King’s men I

26 09 2020

A few days ago, the Bangkok Post’s Wassana Nanuam had another of those posterior polishing articles on the new Army boss, Gen Narongphan Jitkaewtae.

Paul Chambers describes Gen Narongphan:

Narongphan’s elevation through the ranks has been extremely rapid since the beginning of the current reign. He is the former commander of the Royal Rachawallop 904 Special Military Task Force and considered extremely loyal to the current monarch. He is rumoured to be much more virulently reactionary than [Gen] Apirat [Kongsompong] and will serve as Army Chief for three years until he retires in 2023.

Clipped from the Bangkok Post

As can be seen in the attached photo, Gen Narongphan wears his 904 haircut, red-rimmed t-shirt and proudly supports a chestful of royal symbols of “closeness,” including the 904 and Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti badges.

The Post’s story has Gen Narongphan heaping praise retiring generals – almost 270 of them – including Gen Apirat for having “dedicated their time and energy to fulfilling their duties to protect the nation’s sovereignty and the public interest and to maintain law and order.”

Most of these generals have probably been honing their golfing skills, collecting loot from the “sale” of their rank and influence, and shining the seats of their pants, but we acknowledge that some, like Apirat, were dead keen to take up arms against civilian protesters. “Law and order” means maintaining royalist-rightist regimes or as Gen Narongphan succinctly explains: “Protecting the monarchy with absolute loyalty and supporting the government to resolve national problems and working to advance the country are tasks for which [the generals] deserve the honour…”.

Worryingly for those who hope that there might be a more democratic Thailand, Gen Narongphan pledged to support the military-royalist “ideologies and perform our duties to the best of our ability, to ensure peace in society, foster national unity and support the country’s development…”. What does he mean by “peace”? Based on previous evidence, we suspect it means “defeating” civilian demonstrators, again and again.

Reading this puff piece, we were reminded of a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, All the king’s strongmen.

It points out the obvious when it comes to the military and its government:

The seemingly endless cycle of military coups that interrupt democracy. A government plagued with allegations of corruption and nepotism. The former army chief with the suspiciously large luxury watch collection. The cabinet minister who was jailed in Sydney for conspiracy to traffic heroin. The lack of investigation into the disappearance and murder of dissidents. The king who would rather live in Germany.

The anti-government protests, it points out, have been heavy on symbolism. For last weekend, the “sites are significant; a campus massacre by the armed forces in 1976 left [at least] 45 people dead, hundreds injured and continues to haunt the country. More recently Sanam Luang has been subsumed into the giant and opaque Crown Property Bureau (CPB), and protesters have declared their intention to return it to the people.”

While the sudden appearance of naysayer conservatives (posing as liberals) have come out to lecture the students on how to rally and how to demand change, the SMH correctly observes that the “focus is squarely on Thailand’s political class and the powers that have long acted with impunity.”

As might be expected, the SMH points at “cabinet enforcer Thammanat Prompao, who … spent four years in a Sydney jail on a drugs conviction.” It goes on:

When Thammanat was sitting across from detectives making a statement in Parramatta jail on November 10, 1993, the first thing the young soldier put on the record was his connection to royalty.

After graduating from army cadet school in 1989 he “was commissioned as a bodyguard for the crown prince of Thailand” as a first lieutenant. “I worked in the crown prince’s household to the beginning of 1992,” he said, staying until deployed to help suppress a political conflict that culminated in an army-led massacre in Bangkok.

The crown prince is now King Vajiralongkorn, but the name landed like a thud: the judge made no mention of it when sentencing Thammanat over his part in moving 3.2 kilograms of heroin from Bangkok to Bondi.

Since the scandal broke last year, Thammanat not only kept his post but was named among [Gen] Prawit [Wongsuwan]’s deputies within the ruling Palang Pracharat party.

Prawit and the convicted heroin smuggler

The article also points out why the monarchy is a critical target: “As military figures loom large in political circles, they are also pervasive in Vajiralongkorn’s business dealings.”

His personal private secretary is an air chief marshal who is the chairman of two listed companies, a director of a bank, chairs the board of eight other companies and is the director-general of the Crown Property Bureau.

The CPB’s assets are estimated at anywhere between $40 and $70 billion, and were made Vajiralongkorn’s personal property in mid-2018.

Protesters want this returned to the state [PPT: not really; they ask for state oversight], along with greater control and oversight over the taxpayer money spent on the royal family.

Also on the CPB board is General Apirat Kongsompong, the army chief set for mandatory retirement this month who has been at the centre of coup rumours. The son of one of the men who led the coup in 1992, Apirat is known for his ultra-royalist views and is set to take up a senior position within the royal household on leaving the army.

At the CPB, 8 of the 11 directors now carry military or police rank.

All the king’s men.





What next?

5 05 2019

AP reports that its pundits reckon that after more than two years on the throne, “[w]hat Vajiralongkorn … will do with the power and influence the venerated status confers is still not clear.”

We don’t agree. It seems pretty clear that this king is a politically interventionist rightist, legalistic when it suits him, craving a return to pre-1932 absolutism, greedy and unpredictable. Perhaps it is the last characteristic that befuddles the pundits.

They do note his “assertiveness” but we are confused when they say he has a “seemingly hands off approach in other matters…”. The report says this has something to do with his long stints in Germany, but perhaps they have forgotten his demanded change to the constitution that gives him hands-on influence wherever he is.

The argument that he “suddenly announced his fourth marriage, to a former flight attendant who is a commander of his security detail, and appointed her Queen…” suggests a “fresh commitment to his royal duties” is nonsense. He’s been at his “royal duties” – as he sees them – since well before his father’s death. He’s been regularly intervening in the work of the junta. Even a humble office worker the report quotes knows this.

In any case, marrying just before coronation is exactly what his father did.

“Vajiralongkorn is likely to remain burdened by old gossip about his personal life that has dogged him” for decades. But the propaganda is gradually erasing this. And, the king doesn’t care any more. He’s powerful and can do whatever he wants.

The report quotes the usually critical academic Paul Chambers results in the odd claim that the hands-on Vajiralongkorn’s style is “more hands off” is a bizarre claim with the report going on to contradict this silliness saying “he has brought more of Thailand’s administration directly under the palace.” How’s that for hands off!!

It quotes old royalist and conservative Sulak Sivaraksa who is closer to the mark: “The new king is a very decisive man, and he’s a very daring man, unlike his father…”. Sulak loathed Vajiralongkorn’s father for he ‘suffered fools (gladly)’ around him…”.

His “decisive” new king is intolerant, erratic, headstrong and dangerous. Think of all the people he’s had jailed on bogus charges in recent years. He’s often done this, as academic Michael Montesano notes,”bespeak an interest in gaining or exerting greater control over certain institutions,” and he uses his power to grasp what he wants. Think of all the buildings and land he’s been accumulating.

As the report notes, the “powers he acquired centralize royal authority in his hands and make explicit his right to intervene in government affairs, especially in times of political crisis.”

He’s also been publicly interventionist in politics, even directing how people should vote in the recent election.

Vajiralongkorn also seems to have the support of the royal family – despite previous claims of splits and the problem he had with his big and equally balmy sister recently.

At the coronation, Princess Sirindhorn “represented the Royal Family … in offering their best wishes to … the King” and declared “every member of the Royal Family was determined to uphold the truth and promised loyalty to the King.” That’s to be expected as they all benefit from the monarchy and its wealth.

In other words, Chambers’ hands-off king is a facile myth.

Vajiralongkorn has also brought the palace’s billions under his personal control, rolling back these arrangements many decades.

The article reckons that “Vajiralongkorn’s greatest challenge is likely to be sorting out the palace’s relationship with the military.” He’s already moving on that, and the shape of the appointed senate is likely to be a pointer. He’s already secured an Army commander who will polish his posterior. Once he sees off Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha and Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, his relationship to the military will be highly personalized and interventionist. He believes he’s a soldier and that other soldiers must obey him.

Even Chambers and Montesano agree that the balance of power has and is shifting to the king and his palace.

Another academic once referred to a kingdom of fear and favor. That holds more now than when the claim was made. Watch as he grasps more for himself, in terms of political power, wealth and status.





More secret king’s business II

22 04 2017

In a post yesterday we mentioned the secret changes made to  royal agencies. The reports that we had seen suggested a “re-organization,” and we wondered what was so nefarious that the changes were made surreptitiously.

A report at Reuters now explains the secret business a little more.

It seems the reason for the secrecy is that this is yet another episode of refeudalization as the new king requires more power be returned to the monarch. In this case, the king is consolidating his control over agencies that work for the monarchy, making them agencies of the monarchy.

The Reuters report states:

“It involves the transfer of agencies that work for the monarch so that they are grouped together and report to the king,” said one parliament member, who declined to be identified.

The agencies had previously been under the prime minister and defense ministry, he said. Other members of the National Legislative Assembly confirmed the decision….

We concur with Paul Chambers, identified as a lecturer at Naresuan University, who observes:

The transferring of these agencies to be under the monarch’s direct supervision is another sign of an increasingly absolutist monarch, following the pattern of the new constitution, which similarly was amended to legally enshrine more royal assertiveness….

In addition, placing security agencies under the sovereign’s direct control allows him to place those he trusts the most in charge of protecting him.

The reign of Rama X is looking dangerous, not simply because the king is aggregating power to his position but because the military junta appears content that this is “reform” rather than a “counter-revolution” that turns back decades of constitutionalism.

Meanwhile, the king seems to taking it easy on the shores of Lake Starnberg, surrounded by courtiers and concubines.





Reorienting the palace-military partnership

15 02 2017

If the palace propaganda machine has had to re-vamp itself to deal with the new king, spare a thought for the pundits. For those guessing what’s going on inside the palace or even in the king’s head, the current situation must seem quite at odds with some of the predictions made.

Reuters reports on the new reign. Its point is that the new king “is putting an assertive stamp on his rule.” They mean “reign,” but some might think there’s a move to make a reign a “rule.”

The report says that “King Vajiralongkorn has made it clear to the generals running the country that he will not just sit in the background as a constitutional figurehead…”.

Given Vajiralongkorn’s past actions, reorganizing the palace, being open in promoting favorites and his propensity for headstrong actions, as well as the long period of the old king’s ill-health, we doubt the generals have been surprised. If they were, this indicates their political incapacity.

The king’s father was in incessant political player, so the mold was set for another interventionist monarch. In addition, the deals the junta has done with King Vajiralongkorn show that this king will have more legal powers to intervene.

That matters in Thailand, where relationships between monarchy, army and politicians have long determined the stability of Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy and America’s oldest regional ally.

Academic Paul Chambers reckons the king “has proven himself to be very adept at managing the junta and the military…”. Another academic, Eugenie Mérieau states that the relationship between the king and junta “is at least one of obedience…”.

We kind of get what that means. In fact, we guess that, as was the case with his father, Vajiralongkorn is in a partnership that involves mutual back-scratching that maintains society’s hierarchical social order that pours wealth into the purses of the loyalist and royalist elite.

That does not mean there won’t be tensions. For example, the king’s call for changes to the draft constitution may have been something of a surprise for the junta. Yet the process has publicly demonstrated a new king’s real political power and an important piece of political theater as the junta showed obedience. That’s good  for both sides of the partnership, especially as the junta looks to its political longevity.

It’s also risky for the palace if the political winds shift.

At the moment, though, with former junta members on the Privy Council, the links with the junta and the tools for the “management” of the relationship are in place.

That’s why the Reuters report can state:

None of more than two dozen serving or former officials, military officers, parliamentarians, diplomats or analysts that Reuters spoke to for this story saw any immediate threat to that balance of power.

The report notes that King Vajiralongkorn “started from a very different place to his father.” Mentioning his erratic and turbulent “private” life, it is noted that Vajiralongkorn has a strong military background, having had military training and involvement since he was 18 years old. Some of his military “service” was with the King’s Guard, which now has considerable clout in government and in the palace.

All of this should mean he feels very comfortable with the military running the country’s politics. But the king is erratic, headstrong and conspiratorial, so nothing is permanent for him. And, his reputation for strong-arm tactics means it is walking on eggshells for those close to him.

As the report observes, the king has been quick to rearrange the palace:

Over 20 appointments and promotions have been made by the new king and published in the Royal Gazette.

This includes reshuffling senior members of the household, many of whom had held posts for decades under King Bhumibol, and promoting military officials with ties to the new king.

Among other notable military promotions was Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhya within the King’s Own Bodyguard. Often seen at the king’s side, though not publicly designated as his consort, she became a general on the day he took the throne.

All of this means that the pundits have a new lease on life as palace tasseographers.

Already some of them read royalty into too much. The example in the report is of former reporter turned reconciliation guru Michael Vatikiotis of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Some of his history of consulting on “reconciliation” is here and here.

He reckons that he sees “sense of urgency with regard to reconciliation that some politicians say stems from the new king’s call for peace and unity…”. He states: “The military government is under some pressure to deliver on the king’s request, which may even speed up the transition back to civilian government.” That sounds so last reign….

Monarchies have several weaknesses. One is that they are surrounded by hangers-on who are afraid to comment on the king’s lack of clothing. Another is the hangers-on to the hangers-on who try to manufacture outcomes by using “signs” from the palace. And another is the personality of the monarch which means that for good or ill, all reigns are highly personalized.

All of these challenge the Thai king and his relationship with the generals.





The junior partner

31 10 2016

Readers will surely find a new Foreign Policy op-ed by Paul Chambers of considerable interest.

It begins with the statement of a view: “The military cooperated with the royal family for decades – but now it wants a subordinate, not a partner.” While the article doesn’t really follow through on this claim, there does seem something to the notion of a transition.

Chambers notes the “unstable interregnum where a junta-led military is enforcing an arch-royalist order” and where Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has not taken the throne, “leaving the future of both the monarchy and military unclear.”

He observes the long symbiotic relationship between monarchy and military:”The alliance between military and monarchy dates back to 1957-1958, when twin coups eviscerated the country’s young democracy, and they have since dominated the nation together, with the monarchy as junior partner.”

We are not sure we agree that the monarchy has been the junior partner throughout that period, and note the rise of the monarchy from 1973 until about 1978, when the military pushed back; the remarkable abdication of leadership to the palace under the regime headed by General Prem Tinsulanonda; and the further rise of influence after the 1992 events. To be sure, since about 2006, the monarchy has been in decline as the military has risen.

Chambers predicts that “unstable interregnum” could see “the military … soon insist that the monarchy’s quiet subordination become more explicit. A reassertion of the military’s role as palace guardian would permanently solidify its prerogatives and legitimacy.”

In looking at the military’s rise, Chambers notes that the draft constitution “enshrines a whole set of new powers for the military, most notably immunity to civilian oversight of its personnel and budget and a 20-year plan impervious to later government intervention.”

He also observes that the “junta has sought to follow Prem’s example of connecting to the palace, symbolically linking itself to the monarchy’s past…” and has promoted the prince’s public image. With a new reign (maybe) upon Thailand, Chambers says that “the armed forces will be tasked with both protecting the palace and acting as its representative.” He suggests that as the “new monarch comes to depend more on the military to prop up his own legitimacy, the power of the armed forces will only increase.”

The argument then loses steam and coherence in guessing about the future. That the military has increased its power over the throne, however, seems certain. After all, the monarchy has essentially been without a (active) king, not since 13 October, but since about 2006. Predictably, the generals have filled the political space.





Academics on post-coup Thailand

8 05 2016

PPT has snipped this post from the Journal of Contemporary Asia. We have previously posted on a couple of these articles. Most are behind a paywall, with two articles being free:

RJOC_COVER_46-02.inddIssue 3 of Volume 46 (2016) has gone to print and the issue is available electronically at the publisher’s site (with two articles available for free download). This is a Special Issue titled: Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand’s Authoritarian Turn. The details are:

Introduction: Understanding Thailand’s Politics” by Veerayooth Kanchoochat & Kevin Hewison (free download).

The 2014 Thai Coup and Some Roots of Authoritarianism by Chris Baker.

Inequality, Wealth and Thailand’s Politics by Pasuk Phongpaichit.

The Resilience of Monarchised Military in Thailand by Paul Chambers & Napisa Waitoolkiat.

Thailand’s Deep State, Royal Power and the Constitutional Court (1997–2015) by Eugénie Mérieau (free download)

Thailand’s Failed 2014 Election: The Anti-Election Movement, Violence and Democratic Breakdown by Prajak Kongkirati.

Rural Transformations and Democracy in Northeast Thailand by Somchai Phatharathananunth.

Redefining Democratic Discourse in Thailand’s Civil Society by Thorn Pitidol.

The issue includes five book reviews.





Attitude and adjustment

20 09 2015

AFP reports that the military dictatorship’s “attitude adjustment” campaign against critics has almost reached 800 known detentions. That is about 50 a month. In addition to this, it has been jailing opponents and others considered troublesome for the palace at a rate of more than one a month, mostly on trumped up lese majeste charges that are seldom contested or even scrutinized in court. Then there’s all the threats, late night “visits,” repression, censorship and propaganda.

Some argue that the regime is not particularly nasty – indeed the regime itself makes such claims – because it isn’t jailing thousands or killing opponents. In fact, the killings by Thailand’s military have been almost as regular as mileposts on a highway, with the most recent mass murder being of opponents in 2010.

AFP writes of “blindfolds and black site prisons” as elements of the junta’s “attitude adjustment sessions — brief periods of involuntary incarceration that can last up to seven days” and sometimes longer. Like a mafia gang, the military provides an “invitation” to join military officers to “have a chat — albeit an invitation that no-one can refuse.”

In the report, AFP, Puangthong Pawakapan, an academic at Chulalongkorn University who was also summoned and Paul Chambers are forgetting history when they observe that “the junta … is rolling out increasingly harsh interrogation techniques as it stamps down on dissent.” This is not “a new trend,” as Chambers asserts. He and the others forget that this regime has regularly been accused of torture, beatings and thuggish stand-over tactics when dealing with red shirts. What is perhaps new is the use of these tactics against middle class opposition.

Chambers is on firmer ground when he notes that this move “illustrates a regime which has become more desperate about holding on to power…”.

A few days ago, the Washington Post also commented on “attitude adjustment.” In an editorial, it states that Thais “seem to have good reason these days to question the generals … its plan for a faux democracy, … why the country’s economy remains stagnant, or why the regime has been so sluggish in responding to a terrorist bombing in central Bangkok last month.”

Rather than grabbing “[a]nyone who asks those sensible questions … is likely to be deemed in need of an ‘attitude adjustment’ by the generals’ increasingly erratic leader, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.”

In fact, it is the generals who need attitude adjustment. They need to reject dictatorship, illegal actions, impunity, torture, corruption and political murder.





Top cop, his job and his wealth

21 04 2015

We are pleased that a major news agency has taken up an important question. Reuters asks: “Is Thailand’s police chief Somyot Poompan-moung [Somyos Pumpanmuang] a graft-buster or hatchet man?”

The answer is clear, as we have stated several times. He’s a hatchet man and propagandist for the military dictatorship.

Reuters says that “critics say he is in the pocket of the ruling junta…”. This is obvious and easily demonstrated.

Somyos is charged by his boss General Prayuth Chan-ocha to be “a hatchet man for a junta trying to tame the police” – seen by the junta and anti-democrats as pro-Thaksin Shinawatra. He is meant to clean out the pro-Thaksin brass out of the police force.

The article quotes Somyos as saying: “Political parties interfere with the police, and some police officers have served politicians in the hope of progressing…”. His statement has two understandings embedded in it. First, that Thaksin gained support in the police. There is no doubt that this is correct.

The second understanding is far more problematic. This is the idea that only politicians “interfere” in the police. The police and military have not always been on the same political side, and military dictatorships have long sought to control the police and the palace has worked hard to promote its favorites in the police force. Both the military and palace have created and controlled significant police units.

The recent fall of the crown prince’s third wife displayed that part of the palace was well-connected in the police.

The major PR problem for the police force is not its political affiliations, but its rampant corruption. While the military and various bureaucratic offices are riddled by corruption, the brass in the police are at the top of a vast pyramid that sucks money from citizens and siphons it to the police bosses. As such, it is a vast criminal enterprise.

So it is that when the puppet National Legislative Assembly was constructed, the military and police members were required to declare their assets. Those declarations showed that the police led the league tables of the obviously but unquestioned unusually rich. The average wealth of the top brass in the police is a whopping 258 million baht.

Somyos has amassed declared assets of almost 375 million baht. We have previously noted this cop’s connections with shady business groups that use men-in-black to harass villagers.

Reuters quotes “analysts” who “say Somyot’s focus is to do the bidding of an army that craves control of the police and, by extension, the Shinawatras – a family whose pro-poor policies won them every Thai election since 2001, along with the hatred of many of the Bangkok elite.”

Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, is listed as one of these analysts, who says Somyos will seek to “redesign the police in a way that will long make it into a mechanism of the military…”.





Further updated: Gambling on lese majeste

26 11 2014

The case involving senior police, including an uncle of Srirasmi Akharapongpreecha, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s official consort, is widening and becoming murkier, not least because of the claim that lese majeste is one of the charges against some of those arrested.

How is this case, which could be a succession issue, a political purge, a struggle for control of the police and the wealth that flows to top cop positions or all of these, a lese majeste case? It isn’t entirely clear, although former Rak Prathet Thai Party leader Chuwit Kamolvisit has hinted at one angle in a story at The Nation where it is reported:

In Chuwit’s statement, he said a gambling den inside the Colonze massage parlour on Rama IX Road was operated by people who cited backing from the monarchy. This den generated large profits from gamblers and was able to pay a daily “protection fee” of Bt20 million to the police for nine months of operation in 2001, before it relocated to Soi Ratchadaphisek 18, the same year. It operated there for 24 days, starting August 1, before it closed down after being exposed by media reports.

On social media, many have said that the arrested cops claimed to be working for the Crown Prince, and the family connection noted above might make this seem a reasonable assumption. If they really were working for the prince, then the successionists will have a field day in sorting out the meaning.

As a footnote, we noticed that Srirasmi seems to have a slightly different English name now.

Update 1: BBC reports that “Mr Pongpat [Chayaphan], his deputy Kowit Wongrungroj and the former marine police chief Boonsueb Praithuen are accused of referring to the monarchy in illicit deals.” It adds that police chief Somyos Pumpanmuang states: “The suspects had been making false claims to gain benefits through police promotions, illegal gambling and illegal oil trading…”.

Update 2: Paul Chambers is interviewed on the case, putting pieces together.





Puppets and erasing opponents

27 09 2014

A Reuters report makes it clear that the military dictatorship has virtually total control and how it controls and shapes the grim political future of the country.

The National Legislative Assembly is a puppet assembly, dominated by military appointees and with those who aren’t men in green being loyalist and royalist. A month or so ago, an op-ed stated: “[n]obody expects the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) to be anymore than a rubber stamp in endorsing junta-guided laws and directives.”

The puppets have performed according to their military masters’ desires and plans to the extent that almost every decision made at the NLA is unanimous.

The Reuters report states:

Thailand’s military-dominated legislature gave itself the power to impeach political office holders on Thursday, edging a step closer to rooting out the influence of controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra….

Thursday’s move is the latest effort by the military leadership to curb the powers of those loyal to Thaksin and ensure political parties linked to him cannot regain power.

On this move, the report quotes Paul Chambers of Chiang Mai University who says the latest puppetry is:

“an attempt by the arch-royalist military leadership and its allies to completely remove from the political scene those politicians who either supported Thaksin over the years or those who may be viewed as not sufficiently acquiescent to the junta….

On this purge of those who have been elected politicians, Chambers asserts that the military dictatorship is also targeting Thaksin. He says the junta can “use several types of legal strategies to remove Yingluck [Shinawatra] from the political scene…”.  He points out that threats against Yingluck “The threat of using these tactics could also be a way to extort co-operation from her and her brother.”

Probably not cooperation, but certainly trying to check any political activism that might emanate from Thaksin. For PPT, it is no accident that whenever a red shirt, a former Puea Thai politician or even Yingluck pop up in public or make a statement, the junta sends an “anti-corruption” body after her or moves a case forward.

The puppets and their master will probably arrange for her to be banned from political office.