King changes graduation ceremonies

21 09 2018

Graduation ceremonies in Thailand are important for more than those who celebrate their years of studying. For one thing, since the 1960s, the palace propagandists has recognized that having a royal hand out the certificates is a great way of having the then increasingly Sino-Thai middle-class graduates tied to the monarchy in a ceremony that was a kind of graduation into Thai-ness. As the higher education sector opened up, and graduation ceremonies got ever larger, the task of royal bonding was doled out to more royals. A financial benefit also accrues to the royal as each graduate is expected to pay amounts from 400 to 600 baht each which goes into the royal spare change purse.

When he was Crown Prince, Vajiralongkorn usually presided at Thammasat University and the Rajabhats.

A couple of days ago, The Nation reported, in an account reflecting the fear of king and monarchy, that:

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has accepted an invitation to bestow degrees on the newest batch of graduates at Thammasat University (TU) next April, the TU Graduate Committee’s social media page (facebook.com/TUgraduate60/) announced on Tuesday…. The dates for the Graduation Ceremony for the 2017-18 academic year were selected by … the King for April 7-8, 2019. The ceremony will be held at the Grand Auditorium, Thammasat University, Tha Phrachan Campus…. The announcement post received more than 12,000 ‘likes’ and was shared by 26,000 Facebook users.”

This is odd in the sense that graduation ceremonies have for years been at a particular time for each institution – indeed, there has been a graduation season – and most haven’t changed much over the years. Why the change? Why is the king deciding? And why to a hot period?

A day later, Khaosod reported that Thammasat and 39 Rajabhats all announced that “their year-end graduation ceremonies … have been postponed to April.” The changes were said to have been made to “accommodate a new schedule set by the palace.”

Thammasat vice rector Chalie Charoenlarpnopparut is reported: “The Royal Household Bureau stated that His Majesty the King has set the date to hand out diplomas for April 7-8, so we will hold the ceremonies on those days…” rather than November-December.

Some of the dates for the Rajabhats “have yet to be set by the palace.” It is reported that the “palace postponed the ceremonies … [but] no reason was given.”

There is much social media speculation: astrology and auspicious dates, the king will be skiing in Europe in winter, his coronation is to be announced for November/December.

Whatever the reason, one things is clear: this king does what he wants when he wants. It is all rather feudal.





2006 as royalist coup

19 09 2018

2006 coup

It is 12 years since the military, wearing yellow tags, rolled its tanks into Bangkok to oust Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai Rak Thai Party government and to wind back the Thaksin revolution.

Thaksin had a lot of faults and made many mistakes. His War on Drugs was a murderous unleashing of the thugs in the police and military that should not be forgiven.

But his big mistake was being “too popular” among the “wrong people.” TRT’s huge election victory in February 2005 was an existential threat to the powers that be. Their final response, after destabilizing the elected government, was to arrange for the military to throw out the most popular post-war prime minister Thailand had known. And, the palace joined the coup party.

2006 coup

But getting rid of the so-called Thaksin regime and his popularity was too much for the somewhat dull guys at the top of the military and the palace’s man as prime minister was typically aloof and hopeless. He appointed a cabinet full of aged and lazy royalists who misjudged the extent of Thaksin’s popularity. The 2007 election proved how wrong the royalists were about the Thaksin regime being based on vote-buying and “policy corruption.”

So they ditched out another prime minister and then another elected government, this time relying on the judiciary. Then they killed red shirts.

But still Thaksin held electoral sway, this time via his sister Yingluck. And she had to go too, replaced by the knuckle-draggers of the current military dictatorship.

Meeting the junta

12 years on, PPT felt that our best way of observing the anniversary of the military-palace power grab is to re-link to the Wikileaks cables that reflect most directly on that coup. Here they are:

There are more cables. As a collection, they provide a useful insight as to how the royalist elite behaved and what they wanted the embassy to know.





The creation of palace propaganda

7 09 2018

Remember those kids who were rescued from the cave, several of whom were stateless, as were their families. A wonderfully uplifting story. But even at the time, we expressed some reservations about the uses being made of their predicament and rescue for state and royal propaganda (here, here, here, here and here).

Readers might recall the picture of what we now learn are royal volunteers for the king, all decked out in the king’s new uniform, cleaning up. Now there’s also the claim that these very same volunteers fed 4,000 people a day at the site of the rescue mission, although we have to say we didn’t see them during the endless broadcasts from the site at the time. We are thinking that the claim is a belated capturing of the event for the king.

But even if they were there, the propaganda value for the palace is being wrung out of the event. After all, it is a chance for the new king to be portrayed as a wonderful chap, in Thailand and internationally.

A story about the “royal sponsored” celebration of the rescue reminds us of how palace propaganda is made.

The young footballers have been lined up and spruced up so they can be seen to show “their appreciation to His Majesty the King and all people involved in the mission.” In Thailand just thanking “all people involved in the mission” cannot be permitted. The top royal has to get in on the act, whether he’s directing the getting in or the junta is doing it in his name. They proclaimed: “We all appreciate the concern and kindness of His Majesty the King…”.

It seems they were then uniformed up in the new king’s favorite gear: “Wearing yellow shirts and baseball caps, the boys recounted their ordeal and the moment rescuers found them.”

These seem like nice kids and their story is a great one. But that makes them fodder for palace propaganda.

We highlight this because we think that it won’t be very long before the international media will be using the same kinds of lines applied to Bhumibol for Vajiralongkorn. We are looking out for the first use of “revered.” Remember how palace propaganda is made because many have forgotten how it was made for Bhumibol.

 





Boosting and boostering for the monarch

5 09 2018

Many observers, us included, were struck by the cult of personality that was constructed around King Bhumibol. A rather colorless, unemotional and intellectually dull man surrounded by sycophants, he was manufactured into something that royalists describe as “earned moral authority as a unifying and rallying symbol for the country.”

Many of those same royalists express the view that this “barami” attached to the man and not the position of the monarch. In making this point, they ignore how the adulation of the now dead king was carefully manufactured and was indeed attached to the position. To ignore this is to misunderstand what royalist restorationists have been doing since 1932: recreating a monarchy that transcends any constitution and reduces constitutional constraints on the monarchy’s political and economic power.

In fact, the new king has done much to further that project, being rather more energetic on these matters than his father had been in the last years of the previous reign.

Meanwhile, the military junta has been aggressive in subserviently supporting the king’s political and economic moves and in promoting him in ways that have been both repressive and bombastically propagandistic.

PPT has commented on the propaganda several times, here, here, here and here.

Reuters has a report that exemplifies the efforts being made to build a revised cult of personality for the king. It has a story about what it euphemistically calls “volunteers” who are pictured “cleaning up a clogged Bangkok waterway … wearing yellow foulards and blue hats, [who] are part of a volunteer program started by … Vajiralongkorn…”.

It is reported that 4 million have “volunteered.”

Clipped from the linked Reuters story

The blue and yellow is the new uniform for royalist Thailand.

Reuters states that the “Volunteer Spirit” scheme, “officially began in 2017, [and] has created a new army of civilians who have pledged allegiance to the king and are boosting the image of Vajiralongkorn ahead of his formal coronation at year-end.”

We haven’t seen any announcement about coronation, but The Dictator has long stated that the junta’s rigged election can only be held after coronation.

It is observed that “the deep relationship between the monarchy and the military helped facilitate a smooth royal transition following his death in October 2016.” In fact, that “smoothing” began well before succession.

It also cites unnamed “some observers” who believe that the king “may be seeking to distance himself from the military, which has been in power in Thailand since a 2014 coup.”

Really? Anything is possible, but there’s no evidence for this rumor, and why a military-trained king would want to do this is an open question. We recall an early attempt to promote the king as a kind of democrat. At the time we thought that a rather wild guess. If anything, that sort or guess looks even weaker today.

The author then was David Streckfuss. He’s also cited in the Reuters report, and his view seems unchanged by events since his earlier piece. Referring to the “volunteers,” he states:

If the monarchy is … to distinguish itself from the military and attempt to bring Thailand into a democratic constitutional monarchy, then we might look at this effort by the new monarch as creating an alternative power base….

Again, we see no evidence for this. Indeed, this effort has, as far as we are aware, full junta support. Every member of the junta has the new uniform in the cupboard.

As the report notes: “Vajiralongkorn however is thought to have a good working relationship with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha…”.

But, then, the king is erratic and idiosyncratic, known for becoming enraged by perceived sleights to his “dignity.” The junta bosses have to be on their toes in privileging the king. As far as we have seen, he has been satisfied in getting all that he wants. But in all of the secrecy associated with the palace, there are plenty of rumors and guesses.

As far as we can tell, the “volunteers” are in line with previous efforts to promote monarch and monarchy and reinforce and transition the cult of personality to the new guy.

The report seems to confirm this, but goes back to the absolute monarchy, citing Sulak Sivaraksa. Sulak, who disliked the now deceased king, has an affection for the new one not least because he credits Vajiralongkorn for getting him off a lese majeste charge. He compares Vajiralongkorn to Vajiravudh’s paramilitary force founded in 1911, the Wild Tigers. Sulak doesn’t mention it, but Vajiravudh nearly bankrupted the country and set the scene for 1932.

Boostering for the king, Sulak gets drippy with syrup, saying the king “wants the monarchy to serve the people, to protect the people, to do well for the people…”. He reckons the “volunteers are able to do things that the government might otherwise not be able to, because of their royal backing…. If the government asked them they wouldn’t do it…”. In a final bit of posterior polishing, Sulak declares: “The volunteer program is one of the great successes of the new king.”

The “volunteers” are trained in much the same way as other “volunteer” corps raised by the previous king:

Volunteers have to register with the palace and go through an initiation process that involves lining up and bowing in front of the king’s portrait before being given their yellow and blue uniforms – colors associated with former King Bhumibol and Queen Mother Sirikit, Vajiralongkorn’s mother.

Once they put on their new uniforms, the volunteers do a military-style salute to the king’s portrait and, in a completely new tradition [sic.], they must line up and salute the king’s portrait every time before starting a community activity.

It is all a bit North Korean, but not all that different from the palace propaganda for Bhumibol. Just a little more militaristic, reflecting the new guy’s training and mindset.





Updated: Changing chairs

2 09 2018

Amid rumors that Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has had some potential military challengers transferred out of Bangkok bases, the promotions list has little in it that is a surprise.

The new commanders were as predicted. Gen Apirat Kongsompong, a close ally of The Dictator and having “graduated” from the king’s “training,” is the new army chief. He remains “secretary to the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and commander of its peace-keeping forces.”

The Defense Ministry’s deputy permanent secretary, Gen Nat Intaracharoen, was promoted to permanent secretary and Gen Pornpipat Benyasri moved up a notch to become commander at Armed Forces Headquarters. Royal Thai Navy deputy commander Adm Luechai Rudditalso moves up a level to be commander and at the Royal Thai Air Force, assistant commander ACM Chaiyapruk Ditsayasarin became commander.

They all take over their positions on 1 October and, if all goes to plan, Gen Apirat will be in place until 2020.

The Bangkok Post’s composite picture, clipped below, shows all of them with the king’s required haircut.

Update: The Bangkok Post’s story has been expanded, stressing loyalty as the key to promotions. We can’t recall when this wasn’t the case, but loyalty to who is usually the question. Gen Prem Tinsulanonda spent a lot of effort on getting his “loyalists” in place from at least the 1980s. It was Thaksin Shinawatra who unsettled that. Loyalty today seems to be to Prayuth, the junta and the king. Interestingly, the Post’s new story has a photo of Apirat prior to his “palace training” and his loyalist haircut.

 





Updated: Saving a tree

31 08 2018

It has taken the National Anti-Corruption (cover-up) Commission more than a decade to make no decision on whether a lump of plastic with an old-fashioned car aerial stuck in it is really a scam when the military and 12 other agencies bought 1,358 of them (GT200 and Alpha 6 “detectors”) for 1.137 billion baht. It has taken about 9 months for the same NACC to not decide if the Deputy Dictator has failed to declare luxury watches.

But others in the Thai government can leap into action on other stuff. Prachuab Khiri Khan governor Pallop Singhaseni has “sent a letter of clarification to the interior minister and asked for a pardon from HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn” because a senior monk decided to get rid of what he thought was a dead tree. He’s also ordered an official probe into this heinous act.

Heinous? Yep, wrong tree! It is a tree claimed to have been “planted by the late King Bhumibol about 60 years ago.” Horror of horrors! Forget the floods and have endless meetings to save what’s left of the almost dead tree.

Nothing changes much in ridiculous royalist Thailand.

Update: So ridiculous is royalist Thailand that this one tree is being “rescued,” DNA tested, regenerated, fertilized, fungicized, and absurdly venerated. In royal shirts of the new uniform, dozens of officials are involved in the rescue mission for the “royal tree.” And, “a fact-finding panel had been set up into the cutting down…”.  So fearful are provincial officials that they are doing an inventory in “all districts to locate and list trees planted by the late king. There were about 300 trees, but the survey has not yet been completed.” Never have so few trees been so important for so many officials in Thailand.





Mid-week reading: monarchy, academics, hypocrisy, hope

30 08 2018

There are several articles we think deserve a reading this week.

The first is actually two articles by University of Leeds academic Duncan McCargo. In recent weeks he’s been reporting on visits he’s making inside Bangkok’s rapidly expanding royal zone. The first was at Asia Times Online, on the end of the military’s Royal Turf Club, which reverts to the Crown Property Bureau, which itself is now the personal property of the king. We have posted on this. This article says little about that link, which is odd, as it is the story.

McCargo’s second piece is at The Nikkei Asia Review and is on the soon to close zoo. In it, he does dare to at least mention the king in the context of the zoo’s closure. We have also posted on this. He implies that it might also suit the military regime. So careful does the academic have to be that self-censorship means a casual reader might miss these associations.

As an important footnote, McCargo did put his name to an undated International Statement in support of Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti and colleagues some time ago.

Another article worth considering is at The Nation, reflecting on the ill-health of exiled academic Professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul and his principles. The comments on hypocrisy among political activists and academics are well made. At the same time, some of the journalists at The Nation, including the author of this piece – Tulsathit Taptim – have also been been extravagant propagandists for those who have attacked and reviled Somsak.

Somsak has indeed stuck with his principles. He’s been brave and determined in addressing important historical issues and the monarchy and Article 112. Like rabid dogs, the military and ultra-royalists attacked Somsak and made him pay.

We wish Somsak a speedy recovery and applaud his efforts to pull back some of the curtains that hide the monarchy and its actions.

The third set of articles is from the Focus on the Global South. Its 4th Newsletter “tackles the issue of democracy in Asia and its different facets–elections, constitutions, (extreme) nationalism, populism, majoritarian rule, and press freedom.” Two of the Newsletter’s items are especially relevant for Thailand. One is an article titled “The Indomitable Spirit of Democracy in Thailand.” The second is an interview with pro-democracy activist Rangsiman Rome. There’s room for some optimism.