Taxes, wealth and privy councilors

16 02 2010
In the Bangkok Post (16 February 2010) Atiya Achakulwisut’s op-ed begins with a lament worthy of the People’s Alliance for Democracy when she complains that she pays taxes while politicians get wealthy and dole out “pork-barrel projects.” Of course, in terms of percentage of income and wealth, it is probably poor Thais who pay the most. And think of the past injustices when urban Thais benefited from the hugely regressive rice tax. All Thais pay some form of tax, but the wealthier one is it just seems like there are more chances there are to avoid tax.

She’s on slightly firmer ground when she complains that politicians seem to be getting wealthier all the time. Sometimes, this is a chicken and egg argument as, like so many other places, wealth seems to be a qualification for political office. This is not to disagree that politicians can seem venal and grafting. What she ignores, though, are the others who are equally adept at socking away the loot. She doesn’t mention the huge corruption that accompanies private business dealings in Thailand or the stench of corruption that has lingered around the military since at least the early 1950s. And she doesn’t mention the “special status” of Crown Property Bureau and private royal wealth at all.

Research has shown that the CPB alone makes the Thai royal family one of the richest around and not all of the CPB wealth incurs tax. Add to this the huge amounts that the royal family is gifted. Who has any idea how much that is and where it goes? Then there’s each royal’s personal wealth, and PPT is unaware of any research on this. And for good measure, throw in the astonishingly large allocations to the royal family from the coffers of the taxpayers like Atiya.

Atiya might say that supporting the royals is better than splashing money about on politicians’ whims and that they are less corrupt. Yet no one knows. There are rumors here and there. Meanwhile, the use of taxpayer and donated funds by the royals is so totally opaque that no one can claim to have any idea how much of this fortune is spent on crazy whims, expensive fashion, overseas junkets and other personal fancies. No one even dares ask questions, let alone complain in the way that Atiya does about politicians.

Atiya also mentions Privy Councilor Surayud Chulanont. Surayud looked “poor” when he was prime minister as he and his wife could only 89.7 million baht in their assets declaration. PPT recalls that this amount included General Surayud’s Patek Philippe watch collection. His claimed assets may seems small compared with some others (see Atiya’s story) but how is it that a career soldier can amass so much money? We can guess.

When his former land and house at Khao Yai Thiang came under scrutiny it was stated that the land was given to the general. Earlier it was claimed that his golf course residence had been given to him. There were rumors that he had expensive cars that were given to him. Why would a so-called professional soldier get such large gifts? Remember that at the time that Surayud was rising to the top, the military was riddled by corruption. The border areas were lucrative redoubts for the military commanders, and Surayud spent a considerable time on the Cambodian border as the Thai military supported Pol Pot and their cross border trading that included weapons, gems, timber and more.

At the time that the military was riddled by corruption, General Prem Tinsulanonda was prime minister, having also been army commander before this. Prem went on to have numerous board positions with some of Thailand’s biggest and best connected companies, Bangkok Bank amongst them. He’s recently been accused by red shirts of receiving funds from a business woman. The amount involved was reported as just less than 4 million baht (The Nation, 16 February 2010). A drop in the trough you might say when compared to the figures mention by Atiya, some of them 1,000 times this amount.

In any case, Watchara Panchet, the son of the business woman Kalyani Panchet of MMC Sithipol has said that the 4 million given to the Privy Council president was a donation to Wat Suan Kaew. Watchara said his very wealthy and influential mother just “loved to donate money especially when asked to do by people whom she respected.” He explained that his mother “sent the cheques via Prem to build a residential building at Wat Suan Kaew in 2003-2004. The temple constructed the building, which cost over Bt6 million to provide a living quarters for provincial people who come to Bangkok for business or to look for jobs.”

Watchara said his mother “gave five cheques to Prem, two of which were for Bt1.8 million. Each had the name of the construction contractors endorsed and the temple issued certificates of acknowledgement for the donations in the name of MNH Holding, with Abbot Phra Phayom’s signature on the certificate.” Watchara even displayed pictures of the building constructed with the “donations” and had copies of the “two cheques paid to Prem, including the certificate of acknowledgement for the donations issued by the temple.”

It seems, however, that things are not quite so straightforward. When asked why she hadn’t donated directly to the temple, Watchara said his mother “trusted Prem to be a go-between in donating all the money.” Then Phra Phayom is quoted as saying that “in 2004 an Army major-general whose name he forgot offered to erect two buildings on its land. The officer told him Prem would help fund the building but he didn’t know how. The temple was not involved with the construction, but it later had to spend more than Bt1 million on repairs.” The Nation also reports that the “two-storey buildings have a sign that says they were funded by the Foundation of Statesman General Prem Tinsulanonda.”

This may be just the beginning of this story and it may well turn out to be a storm in a teacup. At the same time, has Prem been receiving lots of donations? Can he account for them? What is the money used for? How much personal wealth has he amassed by parlaying his strategic position for personal gain? Interesting questions.

There is rampant corruption amongst politicians but in discussions of wealth, power and ill-gotten gains, one shouldn’t neglect the highest reaches of society and business.

%d bloggers like this: