Red shirts, Bangkok Bank and lies

18 02 2010

There are several reports in various media of the red shirts rallying at the Bangkok Bank headquarters in Silom Road. MCOT.net (17 February 2010) reports that United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) leader Nattawut Saikua announced the first red shirt action in the business district, usually considered a bastion of yellow-shirt support.

The move comes a day after Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban briefed a large delegation of representatives of the local business community (Bangkok Post, 18 February 2010)

Apparently Suthep and others revealed the government’s intelligence gathering and planning for the red shirt violence that the government has been predicting for several months.

According to MCOT.net, the red shirts will reportedly “disclose information claiming that Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda unfairly favoured a group of businesspersons investing in a golf resort in the eastern province of Chanthaburi.” Prem has a long association with the Bangkok Bank and it is considered that the Bank was one of the businesses that funded the long-running demonstrations by the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

The Bangkok Bank’s controlling family, the immensely wealthy Sino-Thai Sophonpanich clan, has strong links with the Democrat Party. Kalaya Sophonpanich is Science and Technology minister in Abhisit Vejjajiva’s cabinet. The total wealth of the Sophonpanich is not exactly known, although Money & Banking magazine (December 2009, p. 215) listed its senior member, Chatri, as being Thailand’s 23rd wealthiest measured just in terms of shares held on the Stock Exchange of Thailand, holding shares worth almost 2.5 billion baht.

Prem is reported as having a small group of close business associates known as the Group of 11 that includes Kalyani Panchet of MMC Sittipol who gave sums of money to Prem for allegedly charitable purposes and which the red shirts have raised as an issue against the privy councilor. The group also includes the Dusit group’s Chanat Piyaoui and Chatri Sophonpanich of the Bangkok Bank.

The rally at the Bangkok Bank coincides with government accusations that the red shirts have been lying about alleged plans to crackdown on the movement at the end of the month. The red shirts have quoted from a cabinet document that apparently sets out scenarios for a violent crackdown on red shirt protestors. The red shirts claim to have obtained the document from a senior military commander.

PPT has yet to see a copy of this allegedly 37 page document, except in news reports, so if any reader has a copy or a link for a copy, email us.

Initially Deputy Prime Minister Suthep claimed this was all a big lie. He emphatically stated on television that “There is no plan.” However, there have now been considerable backtracking, arguing that the red shirts have a real document but that it is not a secret document but one that is public and from the National Security Council. As we said above, if it is a public document, we at PPT can’t find it. In any case, ministers now claim that despite the NSC planning for a crackdown, they aren’t going to do it. So we wonder who is lying on this case.

In Parliament, there have been more accusations. The Nation (18 February 2010) reports that acting government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn faced a grilling over his accusations regarding overseas funds flowing to the red shirts. The Nation states that Panitan “vehemently denied having anything to do with the allegations, while a number of Pheu Thai MPs lashed out saying it was a frame-up…”. It might be that Panitan is misreported, although PPT thinks Panitan is fudging, which is our polite term for lying.

Here’s the fudging, as reported: “The news broke because some reporters came into my office asking whether I was aware of any suspicious funds…”. So it was the reporters’ fault? He added that “he had recalled a report from a security agency within the PM’s Office reporting an unusual flow of funds into Thailand from sources overseas.” So he told them.

Panitan also said that “security agencies were checking the report under prescribed procedures and the government was not trying to smear the red shirts.” Another lie. PPT has posted on Panitan’s own comments previously, here and here. Panitan would not reveal “which agency had detected these questionable funds.” Earlier he had claimed that some senators told him….

According to MCOT.net another accusation of lying has come from Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitthi. He was responding to red shirt claims Suwit had “signed an order mobilising and arming thousands of forest rangers nationwide to the capital in an attempt to prevent the anti-government Red Shirts from gathering in Bangkok.” The red shirts claim to have the signed order. Suwit stated: “… I’ve never signed such an order…”.

Undocumented claims of Thai Rak Thai ministers mobilizing forest rangers were made by an anti-government NGO just prior to the 2006 coup, and a couple of days after the coup the military claimed this as one of the reasons for the coup as the nice military lads wanted to prevent violence. No evidence has ever been produced, but the story continues to make the rounds in PAD circles.

So this could be equally unfounded, and the red shirts need to produce evidence and make it available to reporters. At the same time, MCOT.net reports: “Combined units of police and military as well as civil defence volunteers are now closely manning key areas and buildings across the capital in the run-up to the Supreme Court’s February 26 ruling whether or not to seize the assets worth Bt76 billion of convicted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. About 200 checkpoints have been set up in Bangkok and adjacent areas.” Television news regularly reports on “volunteers” joining the military and police in patrolling so-called danger areas.

The Bangkok Post (18 February 2010) indicates how much the military leadership has taken over the running of security matters in the lead-up to the assets case decision. The military does not want to take any chances and is increasingly taking the driving seat on security, making it look like the Abhisit government is their puppet.

Interesting times indeed, with accusations, counter-accusations, lies and, undoubtedly, false leads being put about by many agencies and groups.





Taxes, wealth and privy councilors

16 02 2010
In the Bangkok Post (16 February 2010) Atiya Achakulwisut’s op-ed begins with a lament worthy of the People’s Alliance for Democracy when she complains that she pays taxes while politicians get wealthy and dole out “pork-barrel projects.” Of course, in terms of percentage of income and wealth, it is probably poor Thais who pay the most. And think of the past injustices when urban Thais benefited from the hugely regressive rice tax. All Thais pay some form of tax, but the wealthier one is it just seems like there are more chances there are to avoid tax.

She’s on slightly firmer ground when she complains that politicians seem to be getting wealthier all the time. Sometimes, this is a chicken and egg argument as, like so many other places, wealth seems to be a qualification for political office. This is not to disagree that politicians can seem venal and grafting. What she ignores, though, are the others who are equally adept at socking away the loot. She doesn’t mention the huge corruption that accompanies private business dealings in Thailand or the stench of corruption that has lingered around the military since at least the early 1950s. And she doesn’t mention the “special status” of Crown Property Bureau and private royal wealth at all.

Research has shown that the CPB alone makes the Thai royal family one of the richest around and not all of the CPB wealth incurs tax. Add to this the huge amounts that the royal family is gifted. Who has any idea how much that is and where it goes? Then there’s each royal’s personal wealth, and PPT is unaware of any research on this. And for good measure, throw in the astonishingly large allocations to the royal family from the coffers of the taxpayers like Atiya.

Atiya might say that supporting the royals is better than splashing money about on politicians’ whims and that they are less corrupt. Yet no one knows. There are rumors here and there. Meanwhile, the use of taxpayer and donated funds by the royals is so totally opaque that no one can claim to have any idea how much of this fortune is spent on crazy whims, expensive fashion, overseas junkets and other personal fancies. No one even dares ask questions, let alone complain in the way that Atiya does about politicians.

Atiya also mentions Privy Councilor Surayud Chulanont. Surayud looked “poor” when he was prime minister as he and his wife could only 89.7 million baht in their assets declaration. PPT recalls that this amount included General Surayud’s Patek Philippe watch collection. His claimed assets may seems small compared with some others (see Atiya’s story) but how is it that a career soldier can amass so much money? We can guess.

When his former land and house at Khao Yai Thiang came under scrutiny it was stated that the land was given to the general. Earlier it was claimed that his golf course residence had been given to him. There were rumors that he had expensive cars that were given to him. Why would a so-called professional soldier get such large gifts? Remember that at the time that Surayud was rising to the top, the military was riddled by corruption. The border areas were lucrative redoubts for the military commanders, and Surayud spent a considerable time on the Cambodian border as the Thai military supported Pol Pot and their cross border trading that included weapons, gems, timber and more.

At the time that the military was riddled by corruption, General Prem Tinsulanonda was prime minister, having also been army commander before this. Prem went on to have numerous board positions with some of Thailand’s biggest and best connected companies, Bangkok Bank amongst them. He’s recently been accused by red shirts of receiving funds from a business woman. The amount involved was reported as just less than 4 million baht (The Nation, 16 February 2010). A drop in the trough you might say when compared to the figures mention by Atiya, some of them 1,000 times this amount.

In any case, Watchara Panchet, the son of the business woman Kalyani Panchet of MMC Sithipol has said that the 4 million given to the Privy Council president was a donation to Wat Suan Kaew. Watchara said his very wealthy and influential mother just “loved to donate money especially when asked to do by people whom she respected.” He explained that his mother “sent the cheques via Prem to build a residential building at Wat Suan Kaew in 2003-2004. The temple constructed the building, which cost over Bt6 million to provide a living quarters for provincial people who come to Bangkok for business or to look for jobs.”

Watchara said his mother “gave five cheques to Prem, two of which were for Bt1.8 million. Each had the name of the construction contractors endorsed and the temple issued certificates of acknowledgement for the donations in the name of MNH Holding, with Abbot Phra Phayom’s signature on the certificate.” Watchara even displayed pictures of the building constructed with the “donations” and had copies of the “two cheques paid to Prem, including the certificate of acknowledgement for the donations issued by the temple.”

It seems, however, that things are not quite so straightforward. When asked why she hadn’t donated directly to the temple, Watchara said his mother “trusted Prem to be a go-between in donating all the money.” Then Phra Phayom is quoted as saying that “in 2004 an Army major-general whose name he forgot offered to erect two buildings on its land. The officer told him Prem would help fund the building but he didn’t know how. The temple was not involved with the construction, but it later had to spend more than Bt1 million on repairs.” The Nation also reports that the “two-storey buildings have a sign that says they were funded by the Foundation of Statesman General Prem Tinsulanonda.”

This may be just the beginning of this story and it may well turn out to be a storm in a teacup. At the same time, has Prem been receiving lots of donations? Can he account for them? What is the money used for? How much personal wealth has he amassed by parlaying his strategic position for personal gain? Interesting questions.

There is rampant corruption amongst politicians but in discussions of wealth, power and ill-gotten gains, one shouldn’t neglect the highest reaches of society and business.








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