Incessant palace churn

23 04 2019

One of the characteristics of the palace during last reign was a general public quietness and stability. We are sure there was plenty of palace politics, but for the the public the image was of stability, with some important palace officials in place for decades. When there was change or sackings, these were not usually made into big deals.

This is not the style of King Vajiralongkorn. His reorganizations of the palace tend to be frequent, furious and are publicly announced through the state’s official Gazette, either in his own name or issued by the prime minister-The Dictator-prime ministerial candidate Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Just days before coronation, the king is at it again.

In one announcement, issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, the king has reorganized scores of Royal Guards and related military units that he commands. The length of the list – it runs to several pages – is staggering. We lack a sufficiently deep knowledge of the military and its organization, but its looks increasingly 19th century.

In another announcement from the king, he “releases” two police officers from service to the king for unspecified failures. Both officers were previously considered close to the king. It remains to be seen if they will be stripped of rank.

These announcements are made while the king is in Germany, again wearing “male bras”/crop tops. Andrew MacGregor Marshall has more on the second announcement and the Bild photo.





Further updated: Media reprimands Gen Apirat

20 02 2019

Army commander Gen Apirat Kongsompong has been hammered by the media today. For example, the Bangkok Post had an editorial, two op-eds and a story all highly critical of his attack on campaigning politicians as “scum.”

In the story, it was reported that “[p]oliticians demanded … the army chief remain neutral in the lead-up to the … election after he rebuked them for calling for defence budget cuts and revived an anti-communist song…”.

Actually, it is a song that belongs to extreme rightists and ultra-royalists, most recently used by the yellow-shirted royalists People’s Alliance for Democracy and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee to attack pro-Thaksin Shinawatra groups and politicians.

In other words, Gen Apirat was reaffirming his ultra-royalism as an anti-democratic rightist. The notion that he will be “neutral” is farcical. The military is never politically neutral.

Commenting on this, Ploenpote Atthakor points out that one of the (false) justifications for the 2014 military coup was about eliminating political conflict. As she points out, Gen Apirat is promoting conflict. For PPT, it is clear that the military has been stirring conflict throughout recent decades. The military is the problem.

Even determined anti-Thaksinista, Veera Prateepchaikul points out:

Many people may love the song and call it patriotic. But for a person like me and many others who are old enough to have witnessed the horrors of the “October 6” massacre and heard it being blasted around the clock before that fateful day by the army-run Yankroh radio station alternating with the hateful phone-in comments against the students inside Thammasat University, this is unquestionably a far-right hate song for its association with this bloody history.

The Post’s editorial comes straight to the point:

The troubling response of the army commander to a rather benign political campaign promise has quickly escalated. Gen Apirat Kongsompong didn’t just try to refute the call to cut both the military budget and the number of general officers. He retaliated by reviving the most hateful song in Thai political history, and promised to flood military bases and the airwaves with it. It is a move with an ironclad guarantee of major political and national division.

It continues to condemn Gen Apirat, saying what was:

hugely disappointing and inappropriate was Gen Apirat’s instant and ill-formed leap into the political campaign. The decision of the highest ranking army officer to step into the election debate was questionable. What is indefensible is his order to revive and propagandise his soldiers with the noxious and odious 1970s song Nak Phandin.

Yet it is hardly out of the ordinary. Gen Apirat, like his predecessor Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha have made their careers by being palace loyalists, rightists, and murderous military bosses.

Perhaps the most interesting commentary, however, was at Thai Rath, which outlines Gen Apirat’s family story. His father, Gen Sunthorn Kongsompong, a diminutive rightist also known as “Big George,” was a corrupt leader of the 1991 coup. The paper points out that, following a dispute between Sunthorn’s wife and mistress in 2001, people were stunned to learn that the property under dispute was valued at over 3.9 billion baht.

Thai Rath goes through the whole story of this corrupt general, the father of the current military commander. Being a powerful military boss has been lucrative, but for the Kongsompong clan, the wealth siphoned was conspicuously huge. We have no evidence of who shared in that huge wealth.

Update 1: It is not just the media that has gone after Apirat. As Prachatai reportsAs Prachatai reports:

… student activist Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, along with other members of the Student Union of Thailand, also went to the Army Headquarters to read an open letter to the Army Commander in Chief protesting Gen Apirat’s comment on ‘Nuk Paen Din.’

Following that:

… political activists Ekkachai Hongkangwan and Chokchai Paibulratchata held a demonstration at the Royal Thai Army Headquarters in response to army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong’s order to broadcast the controversial Cold War anthem ‘Nuk Paen Din’ (‘Scum of the Earth’) on all army radio stations and over the intercom at military headquarters.

Update 2: As might be expected, the military and its rabid response to politicians has been defended by what the Bangkok Post describes as “Chulalongkorn University political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn…”. Panitan is neither a “political scientist” nor an “academic” in the true senses of these words. Rather, he is a toady of the military and in its pay. He’s a propagandist for the military, lying that “army chief Gen Apirat spoke out in response to the proposed defence budget cuts because he intended to defend the interests of rank-and-file soldiers who would be affected by any spending cuts.” It is a ludicrous fabrication. Defending the murderous military is nit the work of serious academics.





What happened to that palace “crisis”?

9 12 2018

Readers may recall that, in the period before Vajiralongkorn came to the throne, there was a widely-held view that there was a “succession crisis” in Thailand.Nothing was seen publicly, although when the incoming king did not take the throne for a period, the media was abuzz.

Earlier, PPT wrote that it had to be admitted that Wikileaks, the 2006 coup, the role the palace played in that, the royalist opposition to electoral representation, the infamous birthday video, and the rise of the successionist line in blogs and on social media have changed the way most of the world thinks about Thailand’s monarchy.

There were also those stories circulating that the then Crown Prince was close to Thaksin Shinawatra and red shirts. This even led to a forlorn hope that the new king might be “more democratic.”

Then there were stories about rifts in the palace, most notably between the then prince and Princess Sirindhorn, who were characterized as competing for the throne. One story reckoned she was preparing to decamp for China if her brother became king.

PPT wasn’t convinced by this successionist argument., but we couldn’t ignore the way discussion of succession merged with rising anti-monarchism.

We can’t determine whether this crisis was a beat up based on limited evidence coming from an opaque palace, wishful thinking, an effort to destabilize the palace under the junta or something else. What we did notice was that the 2014 coup had a lot to do with snuffing out anti-monarchism.

In the end, it turns out, the biggest “crisis” for the palace occurred in late 2014, when the king-in-waiting “cleaned” out his family and continued a palace cleaning and reorganization that saw dozens of lese majeste cases and saw many jailed and some die.

All of this is a long introduction to a new op-ed by Pavin Chachavalpongpun at FORSEA. On all of the above, he now states: “There was no such war. Vajiralongkorn was already firmly in charge of palace affairs before his father passed away in October 2016.” He adds:

After the long authoritative reign of Bhumibol, some would have hoped that the new monarch would be more open, liberal even. Yet, they were wrong. Now that Thailand has installed a military-trained king on the throne, who is determined to expand the monarchy’s powers, the country’s future does not seem bright. The new monarch promises authoritarianism rather than democracy.

The op-ed deserves attention for its focus on what Vajiralongkorn has been doing on the throne:

Vajiralongkorn is striving to re-establish the power and authority of the royal institution, fully enjoyed by Thai kings prior to the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932….

This is the first time since 1932 when a new Thai king holds more formal power than his predecessors. The entrenchment of the monarchical power has been made possible by a renewed alliance between the monarchy and the army through a repressive military regime.

His economic and political power has expanded. Under the junta, no one can say anything much about this.

Pavin mentions the huge land grabs in Bangkok:

has taken into his possession a number of major public buildings in Bangkok, from the Dusit Zoo to the Nang Loeng Horse-racing Track. Both are located within the close radius of the royal palace. The confiscation of these buildings was supposedly meant to be an expansion of the spatial power of the new king. A dream of redesigning Bangkok to mimic London where royal properties have been integrated finally comes true under Vajiralongkorn reign. The only difference is that whereas the British royal parks are open for public, those in Thailand will be forever shuttered.

The grabs in the area of the palace – also including Suan Amphorn, the so-called Throne Hall and the current parliament buildings and land – have coincidentally been about erasing 1932.

In terms of politics, it seems pretty obvious that all of this palace work depends on the extension of authoritarian rule.





“Elections” matter for the junta and its supporters

30 06 2018

Readers will be interested in a new op-ed by Pavin Chachavalpongpun. As the article is long and also likely to be able to be read in Thailand, we just highlight a couple of points.

Drawing on an observation by Italian Communist and Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, Pavin observes that “[t]hese are the days when an old system refuses to die and a new system isn’t ready to be born.”

Reflecting on the current grim political situation, Pavin looks back to the rise of the People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) some 13 years ago. He argues that the “crux” of the political problem of the time was “apprehension among the royal political network concerning the rise of Thaksin [Shinawatra], who threatened to replace the old political order with his own.”

As the Shinawatras and their parties continued to triumph in elections after the 2006 coup, Pavin observes that this “coincided with the flagging power of the Thai monarchy.”

This characterization is a little off. The monarchy’s power wasn’t flagging but was being challenged by the rise of anti-monarchy sentiment associated with a political movement. That’s why the “royal political network sought to eliminate its enemies once more in a coup.”

Whether this had much to do with “manag[ing] the royal succession” remains debatable. But it is clear that crushing anti-monarchy sentiment and agitation was critical for both the military and palace as it was red shirts who constituted the existential challenge to monarchy and military. Pavin provides a neat potted history of the construction and maintenance of the military-monarchy nexus and its struggles with the rise of electoral politics.

Today, while it may appear that “the royal political network had won this political tussle,”Pavin isn’t so sure. He links this to the new reign and potential instability, where the “prospect of Thailand being ruled by a new unpopular king was daunting. While Bhumibol was able to safeguard the political benefits of the elitist class, his son, now King Vajiralongkorn, seemed unlikely to be able to guarantee the same” for that class.

We think that explaining the long political crisis by focusing on the succession has now been shown to have been overdone. In fact, there was no succession crisis. Rather, there was a crisis that emerged from the challenge to the military-monarchy nexus that came from the grassroots. It was that crisis that in part prompted the 2014 military coup.

Pavin is right that the new political system is not yet in place. That is why the junta wants 20-year “plans” and to control the election after putting new political rules in place. If the current junta succeeds and puts Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha in place following the election heading a coalition of unimportant military boot-licking pseudo-parties, then it will have given birth to the “new” system.

All the stuff about the “new monarch is lacking in moral authority” and so on is quickly being replaced by a “new” conservative royalism that is backward looking, nationalist and military sponsored, not unlike the monarchism invented under Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat.

Pavin concludes by asking”: “So, where does Thailand go from here? Will the upcoming elections mean anything for the country?” Remarkably, he can only say: “Elections, if they are to happen, may not deliver a genuine democratic regime.”

May not? Seriously, this is a desperate grasping at straws. They not only cannot deliver a “genuine democratic regime” but are meant to deliver – and designed to deliver – military political dominance for years to come save the prospect of “political violence” that Pavin briefly considers.

Finally, Pavin returns to “palace politics” which he says is “complicated and unpredictable.” It has always been so because the palace remains the most opaque and secretive of institutions. Pavin is certainly right to observe: “Since the Thai monarchy cannot be separated from politics, developments within the walls of the palace matter greatly to Thais.” That is probably how the junta and palace prefers it. The alternative of the people mattering has been pretty much erased by the junta’s selective and targeted political repression.





“Election,” king and politics in 2018

3 01 2018

For the start of 2018, three academic commentators and a journalist have had a go at crystal-balling Thailand’s political future.

Academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun continues his recent lauding the dead king. We at PPT find this quite odd, but it seems Pavin feels that a good king-bad king scenario makes the bad king look badder still. We think he’s wrong to gild the previous reign.

He is right when he says: “Some analysts predicted that Vajiralongkorn would be a weak king dominated by a strong army due to his lack of moral authority and divinity. But the new King has proved these pundits wrong.” This assessment also seems correct:

King Vajiralongkorn has embarked on consolidating his power with the backing of the military. It appears that Thailand’s two most prominent institutions — the monarchy and the military — have attempted to establish a constructive working relationship in order to entrench their respective political standings (at least during this critical royal transition period).

The military king

That relationship has seen the “military … work[ing] towards achieving two goals: eliminating its political enemies and legitimising itself as a political actor.”

He concludes that “the future of Thailand is undefined. 2018 will test the longevity of the interdependent relations between Vajiralongkorn and the military. If such longevity is guaranteed, Thai democracy will be shouldered with another setback.”

Michael Montesano, also an academic, seems sure of a couple of things for 2018: a coronation and the junta’s “election.” But he backtracks on the latter, suggesting it may again be pushed back. He also gets into a bit of good king-bad king stuff, and like Pavin sees Vajiralongkorn as activist/interventionist:

Since the demise of his father, King Vajiralongkorn has been far from passive. But he has devoted his attention above all to matters relating to the management and reordering of royal affairs and to the relationship of the monarchy to the government…. He has not yet begun publicly to define an overarching mission for his reign.

His musings on the future of the monarchy are not particularly convincing to us. But his discussion of the military junta’s role is. He refers to “an ideological orientation” that has the military and junta seeking “to integrate Thai citizens into national affairs without reference to political parties and elections.” On the junta’s “elections,” Montesano sees them as a test of the military regime’s “effort to introduce a political order of lasting quiescence in Thailand.”

Academic Duncan McCargo, acknowledging that The Dictator is “always seems to be trying to wriggle out of it [the junta’s election],” is also unsure about the political future, suggesting five post-election “scenarios.” For all the rumors about new parties – the junta’s and splits from the Democrat Party – and the junta’s more than three years of attacks and repression, McCargo reckons the Puea Thai Party vote could hold up. Even so, “[t]he dice could be loaded the against a pro-Thaksin victory in 2018.” Strikingly, McCargo says almost nothing about the monarchy.

Journalist Shawn Crispin thinks that military regimes that try to stay on tend to be unstable and face civilian uprisings. While he tends to ignore military and military-backed regimes that have had considerable longevity in Thailand, he is the only commentator in this group who considers a civilian uprising against the military a possibility.

He is right that “Thailand’s enterprising but repressed media” seems prepared to “to press the current generation of military coup-makers to hold elections as promised in late 2018 and for coup leader cum premier General Prayuth Chan-ocha to refrain from clinging to power after the polls.”

Crispin notes that “while the media has exposed [the junta’s] massive irregularities” – corruption – the relatively united regime has been able to cover-up using repressive measures:

… the junta’s ironfisted grip on power, underwritten by a hard ban on political association that deems any meeting of more than five people illegal. Invasive state surveillance has also ferreted out and suppressed potential anti-junta agitators before they can mobilize and take to the streets.

He also sees “Thaksin is circling again” as an “election” is anticipated:

Prayuth and Prawit [Wongsuwan] clearly sense an electoral scenario where Thaksin’s coup-ousted Peua Thai is resoundingly restored at the ballot box and their plans to sustain a political role for the military are challenged as illegitimate.

While he says precious little about the monarchy, Crispin does foresee scenarios that involve the king in further delays to an election if the regime feels threatened.

2018 will be interesting.





Updated: Banning contact with the banned

13 04 2017

The Bangkok Post reports, with the order (reproduced below), the junta’s declaration that it is now “illegal to exchange information on the internet with three prominent government critics wanted on charges of lese majeste.”

The order from the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society “requested all citizens not to follow, contact, share or engage in any other activity that would result in sharing information” with exiled historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun and journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall. All three live outside Thailand and concentrate some of their energies on revealing information about the regime and the monarchy.

The order states that “people who spread such information, directly or indirectly, could be violating the country’s Computer Crime Act, even unintentionally. This could result in a prison sentence of up to 15 years for each contact.”

In other words, this is backdoor lese majeste.

The Post states that the “reason for the letter is not known.” It also expresses its doubts about why these three are considered the most significant of critics.

Amnesty International criticized the warning for showing a “brazen determination to silence dissent.” In its statement, AI “Deputy Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Josef Benedict said authorities [he means junta] have plunged to fresh depths in restricting people’s freedoms of expression’.”

PPT reckons there is more to be learned about this order. We note that the jittery and angry junta is forever twitchy about monarchy news. However, we can’t help but notice that these critics are targeted at the beginning of a reign of a nasty monarch who is highly sensitive to even the slightest criticism. In this case we can’t but notice a whiff of palace intervention in this.

Update: Amid wide criticism of the “order,” the “ministry’s caretaker permanent secretary, Somsak Khaosuwan, who signed the announcement admitted yesterday that the document was aimed at sending a message to people, telling them about the ‘proper’ use of the Internet and making clear what sources of information should or should not be shared online.”

He babbled that the “order” was “intended also to advise Internet users to use discretion in reading or sharing information.” Yeah, right.

When asked “how the ministry would deal with a possibly large number of people following or making contact with people named persona non grata, the official said it was the responsibility of the … Police.”





Nothing changed III

8 04 2017

The Nation looks at the widespread bombing campaign in the south and states that the “super sleuths” in the military and police are probing a “link between multiple bombings and promulgation of the new constitution…”.

The Bangkok Post reports on how extensive the bombings were, targeting power poles and bridges.

These geniuses have detected that “people in the predominantly Muslim region rejected the charter during the referendum last year” and consider that makes them all suspects.

One of the junta’s men, Deputy National Police Commissioner Pol General Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, reckoned there was no link. This was just separatists going about their work: “In my opinion, the attacks were not related to national politics. With simultaneous attacks, it is quiet clear that the attackers must have been from a big gang…”. Brilliant!

And these separatists don’t think about symbolism and national events that the junta manufactures for its own political purposes. They could not possibly have thought about the junta’s decision to link the promulgation of its constitution and Chakri Day.

Meanwhile, the junta’s post-“election” regime is being negotiated. There’s no surprise that the party closest to the junta: Bhum Jai Thai Party.

If Wikileaks of several years ago is to be believed,and some of the relationships it meantions have dissolved, Bhum Jai Thai Party may also be the choice of the king.

Bhum Jai Thai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul said he was confident Thailand would now return to democratic rule with the King as head of state.

His party now has 12 to 18 months to prepare for the upcoming polls in line with the regulations laid out under the new charter, he said.

Mr Anutin said his party will work on fine-tuning the details of four key policies that will be of the most benefit to the general public in the lead-up to the poll.

It is necessary for Bhumjaithai to field its candidates in all constituencies because all votes carry weight under the new charter, he added.

Referring to his relationship with the other political parties, he said Bhumjaithai is not in conflict with any of them.

The election results will dictate whether or not the party decides to join a coalition government, he added.

“We are ready to serve in any role,” Mr Anutin said.

Royalist “liberals” are already supporting the junta’s “road map,” suggesting its better to have a junta constitution and civilianized and military-dominated “elected” regime than a military dictatorship. But even they note that the “ceremony” for the constitution, arranged by palace and junta, means that this constitution will be difficult to change:

… as the royal ceremony surrounding the promulgation was timed to usher in a new reign in an auspicious manner, this means it may be hard to come up with a completely new and more balanced charter. This charter, in other words, now has some staying power, although all of its 19 precursors were eventually upended.

Whatever changes that are needed to rebalance the lopsided appointments system and popular representation may have to be done through amendments because this charter now carries more weight. Democratic aspirations in the charter will have to be expressed by way of amendments rather than a complete rewrite for the foreseeable future.

In fact, changing the 2007 constitution was relatively easy in principle but impossible in practice. The military junta has sought to symbolically add to that impossibility. This military constitution is only likely to be changed by the military or if the military is deposed from its powerful pedestal.