Reorienting the palace-military partnership

15 02 2017

If the palace propaganda machine has had to re-vamp itself to deal with the new king, spare a thought for the pundits. For those guessing what’s going on inside the palace or even in the king’s head, the current situation must seem quite at odds with some of the predictions made.

Reuters reports on the new reign. Its point is that the new king “is putting an assertive stamp on his rule.” They mean “reign,” but some might think there’s a move to make a reign a “rule.”

The report says that “King Vajiralongkorn has made it clear to the generals running the country that he will not just sit in the background as a constitutional figurehead…”.

Given Vajiralongkorn’s past actions, reorganizing the palace, being open in promoting favorites and his propensity for headstrong actions, as well as the long period of the old king’s ill-health, we doubt the generals have been surprised. If they were, this indicates their political incapacity.

The king’s father was in incessant political player, so the mold was set for another interventionist monarch. In addition, the deals the junta has done with King Vajiralongkorn show that this king will have more legal powers to intervene.

That matters in Thailand, where relationships between monarchy, army and politicians have long determined the stability of Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy and America’s oldest regional ally.

Academic Paul Chambers reckons the king “has proven himself to be very adept at managing the junta and the military…”. Another academic, Eugenie Mérieau states that the relationship between the king and junta “is at least one of obedience…”.

We kind of get what that means. In fact, we guess that, as was the case with his father, Vajiralongkorn is in a partnership that involves mutual back-scratching that maintains society’s hierarchical social order that pours wealth into the purses of the loyalist and royalist elite.

That does not mean there won’t be tensions. For example, the king’s call for changes to the draft constitution may have been something of a surprise for the junta. Yet the process has publicly demonstrated a new king’s real political power and an important piece of political theater as the junta showed obedience. That’s good  for both sides of the partnership, especially as the junta looks to its political longevity.

It’s also risky for the palace if the political winds shift.

At the moment, though, with former junta members on the Privy Council, the links with the junta and the tools for the “management” of the relationship are in place.

That’s why the Reuters report can state:

None of more than two dozen serving or former officials, military officers, parliamentarians, diplomats or analysts that Reuters spoke to for this story saw any immediate threat to that balance of power.

The report notes that King Vajiralongkorn “started from a very different place to his father.” Mentioning his erratic and turbulent “private” life, it is noted that Vajiralongkorn has a strong military background, having had military training and involvement since he was 18 years old. Some of his military “service” was with the King’s Guard, which now has considerable clout in government and in the palace.

All of this should mean he feels very comfortable with the military running the country’s politics. But the king is erratic, headstrong and conspiratorial, so nothing is permanent for him. And, his reputation for strong-arm tactics means it is walking on eggshells for those close to him.

As the report observes, the king has been quick to rearrange the palace:

Over 20 appointments and promotions have been made by the new king and published in the Royal Gazette.

This includes reshuffling senior members of the household, many of whom had held posts for decades under King Bhumibol, and promoting military officials with ties to the new king.

Among other notable military promotions was Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhya within the King’s Own Bodyguard. Often seen at the king’s side, though not publicly designated as his consort, she became a general on the day he took the throne.

All of this means that the pundits have a new lease on life as palace tasseographers.

Already some of them read royalty into too much. The example in the report is of former reporter turned reconciliation guru Michael Vatikiotis of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Some of his history of consulting on “reconciliation” is here and here.

He reckons that he sees “sense of urgency with regard to reconciliation that some politicians say stems from the new king’s call for peace and unity…”. He states: “The military government is under some pressure to deliver on the king’s request, which may even speed up the transition back to civilian government.” That sounds so last reign….

Monarchies have several weaknesses. One is that they are surrounded by hangers-on who are afraid to comment on the king’s lack of clothing. Another is the hangers-on to the hangers-on who try to manufacture outcomes by using “signs” from the palace. And another is the personality of the monarch which means that for good or ill, all reigns are highly personalized.

All of these challenge the Thai king and his relationship with the generals.





Odd views

2 02 2017

A while ago we posted on how palace propaganda was seeking to change some of the old narratives to cope with a new monarch.

That post was about how an old network of tame authors and journalists prepared to continue their work of mythologizing the monarchy was being prodded and paid into action.

Some of it is also called to saccharin-ize a corrupt military regime. After all, the monarchy and military seem in step at present.

Some of it gets bizarre. At something called Global Rick Insights has an article by Laura Southgate who is identified as a Lecturer in International Security at Cranfield University, located at the UK’s Defence Academy. The sub-header in her “report” states: “Former head [sic] of Privy Council Prem Tinsulanonda is returning to political power in Thailand, which bodes well for the country’s political and economic success.”

On the face of it, the article is dated, despite the actual date on it, in thinking Prem is no longer head of the Privy Council. At the same time, arguing that an increasingly frail general “returning to political power” – when did he leave it? – is good for politics and economy seems to be somewhat silly.

The gist of the story, with some dubious data, seems to be that the military dictatorship is following Prem’s 1980s. We have pointed to that in the past, but we don’t see Prem as having much of a political role for much longer. The idea that he is good for the economy is banal:

Moving forward, it is vital that Thailand’s officials instill confidence in those looking to invest in the Thai economy.

Prem Tinsulanonda’s role as a key power broker can help Thailand achieve this goal. With his strong economic background and influence within the military and the monarchy, Prem is regarded as a stabilising force in Thailand’s politics. The continuation of his guiding role will help to reduce investor uncertainty at a time of domestic upheaval. This is good news for investors, and good news for Thailand’s economy.

Under the new king, it seems Prem’s only in his position for the sake of face and fealty. Given recent downturns and poor rankings, it seems canny investors are looking elsewhere.





More changes at the palace

30 01 2017

When the last king died, the palace was essentially in the administrative hands of a bunch of old men, many of them who had been around as long as the king himself.

When the prince became king, he moved some of the old men off the Privy Council and replaced them with serving military personal – serving mainly in the junta.

Some other changes are coming just because old guys are falling off the perch. Following the death of his twin brother Keokhwan in September 2016, the Bangkok Post reports that Grand Chamberlain Khwankeo Vajarodaya died at the age of 89 last Saturday, essentially of old age.

His funeral will be managed by the Bureau of the Royal Household, with the king assigning Privy Counselor Palakorn Suwanrath as the royal representative at the bathing rite. That seems a bit odd, given his brother has Princess Sirindhorn preside. In fact, the new king and the Vajarodyas have not always got on. Royal watcher Andrew MacGregor Marshall had this to say:

One of the most prominent families of palace officials is the Vajarodaya clan (the surname is sometimes transliterated as Watcharothai). The octogenarian family patriarch Kaeokhwan Vajarodaya was a childhood friend of King Bhumibol, and has been Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household Bureau since 1987. This means that — officially, at least — he is in charge of the sprawling palace bureaucracy of several thousand officials that manages royal affairs, but in fact, as a leaked U.S. cable noted in 2009, Kaeokhwan is senile, and for many years the Royal Household Bureau has been run by his sons Ratthanwut and Watcharakitti. Meanwhile, over the past two decades, Kaeokhwan’s nephew Disthorn Vajarodaya has become particularly close to Bhumibol. The same leaked U.S. cable named him in 2009 as one of the very few people in the king’s innermost circle of confidantes, and another cable describes him as a “well-known associate of the King”. Disthorn was chairman of the king’s Rajanukhrao Foundation and a Grand Chamberlain in the Royal Household Bureau. Over recent years he has usually been at Bhumibol’s side when the king makes his rare public appearances. He has become a familiar face to most Thais who have often seen him on royal news broadcasts, accompanying the king.

Last week, the Facebook page กูต้องได้ 100 ล้าน จากทักษิณแน่ๆ, which regularly shares leaked information from within the junta, published a copy of an extraordinary order from the crown prince. It stated that Disthorn Vajarodaya was instructed to attend a special training course so he could learn to perform his duties properly, and thereafter he would serve as a private page of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. He would be banned from ever again running any of the agencies in the Royal Household Bureau. A couple of days ago, a photograph was published on กูต้องได้ 100 ล้าน จากทักษิณแน่ๆ showing Disthorn and his cousins Ratthanwut and Watcharakitti apparently undergoing their special training — the three elderly men appear to be doing some kind of drill in military uniform, looking distinctly uncomfortable.

Vajiralongkorn clearly intends to publicly shame the three palace officials, and then continue to torment them indefinitely afterwards. Disthorn, for years one of the closest friends of King Bhumibol, suddenly finds himself forced to obey the whims of Vajiralongkorn, first in a humiliating training course and then as the crown prince’s personal page. It is a dizzying fall from grace, and will be an ongoing nightmare for him.

On Khwankeo’s sons, Thaanit was a “special expert of the Office of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary, and … Dissathorn … [was] a high-ranking executive of the Bureau of the Royal Household.”

In another consolidation, the Bangkok Post reports that the king “has appointed ACM Sathitpong Sukwimol, the King’s secretary, as caretaker and manager of his personal assets and interests.”

Back in 2014, Sathipong played the role of secretary to the prince and was involved in bringing down the family of the estranged wife, then Princess Srirasmi and in reorganizing the palace’s troops.





Concocting constitutionalism

13 01 2017

The Bangkok Post describes The Dictator as “furious” about reporting on the relationship between the king and the junta’s government.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha seems to be in a lather over perceptions that the king has stepped beyond the bounds of his constitutional position. Prayuth reckons the reason for this is that the media hasn’t reported on the king’s demands of the government carefully enough.

It is very hard to believe that the media in Thailand would not be exceptionally careful about how they report anything about the monarchy. After all, they have to be very wary of the draconian lese majeste law, wielded like a child’s bat at a piñata by this military regime.

The Dictator insisted that “the [k]ing did not ask the government to amend the new constitution as reported by the media.” In full tantrum mode, Prayuth said he was “angered” by the alleged misreporting.He diagnosed the “problem” as the “local media … feeding off foreign media reports, saying this had caused damage, without elaborating.”

We can only guess that the “damage” is either to Prayuth or to (fake) notions of constitutionalism. Perhaps Prayuth has received a literal or verbal boot to his posterior from the palace. More likely, he’s reflecting a position that the junta learned from the 2006 coup and that is to distance the palace from the military thugs who have hijacked power.

We recall the efforts that Prayuth and his band of constitutional criminals went to after the 2014 coup to declare the palace’s distance from the junta. Smashing the constitution in 2006 was seen by pretty much everyone as the work of General Prem Tinsulanonda and a bunch of palace insiders as co-conspirators, with the king and the queen welcoming the coup leaders just hours after the illegal event. That was an eye-opening event for many in Thailand and took royal stocks to lows not seen since the mid-1970s.

This is why Prayuth and his junta wanted to makes sure that the palace was seen as somewhat distant from their illegal acts.

So Prayuth is worried that the new king’s actions in telling the government to changes aspects of the constitution he’s miffed about is being seen as constitutional meddling. It is exactly that, but that’s not the message Prayuth or the palace wants out there, even if the media’s reporting has been accurate.

In other words, Prayuth is constitutional fence mending after the the fact of meddling.

He declared that “he had never said the [k]ing had asked the government to amend the new charter awaiting royal endorsement.” He attacked the press: “How could you report that the [k]ing had asked the government to amend the charter? It’s not true…”.

It is true, but not the preferred story. As the Post story says,

Reporters responded by saying that the prime minister had said on Tuesday that the [k]ing had advised that there were three to four provisions that need to be amended to fit in with the monarch’s power.

Prayuth retorted:

I said His Majesty had spoken to the Privy Council, not directly to the government…”. He went on to weave the story: “The Office of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary sent a letter about the [k]ing’s observations to the government and the government agreed to make changes to the constitution of its own accord….

That story might be true or it might not, but it hardly matters for the facts of what’s happening. For Prayuth it matters because the junta wants to wipe the king’s fingerprints from constitutional meddling. We feel sure that the notion that the junta “agreed to make changes to the constitution of its own accord” is clearly a concoction.

So contorted and so legally dubious is this process of constitutional meddling that the junta has had to make several retrospective changes to the interim constitution.

The National Legislative Assembly has rushed the changes through to “allow the government to ask for the new constitution back from the [k]ing so revisions can be made.”

Once those retrospective changes are made, then the draft constitution, “approved” by a “referendum,” can then be changed to suit the king.

The Dictator may feel that concocting constitutionalism is like a magician’s card trick and no one will notice, but it’s too late, everyone saw the king.





Royal meddling continues I

10 01 2017

New king, same old political meddling. This time, however, Vajiralongkorn’s meddling is public and embarrassing for the junta. It is also revealing of how the “referendum” was a junta plaything that can be thrown aside whenever it or the king wants.

Khaosod reports that General Prayuth Chan-ocha has stated that the king “has asked for changes to the constitution approved by the public in August relating to his powers.” It is reported that the king told members of his privy council of his demands.

Prayuth said “three or four issues would be amended in the section involving the authority and role of the king.”

As the report points out, issues of the “authority and role of the king” occur throughout the 279 articles of the draft and it is unclear which articles are up for amendment. Social media speculation focuses on Articles 5 and 6.

How will the king’s demands be met? Prayuth says”he would use his self-granted absolute power under Article 44 to amend the 2014 interim charter to make it possible to change an already approved constitution…”

Prayuth must be deeply embarrassed by this turn of events. Some might suggest a power struggle is underway and others might consider it is the new king getting a chance at his political oats.

The Dictator is being dictated to, and that will frustrate him. He reckons it will take up to four months to make the changes, and while he denies it, this will further delay the “election.” Additionally, when the changes go back to the king, he can take another 90 days mulling it.

We suspect that Prayuth has invested so much in the succession and royal legitimacy that all he can do is bite his lip. We find it hard to conceive of a republican Prayuth turfing the recalcitrant king out.





Brotherly love

30 12 2016

The 2014 military coup was intended to make up for the failures of of the 2006 putsch. In many ways, that 2006 intervention was General Prem Tinsulanonda’s coup. He was deeply involved in planning it, ensured military “backbone” for the royalist coup and arranged for his Privy Council colleague, General Surayud Chulanont, to become prime minister in a royalist and military backed government.

Yet the 2006 coup was a failure because the coup masters misunderstood the nature of the electoral support for Thaksin Shinawatra. The old men who claimed Thailand as their realm and who opposed popular sovereignty mistakenly believed Thaksin was reviled throughout the land and not just in their royalist cabals and yellow shirted strongholds in Bangkok and parts of the south.

The lessons taken from the failure of Prem’s coup was that, in 2014, a far deeper and more extensive military repression was required in order to, as the yellow-shirted ideologues put it, uproot the Thaksin regime. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, General Pravit Wongsuwan and their junta-cum-government of military brass has been the ruthless military dictatorship that Prem and other palace-related monarchists wanted and needed.

This is why the grand old political meddler is so enthralled and enamored of General Prayuth. He sees a true “son” at work for the military brotherhood and for the palace. When the junta comes calling at Prem’s taxpaper-funded mansion, he’s so very happy.

As the Bangkok Post reports the most recent mutual posterior polish, General Prem was effusive in his praise.

prem-entralled

Prem told the well-wishers who came to pay their respects to the palace’s chief political player that “he was aware of the government’s hard work.” He praised the dictatorship: “The government [he means junta] is exhausted and the prime minister, even more so.” Prem expressed his full support for the junta.

General Prem showered praise on General Prayuth, saying the “more exhausted” Prayuth is, “the greater success there is because the prime minister is committed to bringing happiness back to the nation…”. Prem expressed his full support for The Dictator, declaring: “I’m glad the prime minister and everyone here is dedicated to the country’s cause. We may be tired but we are not despondent…”.

He seems to view his palace and the junta as a team, running the country as only they can, with vigor and determination translated as repression and political regression.

He also “urged Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and the armed forces leaders to do their best to help Gen Prayut,” and drew on palace propaganda for support, mythologizing the dead king: “If one feels on the verge of losing steam, he only needs to look up at the picture of the late King who had endured hard work for 70 years. That is far more than what any of us has gone through…”. Nonsense for sure, but it is the linking of monarchy and military that’s critical for the new reign and for wiping out the vestiges of popular electoralism.

Naturally enough, General Prayuth took to polishing Prem’s aged butt, praising Prem’s “experience, ability and loyalty to the royal institution [he means monarchy]…”. So happy are the two together that Prem took Prayuth off for a “private meeting … that lasted about 15 minutes.”

Later, Prayuth explained that the old general “inquired about his work plans for the next year.” We assume his plans for political regression, deepening surveillance and a sham election were all ticked off by the palace’s man.





Another privy councilor appointed

24 12 2016

The new king’s Privy Council appointments are looking rather haphazard and lacking in advance planning.

Although we stated that it was widely expected that the new king would put his stamp on the Privy Council. In an earlier post, we stated that he’d done that in very quick time. At the end of the first week of December, a bunch of old-timers were shoved out and military senior officers and members of the ruling junta were brought in. About a week later, two more were appointed.

Some 10 days later, the Bangkok Post reports that another general has been hurriedly appointed.

General Kampanart Ruddit, a former assistant army chief, suddenly resigned from the puppet National Legislative Assembly on Wednesday. On Friday he became the 12th privy councilor (13 including 96 year-old General Prem Tinsulanonda, its president).

It seems odd that the king is adopting a drip-drip-drip approach to appointments. Had he not prepared? Or is it that the military and Prem are negotiating this?

General Kampanart is a loyalist. He was formerly a commander of the 1st Division of the Royal Guards, placing him close to the palace, and commander of the 1st Army region. Following the 2014 military coup, Kampanart was reported as having “played an active role in monitoring and cracking down on anti-coup and anti-monarchist elements in Bangkok and the central region.”

When he declared his wealth on being appointed to the NLA, the then Lt. Gen. reported just under 100 million baht. Not bad for one who is meant to live on his relatively low military salary.

Like others at the top, when the coup came in 2014, he was rewarded with a Directorship at the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. His brother, Admiral Luechai Ruddit, as navy chief of staff was appointed to the NLA in October.