King and Privy Council

14 10 2018

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a well-known critic of the monarchy. He has a new article at The Diplomat. Most of it, though, will be familiar to PPT readers. However, it is worth remaking some of his points.

He focuses on the recent reorganization of the Privy Council and notes that the:

king’s decision to evict old members of the Privy Council close to his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the stripping of the power from its president, General Prem Tinsulanonda, as well as the appointment of his close confidants as new Privy Councilors, suggests that, more than just a process, this is part of the growing aggrandizement of political power of Thailand’s new King….

In fact, the king has not really done anything that should not have been expected. Any new king would want to have his most trusted advisers in place.

The dead king made sure he had pliant royalists as advisers “working outside the constitutional framework to compete with other elite groups for administrative and political power.”

They protected and advanced the king’s and monarchy’s positions:

Successive coups have over the years strengthened the partnership between the Privy Council and the military. The Privy Council played its part in endorsing past coups, including the most recent one in May 2014. Prem, in the aftermath of the coup, openly praised the coup makers for being a force that moved Thailand forward. This underlined the quintessential role of the Privy Council as an engine behind the Thai politics.

In the past reign, the link with the military mostly revolved around Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and, to a lesser extent, Gen Surayud Chulanont. The Privy Councilors

… constructed a complex web of relationships as a way to sanctify the royal power above other institutions outside the constitutional framework. In his overt intervention in politics, Prem placed his trusted subordinates in key positions in the bureaucracy and in the army. He had an influence on the defense budget, and dominated national security and foreign policy, and thus the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Pavin also notes that the:

Privy Council under Prem also had its members seated on boards in major conglomerates including Bangkok Bank, Charoen Phokphand, the Boonrawd group, and the Charoen Siriwatanapakdi business group. For the Privy Council, reaching out to these powerful factions was as crucial as allowing them to reach in, thus consolidating a network of interdependence. The Privy Council’s strong ties with the bureaucracy, the military and businesses effectively circumscribed the power and authority of the government of the day.

The new king wants similar influence, but he’s been busy pushing the old duffers aside. Prem is infirm, doddery and being made essentially powerless:

On October 2, Vajiralongkorn added three more Privy Councillors to its team: Amphon Kittiamphon, currently advisor to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha; General Chalermchai Sidhisart, former army chief, and; Air Chief Marshal Chom Rungsawang, former Air Force chief. This latest move can be regarded as Vajiralongkorn’s plot in strengthening his political position by setting up a new trusted team to replace the old one—the team that has its links with the current military strongmen.

At present, 10 of the 16 councilors have been appointed by the current king. He can appoint another two. At the same time, he has already ditched three he appointed, presumably because they annoyed him about something or other. So the “trusted team” is being put in place, but there’s still some work to do or dying to be done.

Pavin also mentions the “law was enacted in regard to the ownership of the rich Crown Property Bureau…, [where] crown property assets reverted to the ownership of the king with the bureau’s investments now being held in Vajiralongkorn’s name.”

He might have mentioned that the king is now personally the largest shareholder in both the Siam Cement Group and the Siam Commercial Bank, the latter ownership having been seen in stockholder information fairly recently. (We also think Pavin should update the $30 billion assets of the CPB/king. That was from data collected in 2005 and imperfectly updated in 2011. We would guess that the real figure is closer to $50-60 billion.)

Pavin is undoubtedly right that while “many predicted that Vajiralongkorn, perceived as having lacked moral authority, could become a weak king.” As he now says, “He is quickly proving them wrong.”





Cyber snoops

9 10 2018

In an editorial, the Bangkok Post refers to the military leadership having “unveiled plans to reinforce Thailand’s ‘cyber army’.” That’s a scary plan.

The Post uses terms like: “opaque force” and “Big Brother-like surveillance, accompanied by arrests” that has defined the military’s cyber snooping in recent years, much of it in search of so-called enemies of the monarchy.

The Post states that:

The promise to increase the size and scope of this cyber army came from Gen Pornpipat Benyasri, the new chief of the defence forces (formerly known as the Supreme Commander). In practically his first action after he was officially promoted from his position as chief-of-staff of the armed forces, Gen Pornpipat called a meeting of 300 officers to outline his policies, with cyber security near the top. He wants a bigger force of better trained troops to “solve counter-terrorism problems within 30 minutes”.

The Post reckons that this idea goes back to “the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin deceptively created the first Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MICT) with the promise of promoting online freedom, open internet access and huge digital advances in education. None of that happened, and every prime minister after Thaksin has made it worse.”

That’s only partly accurate. Thaksin had ambitions but just over 2000 sites were blocked in mid-2006. By May 2007, this had multiplied by a factor of 5 and went up exponentially. The levels of censorship seen in Thailand since the 2006 coup are totally unprecedented and have been associated with military and military-backed governments. Being conciliatory towards the real culprits is weak.

To suggest that the “2006 coup-installed lawmakers used Thaksin’s bait-and-switch tactics to get and pass an initial Computer Crime Act (CCA) in 2007” is inaccurate to the point of being  deceptive. HRW’s report from the time is revealing.

The Post seems all too tepid:

Gen Pornpipat’s emphasis on digital security is well taken. However, it will only earn people’s support if he can resist the urge to expand secret government control measures even further. At the moment, far too many resources — money, and tech-savvy people — are involved in suppression of speech, and trapping people on spurious charges such as “harming the image” of the country and the regime. It is time for a proper, consumer-friendly Computer Crime Act. Thaksin’s moribund promise to bring education into the digital age needs to be properly implemented.

A “cyber army” is as necessary for national defence as the regular armed forces. But just as the Royal Thai Army helps out with floods and fires, so Gen Pornpipat’s cyber army should work more with people instead of against them.

This is not just tepid, it is silly. Thailand’s military is for repressing, not for working with the people. For one thing, it doesn’t trust “people,” and prefers to snoop, repress and oppress, which it does with impunity.





All the king’s servants II

7 10 2018

A few days ago PPT commented on the formation of a special police unit for the “protection of the monarchy” and especially the king. An AFP report adds a little more on this force of “[m]ore than 1,600 police … assigned to protect Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his family, … quadrupling the force as the new monarch continues to reorganise palace affairs.”

The report has all the blarney about the monarchy being “sacred and untouchable” and the dead king being “revered as a demi-god among Thais.” Presumably all this buffalo manure is meant to allow the reporters to say that this monarchy also needs “by some of the harshest royal insult legislation in the world.” But insufficient posterior polishing to allow them to observe that anti-monarchism was widespread before the military junta targeted and snuffed it out (at least for the time being).

Head of the upgraded royal security police unit, the Special Service Division, Col Torsak Sukvimol, said that it currently had a paltry “400 personnel from the Crime Suppression Division … which has long been tasked with protecting the royal family,” and needed to be increased to a total of 1,617. While recruiting and training the officers could take up to five years, that is still a minimum additional taxpayer impost of 300 million baht a year just in salary costs.

Col Torsak “explained” that this huge increase in security, including intelligence units and additional “patrolling” is required when the “king visits different parts of the country.”

As he went on, Col Torsak added that following the king’s “coronation, there is going to be more royal activities…. Four hundred people is not enough.” That will probably worrying a lot of people, as the interventionist king seems to be planning to be even more involved.

Helpfully, Col Torsak said that the “unit has not been tasked with scouring the public for violations of the kingdom’s draconian royal defamation law…”. We guess there are hundreds of others doing that. But he did add: “We will not be aimed at monitoring people for 112 prosecutions. The 112 charge will not be wielded repetitiously…”.

That will indeed be a relief. However, computer crimes and sedition are more likely to be used in cases the junta would normally use for its opponents and the monarchy’s critics. At the same time, the junta’s draconian use of 112 has already cut down and silenced the bravest of critics.





Updated: 6 October 1976

6 10 2018

PPT waited a few hours before posting our tribute and remembrance to the victims of royalist-rightist violence  in 1976. We waited because we wanted to link to any stories we saw in the English media. So far, we have seen one at the Bangkok Post, about an event at Thammasat University. We were also reminded of the website launched a couple of years ago from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, and established and maintained as an archive about the massacre of 6 October 1976.

We draw on our post from last year as a way of recalling those terrible events and the loss of so many lives.

On this day in 1976, royalists and rightists were mobilized with and by the police and military in a massacre of students and others they had decided were threats to the monarchy. With claims of lese majeste and communists at work, these “protectors” of the monarchy and royal family engaged in an orgy of violence, killing, injuring and arresting thousands. Central to this royalist rage was the then crown prince, now king, Vajiralongkorn.

For a radio program on the events, listen to the BBC’s Witness story on the October 1976 events in Thailand, with  archival audio footage of reporting from the time and Puey Ungpakorn, and a present-day interview with Thongchai Winichakul. Read Puey on the terrible events by following the links here.

The king and the royal family fully supported the massacre at Thammasat University.

In remembering this massacre in the name of the monarchy, we are reminded that the current military dictatorship bears many of the characteristics of the dictatorship that resulted from the murderous events of 6 October in 1976.

Thanin Kraivixien was a dedicated fascist judge who served the king. His government was established to turn back the political clock and established a 12 year plan to do this. Today, four years of military dictatorship is meant to be followed by 20 years of rewinding under military, royalist and rightist tutelage.

Mercifully, Thanin’s extreme authoritarianism only lasted a year but military-backed rule continued until 1988, first with General Kriangsak Chomanan as premier. He was replaced by the more reliable royalist posterior polisher, General Prem Tinsulanonda. Even after 1988, when Gen Prem was seen off, he retained considerable political influence as he moved into the Privy Council and he has repeatedly supported military coups. His support for the current dictatorship has been given several times.

The current military regime remains exceptionally prickly about this event of 1976. And justifiably so in that military fingerprints are all over one of Thailand’s worst massacres of civilians. So it is that last year Khaosod reported that a film about the event was prevented from being screened on the anniversary. By the Time It Gets Dark or ดาวคะนอง is a 2016 film directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong.

The only good military regime is the one that has been defeated. Until Thailand’s military dictators and military dictators are defeated, the country remains in a recurring pattern of political crisis and darkness.

Update: We should have mentioned the excellent account of the 6 October massacre and associated events in a story at the Los Angeles Review of Books by Suchada Chakpisuth and translated by Tyrell Haberkorn.





All the king’s servants I

3 10 2018

In a short article at Khaosod, the formation of a special police unit for the “protection of the monarchy” is reported. This isn’t a new story as the unit was mentioned about a month ago.

The military government’s official announcement does, however, add a little more information.

The new unit “consists of police commandos transferred from the Crime Suppression Division.” It is said to be “providing security to the Royal Family” as well as “collecting information on ‘individuals or groups whose behaviors pose a threat to the national security and … the King’.”

That the unit “must also carry out ‘royal wishes’ from … the King” suggests that the force of 1,600 officers is adding to the large numbers of military officers who already report directly to the king and provide “protection.”

The commando unit is led by Col Torsak Sukvimol, who stated that all members of the unit were selected based on their “attitude and loyalty [to the monarchy].”

The king now commands a substantial military and police force. It is not clear why the king feels he needs such a large force that answers to him.





Getting things wrong

1 10 2018

A Reuters report at Euronews is so misleadingly wrong that it must be corrected.

We can’t necessarily blame Reuters for the headline, “New army chief takes over as Thailand prepares for return of civilian rule,” but the notion that the military dictatorship’s rigged election is meant to be a return to civilian rule is nonsensical. Even if there’s a small chance that a non-junta supporting party might win the junta’s “election,” The Dictator and his men intend the “election” to continue the military’s dominance of politics.

It is true that General Apirat Kongsompong, the new Army boss is “a staunchly royalist general” but it is utterly misleading to suggest that he “will oversee a return to barracks to make way for a civilian government after nearly five years of military rule.”

Nothing could be further from reality. The military dictatorship has established and embedded a parallel military administration that operates at every level of government, with ISOC taking the lead. No civilian administrator from Bangkok all the way down to the village is able to make a decision without military consent. The militarization of the Thai government is complete. The idea of the military “returning to the barracks” is ludicrous.

It is true that King Vajiralongkorn “appears to have a smooth relationship with the generals running the country.” And, Paul Chambers is probably right to say that, under Apirat, the “army will likely become even closer to the monarchy.” While the junta may have been surprised by the king’s assertiveness, it has pandered to his desires. In the unlikely event that there is a non-junta supporting government, the king’s strong relationship with the military will make independent government impossible.





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.