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.





Red shirt action

20 01 2010

Update: Almost as soon as PPT posted about it, the red shirts have called off their proposed airport rally (nationmultimedia.com/2010/01/20/politics/politics_30120737.php). Apparently, they were just “thinking about it.” Perhaps, but the reaction they got was remarkable. They continue with small rallies at multiple sites.

***

The red shirts are using small rallies to get plenty of attention.

The Bangkok Post (20 January 2010) and most other media outlets have reported a red shirt plan to rally on the road leading to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport next week.

Business leaders are reportedly “alarmed” and “frantic” and stocks fell 1.39% yesterday, which analysts linked to the red shirt threat, even though the fall was in line with mixed results elsewhere in Asia (Bangkok Post, 20 January 2010 ).

Red shirt/United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) spokesman stated that the rally “would not disrupt airport operations or interfere with passengers.”

Business interests recall, though, that the closure of Suvarnabhumi in November and December 2008, by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), caused immense damage. The PAD rally was supported by senior members of the Democrat Party, including the current finance minister and minister for foreign affairs. More than a year later, no legal action against the PAD has been completed by their allies in the current government.

Satit Rungkasiri, the director-general of the Finance Ministry’s Fiscal Policy Office, whose own minister supported the PAD actions, warned that “an airport closure would be akin to ‘national suicide’.” He added that: “If the airport is closed due to political protests, it would be a problem for the economy on par with the Map Ta Phut dispute. No one, no country, could accept a second closure for its main airport…”.

So a first closure is acceptable, but not a second closure?

The Thai Hotels’ Association said “Thailand’s global image would be ‘destroyed’ if the airport was closed.” Its president urged the government to do “everything, even if it means drastic measures, to protect the airport…”. Meanwhile, logistics operators “expressed hope that the government and security forces can prevent any serious fallout if a rally occurred.”

Red shirt leader Natthawut Saikua stated that “the rally was intended to press for progress in the prosecution of the UDD’s political rivals, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, for its extended blockade of the airport in late 2008.” Natthawut said the “purpose was to determine if certain people were receiving preferential treatment with regard to the law…”.

He said the “protest would be peaceful. The group would not lay siege to the terminal and they would not block off the airport’s entrances.” He added that they would not obstruct traffic and it would not be a protracted affair.

Meanwhile, red shirt pressure continued against Privy Councilor Surayud Chulanont over Khao Yai Thiang. Red shirt visits to the “homes of other privy councilors” were planned. Science and Technology Minister and senior Democrat Party member Kalaya Sophonpanich “slammed the UDD for linking her family [the titans running the Bangkok Bank and related enterprises, with close links to General Prem Tinsulanond] to alleged land ownership irregularities at the Khao Soi Dao forest reserve in Chanthaburi. She said it was irresponsible to make indiscriminate accusations and lambasted the movement for claiming Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda had something to do with the questionable land occupation.”

The political temperature continues to rise.

As a footnote, taxi and limousine drivers are looking to close Phuket airport in a protest over corruption (see here).





Surayud copping plenty of criticism

16 01 2010

Interestingly, former unelected prime minister, army boss and now Privy Council No. 2 General Surayud Chulanont is getting plenty of negative attention in the media, and not just from red shirts. His refusal to give up the land that cost him 50,000 baht to the state until the Royal Forestry Department has finished its investigation is widely seen as inappropriate and damaging to him and the palace.

In the Bangkok Post (15 January 2010), in an article entitled “Surayud is damaging his own reputation,” the privy councilor was said to be “facing a leadership crisis over his occupation of forest reserve land at Khao Yai Thiang…”. Surayud is said to be under pressure and his “refusal places his image and role as a privy councillor in jeopardy.”

Author Anucha Charoenpo says that Surayud should not stubbornly think the red shirts politicization of the issue is “an excuse not to return the land to the state.” Anucha adds: “It is time he showed courage and told the public he would no longer occupy the land. This would go a long way to restoring faith in his leadership.” Too late perhaps.

The privy councilor’s refusal also puts pressure on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who tells all who will listen that his government is one that supports the rule of law and, rejecting accusations of double standards, says he works for all, equally. Surayud’s case is a beacon on the government’s double standards, and Abhisit is seeking a resolution within a week.

Abhisit’s meeting on Wednesday with Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda must have considered this festering sore.





Seeing red

15 01 2010

The red shirts brought their peaceful protest at Khao Yai Thiang to an end, vowing to continue to seek state action against Privy Councilor and former prime minister Surayud Chulanont.

In the Bangkok Post (13 January 2010) it is reported that Surayud has stood firm against all demands. He has even “refusing to give up his land at Khao Yai Thiang until he is required to do so by a Royal Forest Department ruling.” Naturally he has “shrugged off red shirt demands for him to resign his position as privy councillor.

Interestingly, the General is also chairman of the Foundation for Khao Yai National Park Protection.

The Post also reports that the red shirt leadership has “approved a planned ‘war’ on the bureaucracy…”. This will involve visits by red shirts to the Forestry Department, the Crime Suppression Division and the Office of the Privy Council, all to file complaints against Surayud, the Department of Special Investigation to file a complaint against Justice Minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga for negligence for delaying the royal pardon petition for former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and a related visit to the Office of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary.

Later they will hold a mass gathering of red-shirts at Khao Soi Dao golf course in Chanthaburi province. The red-shirts claim the 400 rai golf course, which had encroached on the Khao Soi Dao forest reserve, is owned by the president of Privy Council Prem Tinsulanonda.

More worrying for the government and some of the pundits is the upcoming Supreme Court decision on Thaksin’s 76.6 billion baht assets seizure case (Bangkok Post, 13 January 2010).

The government and anti-Thaksin commentators assume a guilty verdict and the confiscation of this sum. PPT guesses that they are probably right to guess this based on the outcome of previous cases against Thaksin. However, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban is urging “faith in the justice system and not worry about violence…” when the verdict is given. Using a relatively new line amongst the anti-Thaksin crowd, Suthep invokes the idea that “majority” interests should reign. Invoking the Abhisit Vejjaiva mantra,he adds: “When everything goes according to the rule of law, which is accepted by Thais, then everyone will have to accept it…”.

The Army chief General Anupong Paojinda assured the public that “the army is ready to maintain order if the red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) intensifies its anti-government activities.

Anti-Thaksin activist Kaewsan Atibhodhi, a former member of the Assets Scrutiny Committee, urged all parties to respect the Supreme Court when it hands down its verdict.” Kaewsan testified for the prosecution, but held out the chance of a not guilty verdict.

PPT expects to see many more warnings to the red shirts on these matters over the next month or so. We also don’t expect any backing down on the anti-Thaksin side. Any loss of face or decision is seen as a major negative outcome with serious repercussions. The word is, don’t back down. Several red shirts make similar statements.





New: Land and protest

12 01 2010
The case of Privy Councilor Surayud Chulanont and his land at Khao Yai Thiang is in all the media as the red shirts demonstrate at the site, claiming double standards.

General Surayud, however, is at the weekly Privy Council meeting in Bangkok. A source cited in The Nation (12 January 2010) says that “one of the topics on the agenda will be the ongoing rally by the red shirts at Khao Yai Thiang…”. Later Surayud is scheduled to “hold a press conference about a charity concert in Khao Yai. He was expected to talk about the land controversy [then]…”.

The number of red shirts at Khao Yai Thiang is many more than earlier estimates suggested would show up. PPT suggested “hundreds” showing up. By late afternoon on the 11th there were more than 5,000, with many more still getting to the area.

General Surayud has “said he was willing to comply with the law regarding his controversial land ownership and would follow the attorney general’s ruling that his residence encroaches on the forest reserve.” Red shirts ask why Surayud gets light treatment when villagers in area are charged.

In The Nation reports that General Surayud has said he “will not stand down as a Privy Council member despite pressure from the red shirts to do so…”. He is also reported to have said he would return the land “ if ordered by the Royal Forest Department to do so…”. So returning the land is not yet a done deal. And, the report also continues to report that Surayud “has done nothing wrong.”

The Bangkok Post (11 January 2010) cites red shirt leader Suporn Atthawong said that the “group’s supporters would not resort to violence or trespass into former prime minister Surayud’s residence during the rally…”. Police confirmed last night that “there was no violence or unrest…”. The rally is scheduled to end on Tuesday morning but may be extended or even move to Bangkok.

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban “said blue-shirt protesters would not gather to confront the red-shirts on Khao Yai Thiang.” PPT can only assume that Suthep can make this claim through his connections to Newin Chidchob and the blue shirts, as demonstrated last April in Pattaya.

Meanwhile, Royal Forest Department director-general Somchai Piansathaporn said “his agency would set up a joint committee with other government agencies to study possible solutions to the problems of forest encroachment.” They would report in 60 days. He denied double standards at Khao Yai Thiang, saying that the case of Surayud was different from villagers who had encroached on forest reserve land.

The Peua Thai Party has suggested that Surayud’s landholding was larger than reported. Different reports have varying sizes cited as his plot of land, ranging from 14 to 22 rai. The Party is also chasing down other Democrat Party MPs with illegal landholdings.

The Forestry Department inquiry looks set to cause a huge political headache and serious hardship for hundreds of thousands. Director-general Somchai said the inquiry committee would “suggest measures to be taken to get the [forest reserve] land back. The measures, if agreed on, would be applied to cases of illegal occupation of forest reserves throughout the country, involving about 45,000 people and more than 5 million rai of land…”.

However, according to the Bangkok Post (12 January 2009), with the ominous headline, “Govt wages war on squatters,” there are multiple areas involved in 30 provinces and this will impact 400,000 families. That’s 2-3 million people! Not only that, whole towns are built in these areas. PBS Television showed advertisements for land in some of these areas on the internet and on a huge billboard in Bangkok. Anyone visiting these areas knows that there are “land for sale” signs everywhere. This is going to be a huge political firestorm if it continues, consuming politicians on all sides but potentially harming a lot of little people as well.

This is not to say that the red shirts don’t have a point in challenging double standards. PPT is merely pointing out the potentially huge impacts, especially on villagers who were encouraged to settle these areas in the 1960s and 1970s.






More on double standards

11 01 2010
In the Bangkok Post (11 January 2010) the police seem to be making the red shirt claims about double standards for them.

The red shirts complain of double standards used in assessing Privy Councilor Surayud Chulanont’s occupation of land in a forest reserve and plan to march on the land. Meanwhile the police have stated that they will “arrest members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship if they damage a forest reserve on Khao Yai Thiang in Nakhon Ratchasima during their planned rally today.

Double standards? Privy councilor Surayud has built a house and planted gardens on 22 rai of land in the forest reserve and there is no threat of prosecution. If red shirts damage trees or occupy land there, they’ll be arrested.

No doubt the police will also confiscate red shirt banners that refer to a “Village of Double Standards.” That banner refers to “some villagers who have occupied reserve land on the mountain have been sued for encroachment, Gen Surayud, a former prime minister, has been asked to return his land without fear of prosecution.

It is estimated that there will only be few hundred red shirt protestors, but they will be met by 5,000 police, military and Forestry Department officers. “Back-up forces in nearby provinces such as Buri Ram, Surin and Si Sa Ket were on standby in case reinforcements were needed.

The UDD has called on General Surayud to stand down from the Privy Council.

Meanwhile, the UDD and its allies have predicted infiltration by agents provocateurs and trouble at the protest site.