Following the money

17 10 2016

In an earlier post, PPT drew attention to France 24 and an AFP story that “follows the money.” The story noted that the dead king left “one of the world’s richest monarchies, with a multi-billion-dollar empire spanning property, construction and banks.” Some say the Crown Property Bureau is worth almost $60 billion and each of the royals is individually wealthy while also soaking up taxpayer funds. If there is a competition for the top spot, and there might still be, then there are plenty of spoils for the winner/s.

On this theme of following the money, there are a couple of other stories worth considering. One is a report at AP. It begins:

Thailand’s king, who died Thursday, was reputed to be the world’s richest royal and one of the wealthiest people on the planet.

It was a status that clashed with the carefully managed image of a monarch intensely concerned for his people’s welfare and one that Thai authorities were always anxious to correct.

But try as officials might, there was no escaping that Thailand’s monarchy, embodied for 70 years by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was a fabulously wealthy institution in a country where the widening gap between an affluent Bangkok and a poor but well populated countryside fueled years of political conflict.

The CPB “has estimated revenue of $2.5 billion to $3 billion a year, from which part of the royal family’s expenses are paid.” Huge amounts come from taxpayers, last estimated at 18 billion baht for 2016 (we can expect this to balloon for the funeral).

The story also makes this point: “The roots of the Thai monarchy’s enormous wealth lie in the privilege and power enjoyed in the pre-1932 era of absolute kingship.” That’s true, especially for property. However, the largely untold story is how the ninth reign was able to get it all under its control and was able to multiply its wealth so spectacularly. The closest thing we have to an account of this is Christine Gray’s mammoth doctoral dissertation Thailand – The Soteriological State in the 1970s.

The other article is a post at New Mandala, which has a swathe of articles following the king’s death. In Death of a monarch or an oligarch? T.F. Rhoden discusses the centrality of the monarchy for what he identifies as an oligarchy in Thailand. He says the king was the “top oligarch.”

 





Devil deals

26 05 2016

Readers will recall our post on The Dictator in Russia. We mean General Prayuth Chan-ocha, not Vlad the Putin. In that post we noted dictatorial Thailand’s desire to move authoritarian Russia closer to center stage. We added that with the dictatorship looking like it will stay on for years, the relationships with other authoritarian regimes will be important.

This linking with authoritarian regimes was apparently also a part of the summit in Moscow.

The official mouthpiece, the National News Bureau of Thailand reports that:

Minister of Commerce Apiradi Tantraporn has revealed that Thailand and Russia have agreed during the Thai Prime Minister’s official visit to Russia on the trade and investment cooperation that different trade models among both sides can support one another.

Thailand plans to raise its trade value with Eurasian countries in 5 years starting from the Free Trade Area negotiations with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Russia, with the aim to export more automobile parts, jewelry, canned foods, rice, rubber, and rubber products. Russia is more interested in purchasing fruit exports from Thailand.

Birds of a feather?
  • Belarus – ranked 127 on the 2015 Democracy Index (authoritarian) and at the 2016 Freedom Index, is ranked not free and gets the lowest score of 7 for political rights and 6 for civil liberties.
  • Kazakhstan – 140 (authoritarian); 6, 5, not free.
  • Kyrgyzstan –  93 (hybrid regime); 5, 5, partly free.
  • Armenia – 116 (hybrid); 5, 4, partly free.
  • Russia – 132 (authoritarian); 6, 6, not free.
  • Thailand – in a bizarre assessment, 98 (hybrid regime). In fact, Thailand is wholly authoritarian; 6, 5 (not free) and a more realistic assessment.

They do seem like an appropriate flock of authoritarian states and are unlikely to ever have to talk about human rights and political freedoms while trading and enriching oligarchs.





Footballing oligarchs II

24 05 2016

Less than a week ago, PPT posted on the penchant of oligarchs for football and snapping up teams that promote their interests and, if things work out, make them even more money.

As everyone in the world knows, Leicester City recently collected some silverware as outsiders made good. As we noted in that earlier post, the club has been owned by football-loving, polo-playing oligarch, monopolist and royalist Vichai Raksriaksorn (who has a royally-bestowed moniker, Srivaddhanaprabha). Vichai made oodles of money through his monopoly on duty free at Thailand’s airports, through his company King Power.King Power

Thailand’s airports have long been the property of the military. They are now part of a listed company, Airports of Thailand. Now the Ministry of Finance controls 70% of AOT’s stock but four of the 14-member Board of Directors continue to carry military ranks. As far as we can tell, only one of the directors of AOT is not a serving or retired official or worked for AOT. The senior executive of AOT continues to have quite a few military ranks listed.

In other words, gaining a monopoly on duty free requires high-level political support and close relations with the senior brass. Exactly how Vichai managed this in the beginning has never been made clear. He went from unknown to billionaire in a relatively short time. King Power began in 1989, with a license granted for Thailand’s first downtown duty free shop at Mahatun Plaza. How it was that King Power got the Chatichai Choonhavan government to award the license isn’t easily seen, but as Chatichai opened to the former enemies across the border, King Power got a license in Phnom Penh soon after. By 1993, King Power had Don Muang airport under its wing. All of this during a period of civilian versus military political tussling.

In a story linked to below, The Nation states:

In addition to the ruling junta, the wealthy businessman has managed to build good ties with both politicians and military figures in powerful posts. And thanks to these cosy relationships, his company has managed to win coveted deals from influential people at key times, including a concession to operate duty-free shops at major airports that has grown into a Bt68-billion-a-year business.

Now that he and his kids – the Sino-Thai tycoon model of family business – are on top of the world, what does this mean for Vichai and Thailand’s politics. Some measure of this comes from recent press reports on Leicester City in Thailand.

An AFP report states that the “Premier League champions Leicester City received a royal seal of approval … at Bangkok’s Grand Palace, with the Thai-owned team presenting its trophy to a portrait of the king before a bus parade through the capital.”

Leicester 2

To most people in the world, this sentence will seem very odd. How does one present a trophy to a portrait and how does a portrait provide “a royal seal of approval”? Why would they present a trophy to a king of another land be he real or a portrait?

In royalist Thailand, however, most things associated with the monarchy are very odd. It has become normalized for sports champions to “present” their medals or trophies to the king as a sign of loyalty. Not doing so becomes disloyalty. At the same time, the businessmen and businesswomen who manage and profit from big sports (and gambling on sport) in Thailand get the reflected royal aura. That’s good for business.

So when Leicester City “present” the silverware to the king’s portrait, “[l]ocal television showed billionaire club-owner Vichai …, alongside his son Aiyawatt and manager Claudio Ranieri, presenting the trophy to a portrait of the king as they and the team then took a deep bow.” In fact, they got on their knees, another “tradition” reintroduced in this reign.

Leicester 1

The team later went on an open-top bus parade through Bangkok. More on that below.

And, oh yes, Vichai’s King Power brand was everywhere. The parade “wound its way from a King Power-owned shopping and hotel complex through Bangkok’s downtown commercial district.” Continuing the royalist theme, “[d]uring their title celebrations at the King Power stadium, a portrait of Bhumibol was held aloft as players…”.

For the company King Power, the seal of approval is also coveted. According to Chulchit Bunyaketu, listed at the company website as a “Counselor,”The fact that the company was awarded the Royal Decree and is under the patronage of His Majesty the King clearly reflects on the integrity, capability, and honesty of our company and staff members.”

The Mail Online has more on the parade, noting Vichai’s commercialization and use of pliable monks: “Vichai is a regular devotee of Phra Prommangkalachan … and took the monk to Britain to bless the stadium and the team.” So the players trooped of to the royal Emerald Buddha temple.

It is The Sun that made most of the “thousands of Thais [who] were paid to pose as Leicester City fans for the club’s Premier League victory parade in Thailand…”.

Many of those dressed in club colors were there having “responded to a social media advert offering to pay people for a ‘Leicester parade job’. They were to get 500 baht…. They were asked to meet at the Bangkok HQ of the King Power company … [and] were also given free club T-shirts and urged to clap and chant during the celebration.” King Power employees were also mobilized.

All of this is obviously good for business, but thetre is also political speculation. The Nation explains some of this. It says that Leicester City’s “well-connected billionaire owner, Vichai … has … been linked to an alliance with political friends and the ruling generals that could result in a new political party…”.

It says that “his massive wealth and strong connections” mean that “Vichai is seen by some as having the potential to be the ‘last piece in the jigsaw’ needed for the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) [the junta] to retain power via a new political party.”

Prawit, Suthep and King Power

Prawit, Suthep and King Power

Vichai is said to have good relations with “many key figures’ in the military junta, naming “Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, one of the most influential figures in the ruling junta.”

The story goes on, saying Vichai is close to “Bhum Jai Thai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul and Newin Chidchob, the former Cabinet minister and political broker who owns Thailand’s leading football club Buriram United.”

Anutin is rumored to have close links with the palace, and it was his father Chavarat who worked with Newin and the generals in 2008 to make Abhisit Vejjajiva prime minister and Bhum Jai Thai the military’s party as it went to the 2011 election. The military and the party failed spectacularly as Yingluck Shinawatra and the Puea Thai Party won in a landslide.Newin and King Power

This time around it is stated that an “alliance between Vichai, Newin and Anutin, plus support from Prawit -in the background, would be a coalition between a financial group and a power clique set for the new political landscape…”.

Newin and Vichai have a mutual interest in football and politics and blue pervades Buriram as much as it does Leicester, not to mention a group of blue-shirted thugs organized by Newin and Suthep Thaugsuban in 2009 to oppose red shirts.

Vast stocks of cash, royalism, political savvy and skills in the “dark arts” of vote-buying and great influence are just what a military party will need (if an election is ever permitted).





Footballing oligarchs I

19 05 2016

Readers interested in football and politics will find a story by Asia Sentinel by culture guru Toby Miller of some interest.

As we at PPT know, politics and football is an interesting mix. We may recall Thaksin Shinawatra paving the way for other rich Thais to think about the English Premier League with first talk of buying Liverpool for Thailand and then buying – and selling – Manchester City.

Thaksin and Manchester City

Readers might recall that in 2010, PPT posted on on the King Power takeover of Leicester City Football Club. The rest, as they say, is history. Back then we pointed out that the Leicester takeover was by one of Thailand’s wealthiest tycoons (worth $2.5 billion in 2015, but that will rocket) with considerable political connections, Vichai Raksriaksorn (he now sports a royally-bestowed moniker, Srivaddhanaprabha). At the time, others asked about this Thai billionaire penchant for English football. We also wrote quite a bit on Vichai’s links with Newin Chidchob and that’s worth re-reading.

For those who can, we urged a visit to Asia Sentinel. However, because it is often blocked by the royalist military, here’s the Miller story, in its entirety:

Duty free monopoly and royal connections make King Power  owner a major player

The discourse of “The Little Club That Could” – Leicester City, which went from near relegation to the top of world football – is beguiling. When an emotional fan broke down on the BBC last year after a Leicester City Foxes victory, it became a news story. The manager recently cried on the field; and the ultimate among these male melodramas saw a BBC commentator ring his father on air to celebrate the Premiership triumph. They both wept.

The Telegraph attributes Leicester City’s success to the spiritual intervention of Thai Buddhist monks, who are flown in to provide the players with karmic guidance through head-massage blessings, prayers, and chants. King Power, the Thai owner of the club, is much-loved by Leicester fans and regarded by many as an example of what responsible foreign ownership in football can be.

But the owner, Vichai Raksriaksorn, and King Power have questions to answer about oligarchic tendencies and sharp business practices. In 2013, Vichai received royal assent to change his last name to Srivaddhanaprabha, which signifies “light of progressive glory.”

The dissident blog Political Prisoners in Thailand has this to say about King Power’s boss: “Vichai is credited with having “plagiarized” the (now disgraced) Lance Armstrong and his plastic bracelets in Thailand[,] … made them “Long live the king” bracelets and raised a fortune that he apparently pushed over to the palace. As we observed then, for the Chinese business class in the 1920s, getting a royal family name was a sign of inclusion and acceptance. Today, it must be a fitting reward for a very wealthy supporter of the wealthiest.”

King Power works with the controversial provincial strongman, machine politician, and fellow club owner Newin Chidchob, and thrives thanks to close ties to successive administrations and coup leaders. This is in keeping with Vichai’s status as someone who grew up with a cohort that gives and sustains favorable business conditions to those with the right political connections. It’s a well-established form of clientelism, and he plays it excellently.

Prior to winning the Premier League, Vichai’s singular sporting achievement was establishing the Thailand Polo Association. It connects him to global royalty, local military and police, and high society. The light of progressive glory and his relatives feature on the management committee, and have a British team linked to Leicester City.

In 2006, the body responsible for Thailand’s airports alleged that King Power had btained the retail concession and duty-free license for Suvarnabhumi Airport without an open bidding process. That governing board was soon replaced, and the scandal slipped into history, for all the world like Jamie Vardy’s anti-Asian casino rants or his red card against West Ham.  King Power is widely believed to be selling goods from the world’s priciest luxury brands outside airport duty-free shops to rich men and their wives and girlfriends, undercutting the brands in Bangkok’s boutiques and creating considerable bad blood for the likes of Gucci and Louis Vuitton.

As the  Bangkok Post wryly puts it, ‘King Power’s chief business acumen is in securing such monopolistic duty-free concessions in the first place and then to keep leveraging its myriad revenue streams. This is a murky area where business and politics intersect.’

No wonder the Financial Times says ‘Mr Vichai does not lack financial muscle and plays the same league as any football-club owning Russian oligarch or Gulf investment fund.’

So please, enough celebrating the happily lachrymose masculinity of the little club that could. Instead, let’s unleash some tears for those caught up in the exploitative nature of much Thai business life, or victims of the vicious “sport,” polo.

None of this diminishes the players’ achievement, the manager’s charm, or the fans’ pleasure. But the political-economic wonder that is the clue to the team’s popularity and romance should be investigated. The inequalities supped on by the likes of Leicester’s proprietors are no fairy tale come true, for all the winning of a Premiership.





Political networks

14 05 2016

Readers may be interested in a special issue of the University of Kyoto’s latest number of Journal of Southeast Asian Studies on political networks in Asia. All papers can be freely downloaded.

SEAS

There are two articles on Thailand:

Very Distinguished Alumni: Thai Political Networking by Pasuk Phongpaichit, Nualnoi Treerat and Chris Baker. The abstract states:

The creation of elite networks can be explicit and deliberate, especially as a strategy to sustain an oligarchic political system. In Thailand, because of rapid economic and social change, there are few of the established, seemingly natural frameworks for networking found in more settled societies. Those hopeful of joining the power elite come from widely differing backgrounds. Paths through education are very fragmented. There are no clubs and associations that can serve as meeting places. Alumni associations have been brought into existence as one major way to meet the demand for a framework for power networking. This particular associational form is familiar and comfortable because it draws on aspects of collegiate life that most of the participants have experienced. The military pioneered this strategy in the 1960s. When the military’s power and prestige waned in the 1990s, several other institutions emerged to fill the gap. One of the most successful was the Stock Exchange of Thailand, which created the Capital Market Academy (CMA) in 2006. CMA offers academic courses, but its main purpose is to create an alumni association that serves as a network hub linking the main centers of power—bureaucracy, military, judiciary, big business, politicians, and select civil society. Such networks are critical to the rent-seeking activity that is one feature of oligarchic politics.

Contending Political Networks: A Study of the “Yellow Shirts” and “Red Shirts” in Thailand’s Politics by Naruemon Thabchumpon. The abstract is:

This essay investigates two bitter antagonists in the turbulent politics of contemporary Thailand: the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), with its members labeled the “Yellow Shirts,” and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), or the “Red Shirts.” Each of the two foes, typically regarded only as a social movement, actually has a vast network connecting supporters from many quarters. The Yellow Shirt network is associated with the monarchy, military, judiciary, and bureaucracy. The Red Shirt network, organizationally manifest in a series of electorally triumphant parties, is linked to exiled ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, his “proxies,” and groups and individuals who opposed the military coup that ousted Thaksin in 2006. The significance of the two antagonistic networks can be gauged from their different influences on democratic processes over several years. Using concepts of political networks to examine the PAD and UDD within the socio-political context in which they arose, the essay focuses on several aspects of the networks: their political conception and perspectives, their organizational structures (for decision making and networking), and the strategies and activities of their members. The essay critically analyzes key and affiliated characters within the PAD and UDD, as well as the functional mechanisms of the networks, in order to evaluate the positions of the two networks in contemporary Thai politics.





Updated: The lese majeste black hole

13 12 2015

Pravit Rojanaphruk refers to Thailand as “A Kingdom in Denial.” His op-ed refers to the remarkably “efficient” self- and official censorship of Thailand’s mainstream media on anything that might be interpreted as in any way critical of the monarchy. He argues that this process has been “normalized.”

He adds that the flip-side of repression, censorship and the heavy penalties of lese majeste is the ever more ridiculous official veneration of a now invisible monarch and his dysfunctional family.

Pravit is right. But Thailand under the military dictatorship is bleaker than even he suggests.

As Pravit wrote, the junta had its military and police lese majeste thugs out searching for another “dangerous” Facebook fan who clicked “like” on the “wrong” link. They promise that “hundreds” more could follow, filling the jails with political “opponents.”

An military court has issued an arrest warrant for 25-year-old Thanet Anantawong. He “faces charges of lese majeste, inciting disorder and computer crimes.” Reports say he “shared” the same “infographic detailing the alleged [sic.] web of corruption in the Rajabhakti Park scandal.”

A photo from The Straits TimesIn fact, the corruption has been admitted by General Udomdej Sitabutr. He seems to have disappeared from the headlines as the lese majeste witch hunt takes over.

The police say that Thanet “was among a group of student activists who attempted to visit Rajabhakti Park in Hua Hin on Monday, but were intercepted by military officers.” Those military officers some in uniform and others disguised as “protesters” against the students, are just one part of the junta’s cover-up of military corruption that extends into the palace.

The military say will be taking Thanakorn, a 27 year-old worker, to a military court tomorrow.

The connection between Corruption Park, the military and the palace is said by the junta to involve “the royal institution indirectly because it includes references to Suriyan “Mor Yong” Sucharitpolwong — the well-known fortune teller charged with lese majeste who recently died in military custody.”

This claim that lese majeste is involved is ludicrous. Given that the military junta brought lese majeste charges against Suriyan, then presumably they must also arrest themselves and everyone else involved with the case. This is the lese majeste vortex at work sucking in and destroying “opponents.” It is at work because the junta is covering up its own corruption with the use of lese majeste charges.

The situation is obvious to everyone but the dictatorship holds all the repressive cards.

Thailand is in a lese majeste repression black hole that operates as a dark vortex. It sucks in not just opponents but deforms everything in the country – institutions, civil society, habits and more. This is not a political transformation but a societal deformation in the interests of an oligarchy that protects its capacity to exploit, consuming the country, its people, everything.

Update: The Bangkok Post reports that Thanet has been arrested and taken to the deadly military prison at the 11th Military Circle. Social media reports that he was snatched from a hospital bed.





Unequal Thailand

2 12 2015

Readers may not have noticed the publication of a new book called Unequal Thailand. Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power. Published by NUS Press, this book is a collection edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker.

The blurb states:Unequal_Thailand

Extreme inequalities in income,wealth and power lie behind Thailand’s political turmoil. What are the sources of this inequality?  Why does it persist, or even increase when the economy grows? How can it be addressed?

The contributors to this important study—Thai scholars, reformers and civil servants—shed light on the many dimensions of inequality in Thailand, looking beyond simple income measures to consider land ownership, education, finance, business structures and politics. The contributors propose a series of reforms in taxation, spending and institutional reform that can address growing inequality.

Inequality is among the biggest threats to social stability in Southeast Asia, and this close study of a key Southeast Asian country will be relevant to regional policy-makers, economists and business decision-makers, as well as students of oligarchy and inequality more generally.

There are chapters on land, education, wages, capital markets, tax, networking and local power.