the data, but let’s assume that the newspaper got the figures provided by both Prawit and his spokesman right. What does it tell us?

The data claim that ISOC has been successful in “negotiation of fairer loan contracts covering debts worth Bt7.1 billion on behalf of 42,097 creditors this month so far…”. Yes, folks, that’s in less than a month! Even if that’s wrong in terms of time frame, it suggests that each load is worth an average of 168,655 baht.

Then there’s the claim that Gen Prawit “on Thursday at Thepsatri Rajabhat University [was able] to return 1,704 land title deeds – covering 2,054 rai of land worth more than Bt2.3 billion – to the rightful owners.” That’s 1.35 million per title deed and 1.12 million baht per rai, with each debtor having an average of  1.2 rai in hock.

In addition, Gen Prawit rattled off broader statistics: “a total of 25,052 debtors receiving 21,312 land title deeds covering 59,000 rai worth Bt30.6 billion.” That’s 0.85 debts per debtor and 2.36 rai per debtor. It is 2.77 rai per title and 518,644 baht per rai.

We remain skeptical.





ISOC’s political role

18 06 2019

The Internal Security Operations Command is the military’s most important political agency. For years it has engaged in political destabilization, surveillance, repression and murder for various military regimes and for the military itself.

PPT mentioned ISOC’s likely political role in the post-junta regime being put together by the junta. And, we have previously warned about this political agency. For a couple of important reads on ISOC, see here and here.

A Bangkok Post op-ed by Alan Dawson in 2017 referred to ISOC, in working for the junta, as being “extremely non-traditional, always unpredictable and occasionally highly strung…”.

[What did happen to Alan Dawson at the Post?]

It is now reported that ISOC is being rearranged, again. This reorganization has to do with the matters mentioned in yesterday’s post but also the fact that Gen Prawit Wongsuwan will likely not be its political jockey going forward.

The ISOC restructure is “increasing the number of agencies under its supervision…” from 12 to 18, although that counting may be underestimating ISOC’s current scope. Very oddly, the report states that the restructure is somehow “in line with Prime Minister [Gen] Prayut[h] Chan-o-cha’s intention to remove its military-dominated image.”

Yes, give this “political arm of the Thai military” more power while making its bosses, all “retired” generals, less of a military image. That, it seems, involves making ISOC more “modern” and by having it “made up of civil servants, police and soldiers, not purely military…”.

The junta appears to have appreciated the interventions by ISOC during the “election” campaign and now wants that influence and threat posture to continue post-“new” government.

The report states that this idea of making ISOC look less like a “tool of the army” seems like buffalo manure, not least when it reveals that there are “up to 770 military personnel work in the agency, leaving only 200 positions to police and civil servants.”

We find the report really very hard to believe, when Wikipedia reports that “ISOC’s FY2017 budget is 10,410.4 million baht,” and that “ISOC has about 5,000-6,000 staff nationwide, excluding those working in the south, and there are 500,000-600,000 internal security volunteers, as well as tens of thousands of people in its information network.” It can be also noted that ISOC already has police assigned to it.

The real story is that ISOC is being mobilized to provide the intelligence, repressive and political support Gen Prayuth, his proxy party and its regime require in order to stay in power.