Humpty’s men

3 07 2019

Marwaan Macan-Markar, at the Nikkei Asia Review, contributes a long and useful review of the remolding of the relationship between monarchy and military.

He claims that diplomats in Bangkok know which military leaders are closest to King Vajiralongkorn by a pin with an “image of Prince Dipangkorn, the king’s 14-year-old son” which are “pinned on the left breasts of a select few military leaders…”. (Dipangkorn is widely considered to be heir apparent, lives in Germany and seldom appears the full quid.)

Gen Apirat

One diplomat described those wearing the pin as “a small network,” with Army boss Gen Apirat Kongsompong an important bearer of the pin. Gen Apirat is known to present himself as “fiercely loyal to the king.”

Macan-Markar says that this “network” indicate “a major change in the relationship between two of Thailand’s most powerful institutions — the monarchy and the military” under King  Vajiralongkorn.

While his analysis, based on interviews with diplomats, pundits and academics, is interesting, it is one that is based on a kind of “Kremlinology” of military watching which can be somewhat misleading if the forest is obscured by the trees. Hence the interminable speculation over Queen’s Guard versus King’s Guard.

In our view, it is misguided to see the king’s faith in the “senior generals of the King’s Guard, a Bangkok-based faction” as representing a spurning of Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta. As far as anyone can tell from available evidence, the junta has done everything that the king has wanted and it is Gen Prayuth, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan and Gen Anupong Paojinda who have put in place military succession plans that lead from Gen Apirat to Gen Narongphan Jitkaewthae, currently commander of the First Army region and Gen Songwit Noongpakdee, the leader of the Bangkok-based 1st Infantry Division.

That “defense analysts say the monarch’s choice of trusted lieutenants stems from his own military record” is no surprise, now. What they miss, however, is that the king’s succession was a long one, with his father incapacitated, and the then crown prince and his advisers long having had influence over the military brass.

Interestingly, and barely mentioned, is the ways in which the king revamped the Privy Council, the Crown Property Bureau and the palace administration over that period of long succession. In these moves, he made these institutions his own, bringing in junta loyalists and advancing those closest to him, including Air Chief Marshal Sathitpong Sukwimol, long the king’s private secretary and now, arguably, his most powerful adviser, heading the CPB, Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement Group, among other important bodies.

ACM Sathitpong Sukwimol (clipped from The Nation)

All of these rearrangements, promotions and not a few demotions and ousters do mean that a military man on the throne has ensured that he has the military under control. Just in case of problems, there’s some “insurance,” with ACM Sathitpong’s younger brother Pol Maj Gen Torsak at the head of a large force of “protectors.”

Naturally, Prawit remained a Prayuth confidant during the five years of the junta, serving as the deputy prime minister and defense minister. Gen. Anupong Paochinda, another former army chief from the Queen’s Guard, was also a key figure in Prayuth’s coup and junta.

That the king promotes the “King’s Guard, the faction he was part of, in the driving center of army power,” hardly seems a revelation. Yet there’s no evidence that the Queen’s Guard is in any way untrustworthy or disloyal. (It was King Bhumibol who placed his son in the King’s Guard.)

With little evidence, Macan-Markar discerns that the generals of Queen’s Guard is somehow more “politically ambitious” than those of the King’s Guard. There’s no evidence for this. In addition, there’s an amnesia for previous claims made. In the view of many pundits, it was the Queen’s Guard who conducted the 2014 coup in order to ensure the current king’s succession. What happened to that position? And, it was the Queen’s Guard coup masters who purged the military of those perceived as disloyal.

Former foreign minister Kasit Piromya is quoted as saying: “The king clearly wants a vertical hierarchy without any distractions and divisions that can cause splits in the army…”. That seems to have been the junta’s aim as well. To see this as a move against the Queen’s Guard ignores the fact that the junta’s role has been to “cleanse” the military, to immeasurably strengthen it and to embed it at all levels of society. That’s the important message, not the Kremlinology of watching factions.

It seems that “experts” on the military blame “factional rivalries” for “repeated coups.” We think the experts need to re-read the history of successful coups.

Former ambassador and new author James Wise is right to observe that “the monarchy and the military exercise authority in their own right, often without reference to the more familiar legislative, executive and judiciary…”. The big picture matters.

When Kasit predicts: “No more coups,” we think he’s in la-la land. It will depend, as in the past, on on perceptions of “threat” to the monarchy and the broader ruling class.

Weaponized “law”

6 06 2019

According to a report at the Bangkok Post a few days ago, police are considering yet another political attack on Future Forward’s Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as if it is a legal case.

We at PPT well understand that law has become deeply politicized and even weaponized in the junta’s Thailand, but this “case” is among the most egregious abuses of the law seen in recent days.

(Weaponizing law is a widely-used tactic by rightist authoritarian regimes.)

The police are apparently considering “a petition calling for a probe against … Thanathorn … and two others for allegedly offending late statesman Prem Tinsulanonda via social media.”

This crazy idea seems to be that it was not the dead Prem who was “offended” but his acolytes and posterior polishers.

The “complaint” comes from the founder of the virtually unknown junta-supporting New Alternative Party’s founder Rachen Trakulwiang.

Rachen’s royalist and military proxy party was “the first newly registered political party to receive the junta’s approval to convene meetings” back before the junta’s “election.” Then, The Nation reported on Rachen’s rightist-royalist background:

Rachen first came to the public’s attention as president of the Federation of Thai Defenders of the Monarchy. In 2011, he led a campaign against a group seeking to amend the lese majeste law in Article 112 of the Criminal Code. He has also filed complaints with police against several red-shirt leaders accused of insulting the monarchy.

In late 2013, Rachen joined anti-government street rallies organised by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), describing himself as a PDRC leader from Nonthaburi, his home province. Rachen also joined monk Phra Buddha Isara, a key PDRC leader, to organise a rally at Government Complex, but later withdrew from the effort.

Rachen has subsequently ended his role as a PDRC leader while continuing his role as president of the Federation of Thai Defenders of the Monarchy. He decided to enter politics two years ago and eventually turned the federation into the New Alternative Party.

In his most recent attack on his political opponents, Rachen barked that he “was referring to posts that he claimed were attacks on Gen Prem…”.

In filing his complaint, it seems Rachen has concocted yet another royalist “group” to allow him to propound rabid royalism:

“Gen Prem was a representative of the King. We should treat him with respect,” said Mr Rachen as his group Khon Rak Pa (“People Who Love Pa”, the nickname of Gen Prem).

Perhaps inadvertently, Rachen linked himself with other thugs by making similarly ridiculous but threatening “complaints” about other he opposes:

Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, an anti-coup activist who chairs the Student Union of Thailand, and Suphraiphon Chuaichu, a losing Puea Chat Party election candidate for Bangkok’s Bang Khunthian district.

Rachen whined that “he suspected their alleged insults could be the start of attempts to destroy the Privy Council and the military.”He threatened: “We can’t accept that and will never let it happen…”.

PPT suspects that Rachen and his ilk will be used by the junta’s revamped regime to “protect” it as it seeks to “govern” in a polarized political environment. Its threats and the weaponizing of law will be used to undermine and silence critics. It’s an old military strategy, primed by ISOC, to support its governments.

Rewarding the elite’s servant

27 05 2019

As we said previously, to say that Gen Prem Tinsulanonda is “revered” is inaccurate for it was mainly some rightist, royalist Thais who revere Prem for his “loyalty” and steadfast opposition to elected government. It is also true that many Thais hated Prem as an unelected military politician and incessant political meddler.

Those Thais who “revere” Gen Prem for his efforts on behalf of the ruling class also rewarded Prem.

A Bangkok Post report states that Gen Pissanu Phutthawong, described as an aide to Gen Prem – there seem to be several such men who claim a relationship with Prem – “had told him of his distribution plans for the assets and savings from his salary that he had accumulated since becoming a privy council member.”

The interesting bit is that while Gen Pissanu refused to disclose the amount of the money and assets,” he did say that “the total was hundreds of millions of baht.”

There have previously been disputes over Gen Prem’s wealth. His Foundation’s dissolution was announced in the Royal Gazette just a month prior to his death. It seems likely that his acolytes will squabble over his accumulated wealth.

Gen Prem not only received a state salary for his whole life since 1941 and spent most of his life in state-provided housing, using state-provided transport and so on. He also spent periods being rewarded by the Sino-Thai tycoons for his “service” to them as a political leader. Most prominently, he was associated with the geriatrics running the Bangkok Bank.

An academic account referred to the way that wealth that flowed to those close to the king, and Gen Prem demonstrates that.

On stealing the election XIV

10 05 2019

It is not just PPT saying that the junta has stolen the 2019 election, aided and abetted by the Election Commission and other no-longer-independent agencies. Here the Bangkok Post and The Economist:

The Bangkok Post has an editorial that calls the EC’s party-list allocation a “hijacking”:

Whether it is driven by a political agenda or incompetence, the Election Commission’s (EC) decision on Wednesday to award one party-list MP seat to 11 pro-junta, small parties, whose popular vote total should not have made them eligible for one, seems like a hijacking of the seats which should have gone to other parties.

The EC, whose commissioners are appointed by the military regime’s lawmakers, based its decision on a bizarre and widely criticised calculation formula.

The move, however, has political implications as it could change the face of the new government from an anti-junta alliance to the pro-regime camp. This decision is legally, politically and ethically wrong.

Thailand adopted the new mixed member proportional representation system for the March 24 general election.

Under this system, 350 MPs are elected from so-called “first past the post” voting. They only need to obtain more votes in their constituency than anyone else to win.

Then, another batch of 150 party-list seats is distributed to parties based on the proportion of their popular vote total.

The constitution’s Section 91 and the election law for MPs’ Section 128 clearly outline the way to set a minimum threshold of popular votes that a party should have for a listed candidate to earn a party-list seat.

Based on the popular vote results of the last polls, the threshold should be set at roughly 71,000 votes.

Under this rule, the parties from the anti-junta alliance should have won a small majority in the Lower House if they were granted all the party-list seats they were entitled to. They should be able to claim the right to form a coalition government.

But the EC has discarded such a possibility. It has opted for a different formula by simply granting one party-list seat to each of the 11 small parties even though their nationwide popular vote failed to reach the threshold of 71,000 votes.

Some of them gained even less than half of the threshold. Early reports suggest the parties are likely to align themselves with the pro-regime bloc.

The EC has failed to incorporate proportionality and fairness in the party-list seat distribution.

It has instead taken a risky step which could constitute malfeasance on its part. Many affected parties have lambasted its decision and have vowed to take legal action against it.

The EC’s announcement took place on the same day that the Constitutional Court delivered a verdict which ruled that Section 128 of the election law does not contradict Section 91 of the constitution.

Some interpreted the ruling as giving the EC the green light for its controversial calculation formula. This interpretation is wrong. The ruling does not specify anything about the calculation.

The laws stipulate the threshold for a good reason. That is to prevent party fragmentation and small splinter parties from gaining representation they don’t deserve. It is a universal principle adopted by other countries whose election systems are similar to Thailand’s.

For example, Germany’s election law stipulates that a party either needs to reach a 5% electoral threshold in party-list voting or they must have three constituency members elected if it is to enter parliament.

The EC’s decision may help the pro-junta political camp gain more seats and win the right to form a government, potentially led by its prime ministerial candidate, incumbent Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha. But it has distorted the principle of the law.

And The Economist:

THAIS DO NOT see that much of their king, who spends most of his time in Germany. But for three days starting on May 4th he was on near-constant display for a long and lavish series of ceremonies surrounding his coronation….

The first substantial moments of the new reign came just days later, when the Election Commission released the final results of an election that took place in March. Palang Pracharat, a party created to support the military junta that came to power in a coup in 2014, battled Pheu Thai, which is loyal to Thaskin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who has feuded with the generals since an earlier coup, in 2006. The junta rigged the system in its favour, banning all political activity until a few months before the election, disbanding a second party linked to Mr Thaksin and awarding itself the power to appoint all 250 members of the upper house. Nonetheless, shortly after the vote, a coalition of seven opposition parties, including Pheu Thai and Future Forward, which is popular with young voters, announced they had won a slim majority in the 500-seat lower house.

That is not what the results unveiled this week show. The … biggest blow to the opposition came in the form of tweaks to the formula whereby the commission allocates the 150 seats awarded on a proportional basis. The result was to reduce the tally of the big parties and hand seats to a plethora of tiny ones. This change appeared to breach the commission’s own rules and the election law, but a court found the new maths constitutionally permissible just hours before the party-list results appeared. Entirely coincidentally, the changes reduced the opposition alliance to a minority of 245 seats.

Chaos awaits, as 27 different parties now hold seats in the lower house. A weak, pro-military coalition looks the most likely outcome. The junta will soon present a list of senators to the king for approval. The two houses will then vote in a joint sitting to select a prime minister. The incumbent, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the coup in 2014, had seemed determined to stay on. Bangkok is rife with rumours, however, that the king might promote the selection of a less divisive figure, perhaps from the Privy Council, which is packed with soldiers and technocrats. Either way, the notion that the government ushered into power by the election will have any democratic legitimacy—always a doubtful proposition—now looks entirely forlorn.

As if to underline the point, the authorities have set about persecuting Future Forward and its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, with a gusto typically reserved for supporters of Mr Thaksin.

The Economist then tees off against the king:

The king has alienated his subjects not only by his absence, but also by his personal cruelty and insistence on sycophantic protocol. It was not just the elephants and courtiers who were forced to prostrate themselves: days before the coronation the palace released images of the king getting married for the fourth time, in which his new wife, a former stewardess, grovelled before the unsmiling groom. He has disowned children and locked up relatives of one of her predecessors. Only a small share of Thais bothered to wear yellow, the royal colour, as requested during the coronation ceremonies. Thousands of civil servants had to be bussed in to swell the attendant crowds, which were much sparser than at the cremation of his father, who was far more popular.

Yet King Vajiralongkorn apparently feels secure enough to meddle in political matters. Before the election he intervened, quite hypocritically, to prevent his older sister from getting involved in politics. The courts and the Election Commission followed his instructions slavishly, even though they lacked any clear legal underpinning. Just before polling day he told Thais to vote for “good people”; just after it he stripped Mr Thaksin of several military awards. The risk of royal displeasure seems to have deterred neutral parties from joining the opposition coalition in the lower house. That is no coincidence: a weak coalition would be in no position to stand up to the king. That an election that was supposed to restore Thailand to democracy will instead bolster its preening monarch is a crowning irony.

The dead, the near dead and the grand tilt

10 04 2019

The king might have channeled his dead father when telling voters who to elect. Now, after the election, as the weight of the (overlapping categories) ruling elite, anti-democrats, military brass and king is used to get the result the junta wanted before the voters rejected them, the near dead Gen Prem Tinsulanonda has thrown his weazened body into the grand tilt.

All we could stand (clipped from Khaosod)

In what we hope is is last ever inappropriate and inelegant political intervention, the grand old manipulator not only (wrongly) cleared the military junta of any corruption and (wrongly) stated that the bunch of thugs “honestly worked for the public’s greater good.”

Junta members, military brass and The Dictator groveled before the president of the Privy Council. In return, Prem expressed great love for Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha: “Thank you mister Prime Minister, my beloved friend…”.

In propagandizing the stealing of the election, The Dictator thanked the ancient troublemaker “for his recognition of the importance of the government and the military’s duty to protect the nation, religion and monarchy.”

Prem’s support for anti-democrats, military murderers and coup makers was made clear: “I’ve said that protecting our traditions and culture is the way to protect the nation…. I’d like to say this again to mister Prime Minister: protecting culture is protecting the nation.”

He wished for less criticism of the junta and called on the king’s protection for Gen Prayuth and his cabal.

This is just another nail in the junta’s “election” coffin.

On the new cybersecurity law

27 01 2019

Thailand’s computer crimes law was enacted by the last junta-installed regime led by Gen Surayud Chulanont, plucked from the king’s Privy Council by the royalist-military junta to be prime minister. One of his regime’s last acts was that draconian law. Surayud returned to the Privy Council.

One of the last pieces of the current military dictatorship will be a new  cybersecurity law. That law will strengthen and extend upon the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. It is feared:

will create a government agency with sweeping powers of search and seizure, triggering concerns for freedom of expression and data security among civil society and business groups as elections loom.

The draft law will create a committee “that it will consist of up to 15 members, including the prime minister and the deputy prime minister…”. It will be empowered to “seize computers and data without a court warrant in the case of an emergency.”

Of course, the question is: What constitutes an emergency? Arthit Suriyawongkul, coordinator at Thai Netizen Network says: “It’s likely that every cyber threat will be considered an emergency, making a court order irrelevant…”. Arthit adds: “In the past five years, there’s been an abuse of power. If you talk about the monarchy or the NCPO [junta] online they count that as a cyber threat.”

Pavin Chachavalpongpun noted that heavy use of the lese majeste law by the junta to silence those critical of the monarchy and military junta. He notes that King Vajiralongkorn “doesn’t want more lese-majeste cases, so there’s been a significant drop in the last year. The palace wants cyber laws to be used instead…”. He might have added sedition and other laws that stifle dissent.

Using the existing law and junta edicts, the regime has been active in online censorship:

According to Facebook, it only complied with one 2017 request for user data from Thailand’s military government. In 2018, it restricted 285 posts deemed in violation of the same law.

Google meanwhile said the NCPO made requests to remove 9,986 items identified as critical of the government in 2017 and complied with 93 percent of requests made.

Other, far more draconian measures are also being used to silence criticism.

Updated: More changes at the CPB

7 01 2019

There have been more changes announced for the Crown Property Bureau, the largest privately-held conglomerate and investment business in Thailand, owned by King Vajiralongkorn.

Back in July 2017 the junta’s National Legislative Assembly met in secret session to change the law on the CPB, giving the king complete control.

At that time, the legislation provided the king with sole authority over royal assets. Whereas the Ministry of Finance and its minister previously had nominal roles in managing the CPB and its board of directors, the legislation gave the king the power to appoint a board of directors for the CPB.

Since then, there have been a series of changes for the CPB, with directors sacked and other brought in as the CPB became populated by the king’s men (rather than his father’s men), CPB shares became the king’s, large tracts of urban land being taken by the CPB, and the king becoming the final arbiter in disputes over what is considered royal property.

The latest change to the board of directors is fascinating. As the Bangkok Post reports, the king appointed Privy Councilor Ampon Kittiampon and current Army commander Gen Apirat Kongsompong to the CPB.

Ampon was appointed to the Privy Council in October last year and came from the junta NLA. A few days ago, The Economist stated:

King Vajiralongkorn has also put his stamp on the privy council, a body which has a role in naming the heir to the throne, among other things. It once contained individuals who opposed his becoming king at all. Now it is stuffed with loyal military men.

Ampon is not military, but he’s loyal.

The Economist also commented on Gen Apirat: “The army, too, is receiving a royal makeover. The commander-in-chief appointed in September, Apirat Kongsompong, is the king’s man.”

Gen Apirat’s appointment seems unusual. We can’t recall serving officers being appointed to the CPB’s board. If any readers can recall a similar appointment, let us know.

What is clear is that the CPB is now the king’s CPB. It is also stuffed with military personnel – 8 of the 11 directors carry military and police ranks – with several of them having served the military junta.

Update: A reader passed this on to us. It is a statement by a military watcher: “The appointment of Wongthewan faction leader and Army Chief Apirat to the Crown Property Bureau board offers the latest indication of the Traditional Institution’s preference for Apirat over Prayut/Prawit. Growing army fissures could give rise to a counter-coup by Apirat against the junta.” PPT has no idea if this guess is correct but we would note that there are plenty of junta loyalists in the palace’s boards and that Apirat is secretary for the junta. Even so, the king is certainly punting on the future.