King and Privy Council

14 10 2018

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a well-known critic of the monarchy. He has a new article at The Diplomat. Most of it, though, will be familiar to PPT readers. However, it is worth remaking some of his points.

He focuses on the recent reorganization of the Privy Council and notes that the:

king’s decision to evict old members of the Privy Council close to his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the stripping of the power from its president, General Prem Tinsulanonda, as well as the appointment of his close confidants as new Privy Councilors, suggests that, more than just a process, this is part of the growing aggrandizement of political power of Thailand’s new King….

In fact, the king has not really done anything that should not have been expected. Any new king would want to have his most trusted advisers in place.

The dead king made sure he had pliant royalists as advisers “working outside the constitutional framework to compete with other elite groups for administrative and political power.”

They protected and advanced the king’s and monarchy’s positions:

Successive coups have over the years strengthened the partnership between the Privy Council and the military. The Privy Council played its part in endorsing past coups, including the most recent one in May 2014. Prem, in the aftermath of the coup, openly praised the coup makers for being a force that moved Thailand forward. This underlined the quintessential role of the Privy Council as an engine behind the Thai politics.

In the past reign, the link with the military mostly revolved around Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and, to a lesser extent, Gen Surayud Chulanont. The Privy Councilors

… constructed a complex web of relationships as a way to sanctify the royal power above other institutions outside the constitutional framework. In his overt intervention in politics, Prem placed his trusted subordinates in key positions in the bureaucracy and in the army. He had an influence on the defense budget, and dominated national security and foreign policy, and thus the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Pavin also notes that the:

Privy Council under Prem also had its members seated on boards in major conglomerates including Bangkok Bank, Charoen Phokphand, the Boonrawd group, and the Charoen Siriwatanapakdi business group. For the Privy Council, reaching out to these powerful factions was as crucial as allowing them to reach in, thus consolidating a network of interdependence. The Privy Council’s strong ties with the bureaucracy, the military and businesses effectively circumscribed the power and authority of the government of the day.

The new king wants similar influence, but he’s been busy pushing the old duffers aside. Prem is infirm, doddery and being made essentially powerless:

On October 2, Vajiralongkorn added three more Privy Councillors to its team: Amphon Kittiamphon, currently advisor to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha; General Chalermchai Sidhisart, former army chief, and; Air Chief Marshal Chom Rungsawang, former Air Force chief. This latest move can be regarded as Vajiralongkorn’s plot in strengthening his political position by setting up a new trusted team to replace the old one—the team that has its links with the current military strongmen.

At present, 10 of the 16 councilors have been appointed by the current king. He can appoint another two. At the same time, he has already ditched three he appointed, presumably because they annoyed him about something or other. So the “trusted team” is being put in place, but there’s still some work to do or dying to be done.

Pavin also mentions the “law was enacted in regard to the ownership of the rich Crown Property Bureau…, [where] crown property assets reverted to the ownership of the king with the bureau’s investments now being held in Vajiralongkorn’s name.”

He might have mentioned that the king is now personally the largest shareholder in both the Siam Cement Group and the Siam Commercial Bank, the latter ownership having been seen in stockholder information fairly recently. (We also think Pavin should update the $30 billion assets of the CPB/king. That was from data collected in 2005 and imperfectly updated in 2011. We would guess that the real figure is closer to $50-60 billion.)

Pavin is undoubtedly right that while “many predicted that Vajiralongkorn, perceived as having lacked moral authority, could become a weak king.” As he now says, “He is quickly proving them wrong.”





More privy councilors

2 10 2018

The king can have up to 18 privy councilors. Until today we think he had 13, mostly former military men and former judges. He now has three more, each with junta connections.

The Bangkok Post reports that a “former cabinet secretary and the former commanders of the army and the air force who retired on Sunday have been appointed privy councillors, effective immediately.”

The Royal Gazette announced that “Ampon Kittiampon, a former cabinet secretary, Gen Chalermchai Sitthisad, former commander of the Royal Thai Army, and ACM Johm Rungswang, former commander of the Royal Thai Air Force, have been appointed privy councillors.”

Ampon “was adviser to Gen Prayut before the appointment.” Gen Chalermchai “was secretary-general of the National Council for Peace and Order and the 40th army commander.” ACM Johm is a “classmate of Gen Chalermchai, was the 24th air force commander and board member of Thai Airways International.”

The links between the Privy Council and the junta are further strengthened.





The junta’s lock

20 07 2018

The military dictatorship has now had more than four years to lock-in its rule and its rules. In establishing control over the military, it has had longer.

Around the time of the 2006 military coup, royalist elements in the military, aligned with the palace directly or through privy councilors Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and Gen Surayud Chulanont, marked certain military officers as untrustworthy due to their perceived alliance with Thaksin Shinawatra. These officers were sidelined, stymied and seen out of the military, mostly through the efforts of four generals: Sonthi Boonyaratglin, Anupong Paojinda, Prayuth Chan-ocha and Prawit Wongsuwan. Sonthi was soon discarded as too weak but the others remain, ran the 2014 coup and now plot and plan for the continuation of military guided “democracy” into the future.

That planning for the future involves something that Gen Prem did for years on behalf of the palace: managing succession in the armed forces so that loyalists are on top. In this context. loyalty means to the palace and to the junta and its regime.

It has been known for quite some time that the chosen successor for Gen Chalermchai Sitthisart as Army chief is Gen Apirat Kongsompong. Apirat is a ruthless rightist who has vowed support to The Dictator and taken a leading role in suppressing red shirts and other political opponents.

Last year, when the new King Vajiralongkorn approved the military promotion list, it was widely assumed that Gen Apirat had the king’s approval as Vajiralongkorn takes a strong interest in what happens within the armed forces. However, in May this year, there was an unconfirmed report that Apirat may have fallen foul of the erratic king. Within a couple of months, however, an announcement in the Royal Gazette saw Gen Apirat granted special special status as a member of the king’s personal security unit. If Apirat had fallen foul of the king, he must have completed his penance and/or service with flying colors, at least in the king’s eyes.

This has been followed by Gen Apirat getting plenty of media attention as the Defense Council is scheduled to meet on 25 July to discuss promotions and appointments, with the meeting chaired by Gen Prawit. Interestingly, most of the media stories are almost exactly the same, suggesting that this is a strategic leak by the junta, paving the way for Apirat and acknowledging that the king’s approval has been given.

Apirat, a graduate from Class 20 of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School, and in the military’s feudal system, “belongs to the Wongthewan clique and not the powerful Burapa Phayak circles of elite commanders — of which Gen Prayut and his deputy Gen Prawit are members — [yet] he is one of the regime’s most trusted lieutenants.” He has pledged allegiance to The Dictator. His loyalty has been earlier tested in 2010 and his bosses appreciate Apirat’s willingness to shoot down civilian opponents.

If the junta does decide to hold its rigged election next year, Gen Apirat will be expected to use his 200,000 + soldiers, the Internal Security Operations Command and various other resources of the state to deliver the votes needed for the “election” to appear to have been won by the junta’s parties.





Another privy councilor gone

21 06 2018

The king seems to be having trouble maintaining his Privy Council. Since he took the throne there’s been a revolving door as three privy councilors appointed in 2016 have already been shown the exit. As ThaiPBS reports, the third is Gen Theerachai Nakawanich:

Former army commander-in-chief General Thirachai Narkvanich has been relieved as a member of the Privy Council by a Royal Command of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

According to the Royal Command dated June 19 which was published in the Royal Gazette on June 21, General Thirachai offered to resign from the privy councilor’s post.

The retired general was appointed a member of the Privy Council on December 6, 2016, after his retirement from the military service at the end of September of the same year.





Recycling an imagined past

27 05 2018

The nationalist trilogy, put together by a king and used and misused ever since, most usually by fascist military dictatorships, and ground into people from school to shopping center, is in the news.

New king and a crackdown on unsound Buddhist bosses and the propaganda of the military dictatorship come together in a curious mix of police commando raids against monks, claimed to be corrupt  lawbreakers, and then apologies from The Dictator for the treatment of one fascist monk, assessments of state propaganda and the ill-timed royal launch of something called “Buddhism Promotion Week.”

The last report features mainly pictures of a jolly Princess Sirindhorn attending ceremonies with senior monks – presumably not the arrested lot – for Buddhism Promotion Week, coinciding with coincides with Visakha Bucha Day. It also shows Privy Councillor General Surayud Chulanont who was dispatched by King Vajiralongkorn to make merit on the absent king’s behalf for the deceased king and the now never seen queen from the last reign. The ceremony took place at the increasingly reclaimed area of the so-called Royal Plaza.

Bad timing when a bunch of senior monks are arrested, accused of all manner of crimes, but perhaps a part of the new reign’s “cleansing” of Buddhism. That “cleansing” has the possibility of assisting The Dictator’s electoral campaigning so long as the bad monks are not linked to him.

The Nation’s special report (linked above) on the military dictatorship’s throwback nationalist propaganda is worth reading. It covers Thai Niyom (Thai-ism) – an effort to promote the rightist concept of “Thainess,” the junta’s “patriotic” histories, the archaic costume party royalism, also promoted by the king, and crappy soaps that, as one academic says, are escapism:

“It shows the mental illness of our society…. Today we’re living in conflict, especially on the political front. Watching comical shows and fantasy soaps can temporarily heal people’s hearts. In reality we remain divided, and the fantasy is that we are united.”

The junta just craves devotion and adulation they imagine for earlier ages, located somewhere in the 1910s or late 1950s. As poorly educated, unthinking automaton royalists, the best they can do in this sphere is recycling.





Updated: Songkhran campaigning

11 04 2018

Brief conjecture back in January was that nonagenarian Privy Council chairman and political mover-and-shaker of years gone by, Gen Prem Tinsulanonda had snubbed The Dictator and his men.

Whatever the problems was back then, the interferer is back on the job now, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha took his junta and other hangers-on over to Prem’s taxpayer funded digs for an anointing by the king-like figure who just can’t leave things alone:

Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha led his cabinet ministers and military top brass to wish Privy Council president Gen Prem Tin­su­lanonda and receive his blessing at his Si Sao Theves residence on Wednesday morning.

Over-using the word “traditional,” the old man apparently agreed to boost The Dictator’s “election” campaign by commending Prayuth “for his leadership that he was confident could bring the country to peace and happiness…. He wished the prime minister to succeed in work.”

Yes, he’s said such platitudes previously, but it is a signal to Prem supporters that The Dictator is the man for the premier’s job going forward.

Update: The Bangkok Post has more details on Gen Prem’s words of support for The Dictator and his military junta. Prem reportedly said he had been “contemplating how long Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha would need to lead the nation to success” and added that he “would support him [Prayuth] all the way.”





Updated: How’s the new king looking?

7 04 2018

Each year, the academic journal Asian Survey has articles which provide brief country summaries of the previous year’s significant events. For 2017, well-known analyst and commentator Duncan McCargo has completed the article on Thailand (opens a PDF).

The article is necessarily short but has some comments on King Vajiralongkorn that merit posting here, not least because they mesh with some of PPT’s comments a few days ago.

In the abstract, McCargo states that “…King Vajiralongkorn is untested and lacks popular legitimacy.” True enough, although it has to be said that almost all those who succeed to thrones are largely “untested” and that popularity is no qualification for monarchy, where it is bloodlines that matter. Like a few other commentators, including some who are anti-monarchists, there’s a tendency to unfavorably compare Vajiralongkorn with his deceased father. Unfortunately, some of these comparisons required considerable retro-acceptance of palace propaganda about the dead king.

When he deals with the new reign, McCargo observes:

New King Vajiralongkorn’s detractors have long dismissed him as a playboy who takes little interest in serious matters, but since ascending the throne on December 1, 2016, he has proved to be an activist and interventionist monarch.

This is an important point. The areas where he has intervened, however, have been mostly about the monarchy and its privileges and the control of the palace. Clearly, Vajiralongkorn has been planning his succession maneuvers for some years. McCargo continues:

King Vajiralongkorn apparently pays very close attention to government policies and matters of legislation, especially where they may affect the legitimacy or privileges of the monarchy, or touch on matters of religion. He carefully monitors promotions and transfers inside the bureaucracy, especially the upper echelons of the military and the police force.

His interest in religious matters goes back to the 1990s and we know about his intervention in police promotions. Readers may recall that the last police intervention was in favor of Pol Gen Jumpol Manmai. Later Jumpol was made a Grand Chamberlain in Vajiralongkorn’s palace. That didn’t go well and, as far as we can recall, nothing has been seen or heard from Jumpol since…. Which reminds us, if legal infractions cause the king to disgrace a senior aide, can we expect that Gen Prem Tinsulanonda will soon be sacked from the Privy Council by the king?

Presumably the upcoming military reshuffle will result from a junta-palace consensus. One report reckons the reshuffle buttresses The Dictator’s position.

But back to McCargo’s commentary. He says:

… the new king remains neither popular nor widely respected; crucially, while his father never left Thailand after 1967, King Vajiralongkorn spends much of his time in Germany. His private life is the topic of constant gossip and speculation. The prospect of his coronation—and a raft of associated symbolic changes, such as new banknotes, coins, and stamps—fills many Thais with apprehension.

In fact, Bhumibol visited Laos in April 1994 (an error also made officially), but this slip doesn’t diminish the point about Vajiralongkorn’s extensive periods away from Thailand. On the bit about gossip, that’s been true for several decades and the king seems to have accepted that he is a “black sheep.” That there is “apprehension” over symbolic changes may be true, but if a report in the Bangkok Post is to be believed, that apprehension seems to be dissipating. It says:

Large crowds formed long queues at provincial offices of the Treasury Department to exchange cash for the first lot of circulated coins bearing the image of King Rama X on Friday, the Chakri Memorial Day.

Palace propaganda continues apace, the military junta has crushed republicans, and monarchists are remaining adhered to the institution if not the person.

Update: Another measure of apprehension dissipating might be seen in the report of “traditional” clothing sales. While the report refers to the influence of a hit soap opera, the influence of the king’s efforts at a revival of all things pre-1932 are having an impact too.