The royal(ist) mess that is Thailand

3 04 2018

The success of palace propaganda, reinforced by decades of fascist-military domination, promoted by a royalist lapdog media, both state and private sector, and buttressed by draconian laws and belligerent royalist agencies like the military and ISOC, has been so sweeping that there’s little overt opposition these days (we note the linked article is no longer free to download). That which does exist has been firmly under the military boot in recent years.

Some wondered if the succession would temper there would be some cutting of the strings that tie Thais to the palace. Wonder no longer. Almost nothing has changed. As evidence, we cite two news stories from the last day or so.

The Nation reports that “Thai Heritage Conservation Week” is upon us. Like the recent noe-feudal celebration of the repression under pre-1932 absolute monarchy, this week royal posterior polishers get another chance to dress in feudal style – “traditional costumes.”

The useless Culture Ministry “kicked off the week with Thai Heritage Conservation Day on April 2…”. That day “has been celebrated annually since 1985, honouring … Princess … Sirindhorn, who was born on April 2, 1955, and her contributions to the conservation of the nation’s heritage.”

We can’t immediately recall her “contributions” but there must be plenty claimed for her by palace propagandists.

More worryingly, The Nation also reports on the kerfuffle in Chiang Mai over the mansions being built on forested – now deforested – hills that will be handed out to judges and others in the Ministry of Justice.

What do the people opposing this project do to protest? They “will petition … King … Vajiralongkorn for help.”

A network of those opposed to the project will gather signatures before petitioning the king.

Why? Get publicity? Look doltish? Look loyal? Who knows and who can blame them in the current ideological straitjacket of royalism.

Apparently they “would also lodge a complaint with the Administrative Court in early May,” which seems far more grown up.

Yellow shirts among the opponents blame Thaksin Shinawatra and his clan for the problem. Perhaps that says something about the feudal fawning.





Art and the monarchy

30 03 2018

Usually, when art and monarchy are linked in Thailand it is to heap false praise on the (now dead) King Bhumibol for his average painting or to regard Princess Sirindhorn’s childish scrawls and photos as great art.

This time, however, we point to an article in Playboy on Harit Srikhao.

The story begins:

Thai army soldiers entered an art gallery in downtown Bangkok one June day in 2017 and forcibly removed several pieces by the photographer Harit Srikhao. The 22-year-old’s work had clearly touched a nerve with Thai authorities, although he’s still not exactly sure why he was targeted by the dangerously overzealous critics.

“I’ve been offered a lot of explanations, official and unofficial alike, but none of them make sense,” he says. “It just goes to show the lack of freedom of thought in my country, and how ridiculously the government use their power to bully citizens. Most importantly, it is an affirmation that art is indeed a very, very powerful weapon.”

The reason, though, is pretty clear in his works:

His pictures depict a fantastical world in which traditional hierarchies are upended, the sanctity of the Thai monarchy is punctured and government propaganda images are rendered absurd. He alters his own photos by cutting and pasting by hand in hopes of revealing a deeper truth: “I use hand collage instead of Photoshop because I want to perform surgery on the pictures.” He explains, “I want to show the traces of how reality has been made oblique.”

From Harit’s Mt Meru series, at his website: https://www.haritsrikhao.com/home

Harit refers to his political awakening:

It changed for me after Thailand’s thirteenth coup d’état in 2014…. I began to research the political history of my country and I was shocked by how coldblooded I had been to support a government who used violence against protesters in 2009 and 2010. I realized then that I had been listening to right-wing propaganda, which diminishes the value of humanity, for a very long time.

This political awakening inspired Harit’s work:

… a series called Mt. Meru … takes its name from the sacred mountain that is considered to be at the centre of the universe in Hindu cosmology. “The words ‘centre of the universe’ describe the subject matter of my work very well…. Attempts to discover the meaning of life, and the afterlife, through karmic law genuinely influences everyday life and the political landscape in Thailand.“ In fact, … the Thai royal institution uses the cosmology to justify the monarchy’s sustained power and rights. “People who believe that they’re the ‘centre of the universe’ can be seen all over the world and throughout history. It’s the belief behind every dictator.”

In one of Mt. Meru’s many striking images, three figures in white robes with faces obscured place a regal Thai crown onto sloppy handfuls of bloody organs. The image is titled: ‘The Coronation of Brukhonenko’s Dog’, a reference to the Soviet scientist who became infamous in the 1930s for his attempts to keep the severed heads of animals alive. Srikhao explains that the image is an assault on entrenched hierarchies such as the monarchy.

For all of this, Harit is “optimistic that the political situation in Thailand can change for the better.” He observes:

“Many young people in Thailand can see a beautiful image of a better future illuminated, but the light is coming from outside and entering through a pinhole. We have dreamed about a democratic and peaceful world for quite some time, but is that just an illusion? I think we need to destroy this box that we’re living in. The box is very old, and it will decay from the termites we call ‘time’.”

We hope he’s right.





Another royal money move

16 03 2018

Reuters reports that “Thailand’s king now has a stake worth nearly $150 million in the country’s biggest industrial conglomerate, Siam Cement Group Pcl, according to stock exchange data, while his close aide is in line for a board seat.”

As background, readers might recall that it was last October that it was reported that the Crown Property Bureau’s shareholding in Siam Commercial Bank suddenly declined by 3.33%, amounting to about 17 billion baht. It was then reported that these shares had been transferred to King Vajiralongkorn from the Crown Property Bureau.

The latest move on Siam Cement followed the same pattern: “The 0.76 percent stake in the king’s name in Siam Cement was acquired on Feb. 8 while there was a matching reduction in the stake of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages palace assets…”.

In total, the shares previously held by the CPB and now transferred to the king’s portfolio amounts to about $690 million. These holdings would produce a “dividend yield [of]… more than $25 million per year.”

The report continues by commenting on the secretiveness of these transfers: “The terms of the transfers have not been disclosed in public. Neither company nor the Crown Property Bureau would comment on them…. The palace has a policy of not commenting to media.”

The CPB remains the largest shareholder in Siam Cement, holding 30% of the company.

Since taking the throne, outside the CPB, the king has become “the 15th largest shareholder in Siam Cement and the sixth biggest in Siam Commercial Bank…”.

At Siam Cement, “Air Chief Marshal Satitpong Sukvimol, a close aide to the king who was made director general of the Crown Property Bureau this month, is recommended for a board seat at a March 28 annual general meeting.”

Satitpong, 69, has been responsible for managing the king’s personal affairs and assets for some time. He reportedly “became personal secretary to then-Crown Prince … Vajiralongkorn in 2005, and served on the board of national flag carrier Thai Airways International from 2009 to 2013.” The then-prince had a long relationship and “position” with Thai Airways, as well as having a personal  interest in several women with the airline.

The SCG annual report for 2017 (clicking downloads a PDF) lists former CPB boss Chirayu Isarangkun as a director of the company since 1987 until 1999 and then since 2007. The board is a coterie of old royalists, with an average age of 72. Of the 24 listed as directors and management in the company, only one is a woman. A look through the CVs of the directors reveals that most have long royal links and serve on other royal-owned companies, including those making, managing and investing the personal wealth of Vajiralongkorn and Sirindhorn. Details of retirements and nominations for the SCG Board can be downloaded as a PDF. According to this document, Chirayu will remain on the Board.

Speculation about the reasons for the king needing to control large personal stakes in two of Thailand’s largest listed companies is rife. One reason suggested is his lavish lifestyle and the need for cash rather than relying on the CPB, although the king now has more or less personal control of the CPB. Another suggestion is that he plans grand palace construction in the expanding royal precinct.

The various reports note that the CPB remains huge. The usual estimate of its assets is around $30 billion. But that’s a figure Forbes came up with back in 2011. Yet an earlier estimate by an academic came up with more than $40 billion in 2005. Since then Thai shares have performed reasonably well and land prices have increased substantially.  Our guesstimate is that the CPB, if it has done as well as the rest of Thailand’s wealthy Sino-Thai tycoons, should now be valued at between $50 billion and $70 billion. (It is possible that the CPB has been underperforming, but its operations are a secret, as is its worth.)





Two strange lese majeste acquittals

23 02 2018

Prachatai reports that on 22 February 2018, “the Kamphaengphet Provincial Court ruled Atsadaphon and Noppharit (surnames withheld due to privacy concerns) not guilty of violating Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the lèse majesté law, citing weak evidence.”

Sirindhorn

This unusual acquittal refers to a case that began on or about 20 August 2015, when the Kamphaeng Phet provincial court issued arrest warrants for Kittiphop Sitthirat, 23, Atsadaphon Sitthirat, 45, and Wiset Phutthasa, 30, on lese majeste charges. Later, a fourth name was added, Noppharit (surname not known), 28. Some of the suspects were arrested on 21 August 2015. They were all accused of “making false claims about Princess Sirindhorn in a scam.” Police arrested “charged them with lèse majesté, falsifying public documents, fraud, and impersonating officers from the Bureau of the Royal Household.”

The court reportedly gave “the suspects the benefit of the doubt, ruling that the evidence fail to prove that the suspects had actually made the false claims…”.

In part, this verdict is a way of avoiding a critical and contradictory issue.

From the beginning, two of the four challenged the use of Article 112. Lawyers for Noppharit asked the court to consider whether the case falls under Article 112 since that law does not apply to Princess Sirindhorn. The court attempted to prevent consideration of this issue, blocking information and access to it.

In handing down the acquittal, the court completely avoided this issue. It did not rule on Sirindhorn and lese majeste. We gather the judges were petrified that making a decision that followed the law and excluded her could have caused them to face lese majeste accusations.

Even stranger, though, is the fact that the two other suspects already succumbed to pressure to plead guilty and have been sentenced to three years and eights months in prison.

We wonder – but doubt – that there will be any revisiting of their cases. To do so would embarrass the court and would again raise the issue that no one wants or dares to touch – that Sirindhorn is not covered by lese majeste. We would also point out that there have been several other lese majeste cases involving her.

 

 





Updated: Watching and waiting

10 02 2018

On one watch front, the luxury front – the news is… well, no news. The Nation reports that National Anti-Corruption Commission President Pol Gen Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit declared that the NACC’s “secretary-general has not yet updated the corruption-fighting body about whether Deputy PM [Gen] Prawit Wongsuwan has submitted his third try at an explanation about his possession of luxury watches.” Is he getting coaching? Probably not. Neither The Dictator or the Deputy Dictator believe that laws apply to them.

The other thing to watch is is the so-called MBK39. The junta got a legal slap when the the courts unconditionally released them. Four of the activists, named below, did not front the police and courts. That said the charges of “violating the public assembly and internal security laws, as well as the junta’s order on political gatherings” remain in place and could see a penalty of 7 years in jail. The laws include a charge of assembling within 150 meters of a royal palace (Sirindhorn’s). In effect, this “law” bans public gatherings in several of the locations where anti-government protests have been ignited in the past and is one more piece in the return to pre-1932 jigsaw and the deification of royals and their spaces.

The thing to watch is a a pro-election assembly this afternoon Bangkok time. It is reported that “[a]ctivists Rangsiman Rome, Sirawit Serithiwat, Ekachai Hongkangwan and lawyer Anon Nampa … would be attending the event to be held near Democracy Monument at 4pm.”

The police have said “they would immediately arrest the four when they showed up at today’s event” using warrants from the previous case against them.

Akechai said: “Why not go? … The court’s rejection to detain [activists from the] January 27 assembly has already proved that this kind of assembly is rightful by law.”

Update: Akechai didn’t get a chance to go. Junta thugs arrested him early on Saturday morning, and took him to Lat Phrao police station and then to Pathumwan police station. He seemed unfazed by the arrest; it is kind of “normal” under the dictatorship.

How’s that “democracy” looking to you Gen Joseph F Dunford?





Warping “law”

25 12 2017

Reader will have noticed that PPT has had to use inverted commas for rather a lot of words used in Thailand where the meaning is not as it seems, This includes such seemingly important words as election when that “election” is manipulated for a particular outcome and justice where “justice” is actually injustice.

We have also long been critical of various aspects of the “justice” system as being feudal, subject to double standards and political manipulation.

Of course, our longest criticisms have been of the lese majeste law, which has long been (mis)used. Since the 2006 military coup this misuse has become farcical. By this we mean that the use of the law has been as a tool for palace and military regime in ways that have been increasingly absurd, feudal and, in fact and in law, lawless.

One aspect of this lawless use of the lese majeste law has been in the application of the law to figures not covered by the law.

A recent article, “Who is an ‘Heir(-Apparent)?’: An old issue that is still new today” by Metta Wongwat examines how the law has been used to “protect” Princess Sirindhorn. As explained,

the scope of the royal persons protected by the law has a … problematic interpretation, despite the fact that the law clearly specifies only four positions, namely, the King, the Queen, the Heir-Apparent and the Regent.

The article includes some cases not previously known to PPT. The article examines the proceedings of these cases and the decisions made by the courts.

These cases are worth reading for the efforts judges make to consider Sirindhorn and “heir apparent.”

In one case, in 2004, while the prosecutor initially lodged a defamation case, an initial court decision elevated the case to lese majeste with a banal Royal Institute dictionary definition being used and further interpreted. At that time, the higher courts rejected this interpretation and dismissed the lese majeste charge.

In a second case, the court seems to consider any defamation against any royal to constitute lese majeste. While the Royal Household Bureau responded to a court request stating that, in 2010, only then Prince Vajiralongkorn was heir apparent, as the case included other royals covered by the law, lese majeste stuck.

A third case involves a man accused defaming Princess Sirindhorn while in  private conversation with a friend. The case was initially dropped, but following the 2014 coup, the case was tried in 2014. The Provincial Court of Thanyaburi and Appeals Court dismissed the charge because the offense did not constitute lese majeste. The public prosecutor is appealing the case.

The fourth case demonstrates the manipulation of the law that has been definitional of the military junta’s misuse of lese majeste. Four were accused of misusing Sirindhorn’s name for profit. Two of the defendants were pressured to plead guilty to lese majeste and they were promptly jailed.

The other two defendants remain imprisoned challenging the charge. The two who pleaded guilty have been released, being “rewarded” for not challenging the court and the misused charge.

The lawyers for the still detained men have repeatedly run into illegal brick walls. They sought documents and testimony from the case heard in the Thanyaburi Provincial Court. In a surreal decision, the court ruled that the royal letter didn’t appear to exist, despite the lawyers citing the correspondence number of the Royal Household Bureau. The testimony from the investigating officer to the Thanyaburi Court was also ruled out with the court saying it would “not cross the line…”. It is clear that “the line” is real investigation and proper justice.

When the lawyers then found that the Council of State’s website had a “publicly displayed … consultation letter from the Royal Police Department in 1989, that [stated] the Crown Prince is the only heir-apparent,” they asked the court to issue a summons for the document. Surprisingly, the court did seek the document from the Council of State.

The response of the Council of State was to remove the document from its website and made it secret, saying that the “document is classified state information and its release could cause damage.” This Council is one of Thailand’s most important legal institutions. but is prepared to break and bend the law to allow courts to make decisions that flout the law.

The lese majeste law is warped by such manipulation while warping the whole justice system.





Royal secrecy deepens

13 12 2017

King Vajiralongkorn’s reign has been characterized by fear and secrecy.

The fear has spread throughout society. Fear of getting on the wrong side of a powerful man said to be vicious and cruel. Fear of his enforcers, including the junta. Fear of doing the wrong thing. Fear of the royalists patrolling royal boundaries. Fear of not knowing what those boundaries are and how they move.

Secrecy has surrounded all official dealings, from the raft of laws (including the constitution) that have been changed to suit the king and give him vastly increased power to the cremation of the dead king.

Put all of this fear and secrecy together and it means that officials are petrified.

Prachatai reports on how this petrified state has played out in yet another bizarre lese majeste case.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), the Office of the Council of State (OCS) has denied lawyers access to a document required to defend a client charged with lese majeste for allegedly defaming Princess Sirindhorn.

Sensible readings of Article 112 are clear that she is not covered by the law. Yet that has not stopped courts from ruling on lese majeste cases about her.

The document is requested because “Sirindhorn’s official title in Thai before King Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne included ‘Crown Princess’.” This leads to “dispute as to whether she was considered an heir apparent of the Thai monarch,” and thus covered by the law.

We think this is buffalo manure because, from 1972, there was only one heir apparent. But as the courts apply the law willy-nilly and in cases involving dogs and long dead kings, we see why the lawyer seeks it.

The report states:

The lawyer first requested access to the document in June 2017 but the OCS declined the request citing the Rule on Maintenance of Official Secrets 2001 and Article 14 of the Public Information Act 1997.

The OCS claims the document “is classified because information in the document could damage the monarchy if it is published.” The TLHR counters that “the document was accessible on the OCS website until at least June 2017.”

In August 2017, the court trying the lese majeste case to allow access, but this was rejected, with the court “stating that it can rule on the case regardless of the OCS document.” It also ruled that the “OCS does not have authority over the document.”

All things royal are becoming even more opaque than they were in the past. Neo-feudal Thailand is a dark, dangerous, unpredictable and daft administrative space.