Further updated: Crooks, fraudsters, and palace

16 05 2021

The story of four high-profile suspects arrested in connection with a fraudulent investment ring estimated to have made off with at least 1 billion baht reminded us of an earlier hi-so fraud.

In the recent case, police detained “Lt Col Dr Amraporn Visetsuk, chairwoman of the Tiao Puea Chart (Travel for the Country) project, and three others, on charges of public fraud and collaborating in fraudulent public borrowing. All of them denied the charges.” The one who got away was “suspected ringleader Prasit Jeawkok, chairman of the Kuen Khun Pandin (Paying Back the Land) project…”.

The story gets more interesting:

Last year, Pannika Wanich, spokeswoman for the Progressive Movement, accused Mr Prasit of being behind the army’s now-discredited “information operation” (IO) and allowing the army to use the servers under his control for free.

Prasit himself has “boasted of his royalist credentials and unbuttoned his shirt to show a ‘Long Live the King’ tattoo on his chest. Even if he supported IO, he declared, it was a ‘good IO’.”

Prasit has been praised by the wealthy Yuenyong Opakul or Add Carabao who is also a mad monarchist, writing “the song ‘Prasit the Giver,’ praising his good deeds under the Kuen Khun Pandin project in July 2019.”

All of this is vaguely familiar to anyone old enough to remember the fantastic Mae Chamoy fraud case in the mid-1980s that saw Chamoy Thipyaso and seven others found guilty of corporate fraud and on 27 July 1989, sentenced her to 141,078 years in prison. She only served 8 years.

It was her connections with the military, and especially the Royal Thai Air Force and also with the Petroleum Authority of Thailand, saw her chit fund scheme go on for almost 20 years, providing huge returns to some at the top of the pyramid scheme.

As the linked report states:

Chamoy

Among her clients there were prominent members from the military and the Royal Household, which prompted calls for the Thai government to bail out the banks and chit funds. Discussions of an unknown nature were made with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, following which the chit fund was wound up and Thipyaso arrested. She was [d]etained secretly by the Air Force for a few days.

Thipyaso’s trial only commenced after the losses of the victims from the military and royal staff were recovered….

Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles (pp. 308-9) has more on the scheme:

Chit funds were pyramid schemes that had blossomed over several years without intervention from the government, in part because many had strong government connections. One especially, the Mae (Mother) Chamoy Fund, was estimated at $300 million and involved large numbers of investors from the military and, it soon became apparent, the royal household, including probably Sirikit, Vajiralongkorn, Ubolrat, and Chulabhorn. With such prominent and politically significant people likely to lose massively in the Mae Chamoy collapse, [Gen] Arthit [Kamlang-ek] stepped in again. He threatened a coup if the government did not rescind the [recent baht] devaluation and bail out the banks and chit funds.

This time, King Bhumibol himself rescued [Gen] Prem [Tinsulanonda], without saying anything. Prem went to stay at the Phuphan Palace for nine days, and each day the media ran pictures of Prem with the king, queen, and crown prince. Making the message clear, when Prem returned to Bangkok he was escorted by Prince Vajiralongkorn and Chulabhorn’s consort Captain Virayuth. When Arthit then flew to the Phuphan Palace, Prem turned around and went back. What was said in their discussions with the king was not made public, but the episode ended with Prem still in power and Arthit unpunished for his series of mutinous acts. The devaluation stood and the Mae Chamoy Fund was shut down, but only after more backhall dealings managed by Prem. Fund manager Chamoy was arrested and held in secret by the air force until, it is believed, the losses of palace and military personnel and other high officials were recovered. Only afterward was she tried and sent to prison. Her hearing was held in camera and the records were sealed, presumably to protect the palace. Meanwhile thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of people who didn’t have special protectors lost their savings.

Are we completely mad to wonder if there aren’t some coincidences of news now and news then?

Update 1: Adding to the mystery and protection of fraudsters, it is reported that Prasit Jeawkok has done a deal with police to surrender to them on 17 May. It is common for influential people to arrange this kind of deal and arrive to meet police with influential figures and lawyers. At the same time, we are told that “the Second Army pledged the suspect, Lt Col Amaraphon, who is attached with the Second Army’s Support Command, will face punishment if she is found guilty.” That’s a familiar refrain, seldom ever carried out.

Update 2: Thai Enquirer has two op-eds on this case, here and here. Is anyone surprised that Lt Col Amaraphon already has bail? Scams like this produce huge cash flows for big shots.





Updated: Former princess no longer a candidate PM

8 02 2019

The frenzy of media reports and social media analysis on Ubolratana’s nomination as prime ministerial candidate by the Thai Raksa Chart Party has to be re-done and all the speculation re-thought.

No one for a moment imagined that the flaky Ubolratana would have nominated without her brother’s agreement. No one considered that the party would have nominated her without full approvals in place. This seemed to be the case because Ubolratana is considered close to her brother.

Everyone was wrong. The king has denied her right to stand:

His Majesty made clear in the statement that although the princess had resigned from the royal family by law, she is still a royal family member by tradition. Princess Ubolratana still performed activities on behalf of the royal family, as well as being a beloved daughter of late King Bhumibol and a respected member of the royal family.

“Bringing a high-ranking member of the royal family to politics, in whatever manner, is an act in violation of the royal tradition and national culture and highly inappropriate,” the announcement reads.

“All constitutions, including the current one, have a chapter on His Majesty the King. It contains provisions endorsing the special status of the royal institution in line with the constitutional monarchy rule. The king is above politics and holds a position of respect. No one may violate, accuse or file charges against him in any way. The provisions also cover the queen, heir-apparent and royal family members close to the king.”

The same principles of being above politics and of political neutrality also apply to all royal family members. They may not hold any political position as it is against the intention of the constitutions and constitutional monarchy tradition, according to the announcement.

It seems that we may never learn what has gone on over the past 24 hours, at least not inside the royal family. Other questions now arise, such as: Was Thaksin Shinawatra ambushed? (He’s been ambushed by the palace before.) Will Ubolratana face some sanction from her brother? Will she rebel? (She has before.) What now for Thai Raksa Chart sans candidate for PM? Has the king effectively voted for Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha? There’s many more.

Update: Much of the reporting of Ubolratana’s commoner status has the palace propaganda on her alleged “resignation” from royal status. We thought it might be useful to reproduce the material on this from Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles:

In 1969, Ubolrat went to America to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, supposedly pursuing the goal of becoming a nuclear physicist. Her proud father held her up as an example to Thai students. In 1972, however, she broke his heart and upset plans for plugging the vulnerability in succession when the palace discovered she was dating an American classmate, Peter Jensen. Although several of the king’s uncles had married foreigners, Bhumibol and Sirikit attempted to block the relationship, as they apparently had in an earlier involvement she had with a non-royal Thai student. Stubborn and resentful of the confines of royal life, Ubolrat declared her intention to marry Jensen. In July 1972 the king reacted by angrily stripping her of her title, meaning her children would not be royal. A month later the young couple married, and Bhumibol virtually disowned Ubolrat. She did not return to Thailand for the next eight years.

Khaosod’s “report” on Ubolratana is nothing more than palace propaganda. The paper would be better to say nothing if it is simply going to repeat the palace’s accounts of a flaky princess.





Good rich king, bad rich king

25 10 2017

Are we the only ones who have detected a change in the way that critics of the monarchy are writing about it?

While we recently posted on the ninth reign as a bloody era where thousands of citizens were disappeared, jailed, tortured and killed by the state, usually operating in the name of the monarchy and, for the most part, supported by the king, other commentaries seem to be eulogizing that reign.

An example, and it is one of several, is a New York Time op-ed by Matthew Phillips, a historian in Wales.

Phillips repeats several of the lines from Bhumibol hagiographies and palace propaganda:

Thailand’s previous king … is credited with transforming Thailand into a modern nation-state and unifying the country during times of political turmoil.

The author might acknowledge that this is pure propaganda that ignores real history.

Then in 1946, Bhumibol ascended to the throne, and after a discreet first decade….

The author doesn’t seem to think it important to mention the death of King Ananda Mahidol or the royalist efforts to pin that on innocents and to send political opponents into exile. We would have thought that period was pivotal for the rise of a royalist military.

A military coup in 1958, pro-American and high on Thai pride, placed the (U.S.-born) king at its center, and the Thai public reacted enthusiastically.

We can’t help wondering about how public enthusiasm is measured? By the bodies that piled up under General Sarit Thanarat’s despotism?

King Bhumibol is often credited with foiling a Communist movement during the Cold War, liberalizing the Thai economy and keeping the country together despite its often-fractious politics.

Again, he is “credited” with these superhuman feats, but it is usually palace propagandists making these points.

The rest of Phillip’s article is quite good, so we are not sure why he repeats these lines of hagiography. In other stories, it seems the authors are pining for the past 70 years, comparing that era with what they think is going to be an awful reign under the erratic and narcissistic Vajiralongkorn.

The good bits seem to us to build on several insights from Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. The previous king and his advisers came up with the propaganda device that made its wealth a sign of merit and allowed others to share in it.

On the funeral, he notes that “… there is little discussion over the expense of King Bhumibol’s cremation.” He adds that, “for the monarchy, has been to make royal wealth seem sacred, and any contribution to it appear virtuous.”

He notes the growth of royal wealth under the dead king.

The royal family, thanks in part to a raft of projects with business, academia, the arts and charities, has implanted itself at the center of Thailand’s cultural and social life — apparently far from the messy, brutal realities of capitalism and political gamesmanship. Giving money or labor to a royally endorsed project has come to be seen as a good deed, and so an opportunity to improve one’s chances of an auspicious rebirth in the Buddhist reincarnation cycle.

… Bhumibol’s material legacy also is great. The Crown Property Bureau, the agency that manages the royal finances, has vastly expanded its business portfolio. Neither the bureau’s assets nor its operations are entirely known, but the Thai monarchy is now thought to be the world’s richest, with an estimated fortune of at least $30 billion. Under … Bhumibol, the royal family of Thailand has become fabulously rich….

No debate there, although the figure is probably closer to $50 billion now. And the new king has control of it. The “fun” is about to begin.





Updated: New king and palace propaganda

30 12 2016

A new king means that the palace’s propaganda needs to be realigned. It has a network of tame authors and journalists who are prepared to continue their work of mythologizing the monarchy.

These lackeys are being mobilized to produce saccharin stories that seek to “correct” the negative stories that appeared around the time of accession. This palace propaganda goes hand-in-hand with the efforts of the military junta to suppress the negative accounts – and there are a lot of them – about the king and his foibles and faults. That includes the use of the draconian lese majeste law.

One of the trusted palace-connected journalists is Dominic Faulder, perhaps best known for his work as “senior editor” of the palace’s “semi-official” King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A Life’s Work. That was a lengthy, expensive and faulty response to Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. In the palace handbook, Faulder is listed as having been a correspondent for the defunct Asiaweek magazine, a former president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand and an editor of another piece of royalist puff, The King of Thailand in World Focus.

Now listed as an associate editor of the Nikkei Asian Review. where he has authored a series of monarchist articles that reproduce much of the palace propaganda about the deceased king.

pattyThe most recent contribution to appear at Nikkei Asian Review is a puff piece that is the first that begins the reorientation of international “journalism” to the new king. In a series called “Agents of Change 2017,” Faulder fawns over Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol.

Who? Yes, plucked from relative obscurity (except for the royal news broadcast each day in Thailand), she “qualifies” because she is the new king’s first daughter.

Faulder describes her as holding “a unique position in Thailand, both by birth and from her life experience,” and trawls for something to say, quoting an unnamed diplomat from 2009 as saying  she had “an increasingly high profile and a reputation for being perhaps the sharpest of the royal family members.” That diplomat, if he or she really existed, was disingenuous.

Part of the reason for highlighting “Patty” is to do a bit of royal laundry. She “is the daughter of Princess Soamsawali, the first of three wives [we count 4] of then Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Her mother, a niece of Queen Sirikit, remains one of the most active and visible members of the royal family, despite being divorced in 1991.”

That refers to the queen’s desire to promote her “line” by having her son marry a first cousin. The deal on the messy divorce was that, unlike more recent women booted out by the prince, with noble blood and the queen a relative, she kept royal position and profile.

At 38, her life is said to involve “a lively social life among high society friends with a more serious side that sees her mixing with soldiers, officials, academics and diplomats.” Her hi-so lifestyle is “normalized” by the claim that she “likes to drive herself around in a red Mini Cooper S or a vivid green Volkswagen Beetle.” For those not in the know, driving oneself is considered “radical” for royals.

While she’s still single, Faulder lets on that there’s the “possibility of royal weddings after her grandfather’s elaborate cremation…”. Why is this relevant? Faulder doesn’t make the point, but as she’s the only offspring of the current crop of royals issued from the late king’s children who has royal blood on both sides of the family, Patty “is expected to play a leading role in support of her father, and in buffing the image of the House of Chakri, the Siamese dynasty founded in 1782.”

Like her royal aunts, she’s claimed to be well educated, having a law doctorate from Cornell University. (Has anyone seen her thesis?) That led to some promotion by the palace propaganda machine, with Faulder pointing out that “briefly joined the Thai permanent mission to the United Nations in New York as a first secretary,” before returning to Thailand to “work” as “a prosecutor in the office of the attorney general.” That seemed brief as well:

After returning to the Thai foreign ministry, she chaired the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in 2011. She remained for two more years in Vienna as ambassador to Austria, a post she took up at the unusually young age of 34. She was concurrently Thailand’s permanent representative to the U.N. at Vienna, one of the organization’s four global headquarters.

Of course it is “unusually young.” Such things only happen to Thailand’s royals, who are all polymaths and where positions are created for them. No one dares complain that they are dull or unqualified.

Faulder loyally repeats much of the fawning that has already gone on about this princess. She “founded the Princess Pa Foundation with her mother in 1995 to help victims of flooding and natural disasters.” That is, when she was 17. She then “founded and personally funded with 300,000 baht ($8,600) the Kamlangjai (Inspire) Project for women imprisoned with their children…”. Recall that she’s now an heir to a fortune of about $50 billion and she gave this paltry amount. But that investment allows lackey journalists to claim this “gift” is meaningful.

odd-nationalismNothing much has changed in Thailand for the “work” of the foundations and women prisoners are abused and prison conditions in Thailand remain horrendous.

Faulder explains that one of her roles “is putting an engaged and contemporary face on Thailand’s time-honored institution.” This seems to include sharing the media space with her father as she did in the Bike for Mom event earlier in 2015. True to palace propaganda, Faulder adds that the event “showed a resilient, more youthful side to the royal institution, and revealed the future king in evidently robust health…”.

Like her father, she’s portrayed as fit and well exercised. We are told that in “September, she led a mixed party up Fansipan, in northern Vietnam — the highest mountain in the Indochina region.” She took the cable car and then, quite oddly, planted a Thai flag at the concreted summit.

Now that the old king has gone, the queen is sick and senile and the new king is her dad, get used to the idea that she will be promoted and that the propaganda machine will whitewash the new king’s past.

Update: Readers may be interested in Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s take on this story about Patty.





Commentary on the recent and next monarchy I

15 10 2016

Assuming that the monarchy continues in one form or another, there’s some interesting commentary sparked by the king’s death. (The end of the monarchy following the 9th reign has been a prophesy heard previously – clicking the link downloads a PDF considered illegal in Thailand.)

Of course, there’s lots of hagiography too, reporting much that has been said about the king previously. A quick look at any news source in Thailand shows only this kind of reporting. Claims that the king was above politics and a force for stability were criticized years ago, as can be seen in the PDF linked above.

Here is some of the more interesting material currently available:

France 24 has an AFP story that “follows the money,” with a story on “one of the world’s richest monarchies, with a multi-billion-dollar empire spanning property, construction and banks.” One estimate is that the Crown Property Bureau is worth almost $60 billion. PPT would add that each of the royals is individually wealthy and each of them sponges off the taxpayer as well, so this is a fabulously wealthy capitalist conglomerate. If there is a competition for the top spot, then there are plenty of spoils for the winner/s.

The king’s unauthorized biographer Paul Handley has an op-ed at The New York Times. His conclusion is:

This is a bleak backdrop for the end of King Bhumibol’s reign. He was the model of a great king — modest, earnest and selfless, with his attention focused on the neediest. But he has left Thailand, as well as his heir, in the same situation he inherited all those years ago: in the hands of corrupt and shortsighted generals who rule however they want. And those King Bhumibol cared about the most — the Thai people — must suffer the consequences.

We are great fans of The King Never Smiles, but we are not convinced that the modest, earnest, selfless stuff isn’t buying palace propaganda (see the story above). We do agree that Thailand is currently in the “hands of corrupt and shortsighted generals,” we’d just point out that that was not the situation when the late king came to the throne. It was the Democrat Party’s founders, the old princes and other diehard royalists who used the death of the new king’s brother to overthrow a civilian regime. This was the first successful royalist coup.

Over at New Mandala, academic Lee Jones has an article called “The myth of King Bhumibol,” writing of his “weakness” of the king and identifies him as “a divisive and negative force for Thailand’s politics and democracy…”. We agree on the latter points but are not sure about the “weakness.” We think it better to view the monarchy and military as partners in anti-democratic rule.

Also at New Mandala, Nicholas Farrelly has an assessment of the king’s legacy. His view is of the king as a product of palace propaganda and image-making. He concludes: “But in late moments of reflection he [the king] may have regretted that his country became so ill prepared for mature leadership transitions and that his own charisma had been so regularly mobilised against the political wishes of the Thai people.” We doubt he regretted this. He considered Thais as children requiring discipline and direction and he provided it, for a while.

And, in another New Mandala piece, anthropologist Christine Gray writes about talking about monarchy. She writes about the past failures to challenge reporting and scholarship that was too accepting of palace propaganda. She makes an interesting point when she says “it seems tacky to criticise the dead” and then says it is necessary. She’s anticipated a ever stronger line on social media that argues that “now is not the right time for criticism.” It seems it is never the right time to be critical of the monarchy.

Along the same lines, Peter Symonds at WSWS has some useful observations. On not being truthful, he observes:

The king’s death was greeted with a wave of nauseating accolades from heads of state and political leaders around the world. US President Barack Obama issued a statement declaring that Bhumibol was “a tireless champion” for economic development and improved living standards. The UN General Assembly and Security Council stood in silent tribute. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised Bhumibol’s “legacy of commitment to universal values and respect for human rights.”

The international media followed suit, focussing on the outpouring of grief among the king’s supporters. The phrase “revered by the Thai people” appears in article after article, which either gloss over or completely ignore the Thai monarchy’s staggering wealth and its support for the country’s long succession of military coups and abuse of democratic rights.

The tabloids are also at work. The Mirror has been at it and so has the Daily Mail. The New York Post has a story titled “Thailand’s new king is a kooky crop top-wearing playboy.” It reproduces some of the lurid stories about the crown prince – the Post might say clown prince. Srirasmi is mentioned. There’s other critical commentary, including by a former Australian ambassador to Thailand.





Reviews and reads

9 03 2016

Readers might be interested in two more reviews of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis. We posted on earlier at least eight earlier reviews of the book, and these reviews can be found here.

The first is probably already widely known as it is by Andrew Walker at New Mandala. In a lengthy review, Walker states:

It certainly is a myth-busting tour-de-force showing how Thai kings, and the elites that surround them, have regularly generated political crises, which also reflect competition between narrow sectional interests.  However, whether or not the book will achieve its myth-busting objective is hard to tell. Most readers, I suspect, will already be converts to MacGregor Marshall’s position. By contrast, those who subscribe to the royal mythology will probably be confirmed in their view that unsympathetic Westerners like MacGregor Marshall are determined to slander the royal institution.Kingdom in crisis

Walker concludes:

… Marshall’s preoccupation with the succession points to a broader problem with this book.

Despite its provocations and iconoclasm this is very much a royalist account of Thai history. Like Thailand’s royalists, MacGregor Marshall places the king at the heart of the Thai polity. In A Kingdom in Crisis, contestation over royal power is the engine room of 21st century Thai politics, as it has been over the past millennium (p  213).

The mass of people sometimes do feature, but they are peripheral to MacGregor Marshall’s central purpose. When they do enter into the narrative, it is as an undifferentiated mass of “ordinary  people” who are struggling against the elite in pursuit of “greater freedom and a fairer society” (p 109).

This two-dimensional and a-historical model — a cut-throat elite ruling over a repressed population — is classic orientalism and contributes little to an understanding of the complex and cross-cutting social and economic forces that have brought Thailand to its contemporary political impasse.

The other review is by Jim Glassman in the journal Pacific Affairs. The review can be freely viewed. The review begins:

The publication of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis has been a much-awaited event among Thai scholars. Marshall, a Scottish journalist who used to work for Reuters, has been releasing large pieces of this study for a number of years now, at his “#thaistory” blog. The book adds something to this material but will not be a huge surprise to those who have read his work at the blog site.

Glassman adds that the book is really rather thin:

Given the relative paucity of accessible and critical English-language writing about the Thai monarchy, and the risks that such writing entails, A Kingdom in Crisis should be considered a significant accomplishment, and Zed Books should be given credit for being willing to publish it….

For many scholars and people fairly familiar with Thai politics, some of Marshall’s analysis will nonetheless prove fairly thin gruel. It is not only that there has actually been a string of books in recent history that raise telling issues about the monarchy and challenges of succession—for example, the works by Benedict Anderson, Paul Handley, Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, William Stevenson, David Streckfuss and Thongchai Winichakul, which the author cites, as well as works by Kevin Hewison, Rayne Kruger and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, which he doesn’t cite—but Marshall’s explanation of the current crisis is somewhat one-sided.

Acknowledging shortcomings in the book, Glassman concludes:

A Kingdom in Crisis is a useful read, particularly for those unfamiliar with the roles of royalist-military elites (and their international allies) in shaping Thailand’s ongoing struggles for democracy. It will certainly find its place on the bookshelves of Thai democracy activists—provided they do not live in Thailand.

In the same issue of Pacific Affairs there is an article which is of interest because it is based on a survey of serving military officers. The authors of “Professionals and Soldiers: Measuring Professionalism in the Thai Military” are Punchada Sirivunnabood of Mahidol University and Jacob Isaac Ricks of Singapore Management University. The abstract states:

Thailand’s military has recently reclaimed its role as the central pillar of Thai politics. This raises an enduring question in civil-military relations: why do people with guns choose to obey those without guns? One of the most prominent theories in both academic and policy circles is Samuel Huntington’s argument that professional militaries do not become involved in politics. We engage this premise in the Thai context. Utilizing data from a new and unique survey of 569 Thai military officers as well as results from focus groups and interviews with military officers, we evaluate the attitudes of Thai servicemen and develop a test of Huntington’s hypothesis. We demonstrate that increasing levels of professionalism are generally poor predictors as to whether or not a Thai military officer prefers an apolitical military. Indeed, our research suggests that higher levels of professionalism as described by Huntington may run counter to civilian control of the military. These findings provide a number of contributions. First, the survey allows us to operationalize and measure professionalism at the individual level. Second, using these measures we are able to empirically test Huntington’s hypothesis that more professional soldiers should prefer to remain apolitical. Finally, we provide an uncommon glimpse at the opinions of Thai military officers regarding military interventions, adding to the relatively sparse body of literature on factors internal to the Thai military which push officers toward politics.

Meanwhile, at the Journal of Contemporary Asia, a third paper from the forthcoming Special Issue, Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand’s Authoritarian Turn, has been published. “Inequality, Wealth and Thailand’s Politics” is by well-known political economist Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit of Chulalongkorn University.

The abstract for the paper states:

Acemoglu and associates argue that resistance to democratisation will be stronger where inequality is high. Piketty shows that shifts at the upper end of the distribution may be historically more significant than overall measures of inequality. In Thailand, the high level of income inequality has eased slightly since 2000, but there is a ‘1% problem’ as peak incomes are growing faster than the average. Newly available data show that inequality of wealth is very high. At the top of the wealth pyramid, family holdings of commercial capital are growing. A significant proportion of top entrepreneurs have emerged within the past generation. A second tier of the wealth elite has developed over the past generation from rising property values, financial investments and professional incomes. Although their individual wealth is much less than the corporate elite, their numbers are much greater. The existence of the prospering ‘1%’ and the emergence of the second-tier wealthy may corroborate Acemoglu’s proposition, but there are tensions within the wealth elite which may favour democracy.





A Kingdom in Crisis reviewed VIII

26 05 2015

It is some time since we posted on the initial reviews of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s book A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century. Earlier reviews can be found here.

At the Journal of Contemporary Asia, there is a new and longer review, by academic Serhat Ünaldi. Unfortunately, the review is currently behind a pay wall, so we try to give a feeling for it here.Kingdom in crisis

The review draws comparisons between the excitement surrounding the publication of the acclaimed book by Paul Handley, The King Never Smiles in 2006 and the reaction to the publication of A Kingdom in Crisis. Ünaldi argues that Marshall’s book is an “important contribution.” He states that “it informs a wide audience about the damaging political role of the monarchy…”. The reviewer is less happy, however, with what he says is the author’s failure to adequately acknowledge “an already existing corpus of literature that deals critically with Thailand’s monarchy.”

Handley was also criticized for failing to acknowledge a wider literature, yet that criticism was less significant in 2006 than it is now, 10 years after and with far more critical work being readily available.

Ünaldi is also critical of the “focus on the succession as the key factor in the ongoing political crisis…”. The reviewer argues that this focus “is unnecessarily narrow and should have been complemented by an analysis of structural forces as drivers of change.”





Handley on Coronation Day 1996

7 05 2015

We posted on the sighting of the king at his 65th Coronation Day. A reader sent us this PDF of Paul Handley’s assessment of the monarchy from July 96, long before The King Never Smiles. We felt readers might be interested in his commentary back then, including on succession.





The evil art of destruction

7 03 2015

As PPT has noted several times, we don’t doubt that the family and associates of Srirasmi made every use they could of her association with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. That is what those associated with the power, wealth and aura of the monarchy do in Thailand.

Unless of “the blood,” and recall Paul Handley’s emphasis on this, punishment for falling out with a member of the royal family can be severe. Under the military dictatorship, the prince seems intent on the destruction of his estranged third wife, her family and their associates.

PPT doesn’t have any inside information on the prince’s falling out with Srirasmi, but the media reports of the humiliation of her and the destruction of her family through their arrest and jailing suggest a vengeance that knows few bounds.

Srirasmi has so far seen her mother, father, brother, uncle, sister-in-law and many others locked up. It is not known if she has any contact with her son. Is she being pressured to leave the country, sign over the son and more? We have no idea, but this one-sided feud is feudal and public. Srirasmi's goodbye

Srirasmi herself has not been seen since about 13 December 2014.

The latest act has been by the military. According to Khaosod, it “has seized a remote residence in the middle of a forest that officers believe was a holiday home for former princess Srirasmi Suwadee and her family.”

The soldiers claimed “local residents alerted authorities that the residence was ‘suspicious’ and potentially encroaching on the national park land…”. That’s possible, but no action would have occurred without orders from the top. Indeed, to conduct the raid, the soldiers “invoked the power granted to them under martial law to investigate the property…”. Martial law allows the military to do whatever they want, and martial law makes it “legal.”

Several local “residents said simply that no one dared to approach the land because it was believed to belong to ‘extraordinary people’.” Being close to the prince means great influence and power, associated with a widespread fear of the prince.

Srirasmi has no law to protect her just as no law could bound her when she had the status of official wife of the Crown Prince. Thailand’s justice system is so broken that the only incontrovertible “law” seems to be impunity for the powerful.





Palace coups

10 12 2014

PPT has just noticed a “birthday celebration” article on the king and politics in The Atlantic magazine. It makes some interesting points and shows how international commentators have become far more wary of simply reproducing palace propaganda than was the case even in the recent past.

For that change, we can credit the efforts of authors Paul Handley and Andrew MacGregor Marshall, and academics Serhat Unaldi, Patrick Jory, Michael Connors, Thongchai Winichakul, Kevin Hewison, Duncan McCargo and others. Activists like Ji Ungpakorn, Rose Amornpat, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Junya Yimprasert and others have also changed the monarchy discourse. And, perhaps, PPT and blogs like New Mandala have also changed perceptions.

Yet the story also evidences some confusions.

Beginning by noting that the king was a no-show for his promised birthday speech. It makes nothing of this, which is odd. Given the fanfare about the aged, frail and largely incomprehensible king coming out of hospital to make a speech, that event would have been a “coup” for the military dictatorship. But the report wants to make another point:

With nearly seven decades in power, Bhumibol is the world’s longest-serving head of state—and he’s somehow achieved this milestone in a country that has seen more coups than most any other. By one count, there have been 10 since Bhumibol assumed the throne after his brother, the previous king, was found shot in the head in 1946. As elected leaders and military juntas have come and gone in Thailand with a frequency unrivaled in the world, King Bhumibol has held on at the very top, and he is frequently described as a “unifying force” in a country with deep political divisions. How has he done it?

Much in this is odd. First, it is odd that the question of who shot the king’s brother is not made. It is now a widely-held view, as it was at the time amongst diplomats, that the present king shot his brother, probably by accident. Second, the claim made seems to be that the king has been a coup survivor. That is a very odd claim. Indeed, for almost all the military putsches during his reign, the king and palace have been actively involved with the coup-makers and, in some cases, the palace has been involved in planning and making the military intervention. Surviving a partnership with the military is far easier and more profitable than opposing each illegal military coup.

The article says that the king “survived” these military interventions, not because he was a part of them, but because he is “genuinely popular.” Remarkably, in making this point, The Atlantic cites Paul Handley, who is quoted: “He’s shown himself as really a man of his people…”. The article continues:

Listed by Forbes as the world’s richest monarch, worth some $30 billion in 2011, Bhumibol has presented himself as a friend to Thailand’s poor, with well-publicized efforts to improve rural development, health care, and education. A combination of authentic dedication and professional image management, Handley told me, have helped build up a strong reputation for the king over a period of decades.

If these are accurate quotes, and we think they are taken out of context, then PPT reckons that there’s a confusing of ideology and reality.  As is later stated: “The law also makes the monarchy’s own role in Thailand’s coups—many of which, Handley wrote in his book, ‘took place in the throne’s name and with the palace’s quiet nod’—difficult to discuss publicly within the country.” Indeed, the palace has been more deeply involved than this suggests.

In any case, as the article says, “it’s not quite that simple, and it’s impossible to know exactly how popular, or how unpopular, the king really is. Thailand criminalizes speaking ill of the royal family…. The [lese majeste] law may help protect the king’s image and reinforce his popularity, but their enforcement also provides an imperfect window into the anti-monarch sentiment that exists in the kingdom.”

It quotes David Streckfuss, who states that the number of lese-majeste cases has “skyrocketed to never-imaginable heights…”. Readers of PPT will know that the number of cases has gone up even further since then, with the military dictatorship using the law more feverishly than any government since the law was established in the early 20th century. Noting just one of these cases, the article states:

The law is now being employed by Thailand’s ruling military junta, which took power in a coup in May, to suppress dissent and demonstrate the military’s allegiance to the popular monarch. Just this week, a former member of parliament was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for comments made in a May speech entitled “Stop Overthrowing Democracy.”

Indeed, that speech made the palace-military link clear in recent military interventions. Under the royalist military dictatorship, facts are replaced by myth, and the enforcement of myth is vigorous.