A new Privy Council president

5 01 2020

Following the cremation of former president of the Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, the king has announced the appointment of Gen Surayud Chulanont.

For many, this might seem unremarkable. As a former Army commander, Surayud was appointed to the Privy Council by King Bhumibol in November 2003. As the councilor closest to Prem, his rise to president might have been expected.

Surayud has been a controversial figure. In the Army, Surayud rose through the ranks as an aide to General Prem. He’s been involved in controversial and bloody military actions. In a still largely unexplained involvement in the 1992 murder of civilian protesters, Surayud commanded troops but, unbelievably, “he denied giving his men the order to shoot protesters.” He later commanded troops that killed all 10 Burmese who took hostages at a hospital in 2000.

It was under Democrat Party prime minister Chuan Leepai that Surayud was promoted to army boss, obviously with the strong support of Gen Prem. When kicked upstairs to be supreme commander by Thaksin Shinawatra, it was clear that Thaksin did not trust the general. Soon after, Surayud retired from the army and was immediately appointed to the privy council.

With Surayud and Prem said to have “played a key role in the promotion of General Sonthi [Boonyaratglin] to the position of army commander,” it was the latter who led the coup that overthrew Thaksin. Surayud was accused of being one of the royalist coup plotters. Surayud was soon plucked from the privy council to be comes the royalist prime minister appointed by the military junta.

For much more on Surayud, look at PPT’s posts since 2009.

That history of being close to Prem, close to the palace and anti-Thaksin might make Surayud the perfect choice for president of the privy council. The question is whether the privy council counts for much under Vajiralongkorn.





The state of politics

18 10 2019

There are a couple of assessments worth reading together. We have been able to access both, so we figure others can too and that there’s no need to reproduce in full.

The first is “Why the Thai King’s Power Grab Could Backfire,” by Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations. Referring to the fake emergency decree, the author states:

The decree claims the change was made necessary by an emergency, but there is no obvious emergency that justifies such a decision.

In reality, taking personal control of the military units is just the latest move by King Maha Vajiralongkorn to expand his influence over Thailand’s politics, military affairs and economy since ascending to the throne in late 2016…. Vajiralongkorn seems intent on pushing the country further away from a constitutional monarchy as well, but in another direction altogether: closer to an absolute monarchy.

From Ugly Thailand

Some of the rest of the article we do not agree with, including its wishful thinking. Frankly, we do not see this relationship between a cocky, dominant and obsessive king and the seemingly supine military coming undone any time soon. Hopefully we are wrong. This is the conclusion to the article:

Ultimately, the king’s power grab might hurt the long-term viability of the monarchy. Although lese majeste laws outlaw public criticism, Thais are generally well aware of Vajiralongkorn’s past and present conduct. There is little evidence he has boosted his popularity as king. His maneuvering is making enemies among business, military and political elites, in addition to quiet republicans who already distrusted the monarchy. Meanwhile, disempowering advisers, like the Privy Council, and assuming more control over both politics and the economy removes any plausible deniability for the king in the event of failure.

By operating in the shadows, the king’s father wielded significant power but allowed the blame for Thailand’s problems to fall on others. Vajiralongkorn may have squandered that option.

The second story is The Economist’s Banyan writing on Gen Apirat Kongsompong demonstrating his loyalty to the king. Again, the relationship between supine military bosses and the powerful king is a feature.

Read them and weep for Thailand.





More royal gorging on property?

8 10 2019

Khaosod reports that the residence of former premier, incessant political meddler, and Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda “could be set for a demolition…”.

The Army says it “will likely return the house to the Treasury Department … [and] said there is a possibility that the mansion might be bulldozed to make way for unspecified projects.”

Self-crowned

That, after decades of use by Prem, paid for by taxpayers, the building is of some political value but seems more valuable to unspecified others. But the report then adds:

Prem’s house is located in Dusit district, where a number of historic buildings were either demolished or shuttered in recent years, including the popular Dusit Zoo, a 102-year-old racecourse, and the former Parliament building.

If the innuendo carries any weight, then it seems the king is continuing to gorge on state properties, taking what he wants when he wants. The Army, kowtowing to the king, is losing property and even regiments to the monarch.





Recalling the 2006 military coup

20 09 2019

The army’s task: coups and repression

19 September was the anniversary of the 2006 military coup. This was the coup that set the path for Thailand’s decline into military-dominated authoritarianism based in ultra-royalist ideology.

Over the past couple of days we didn’t notice a lot of memorializing of the event that illegally removed then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai Party, with tanks on the streets and soldiers decked out in royal yellow.

The military soon hoisted Privy Councilor Gen Surayud Chulanont into the prime ministership.

Anointing the 2006 coup

As we know, the coup did not succeed in its self-assigned task of rooting out the “Thaksin regime,” with Thaksin’s parties having been the most successful over the years that have followed and when the military permitted elections. This is why the 2014 coup was aimed at “putting things right,” through a more thorough political repression and a rigging of the political system for the ruling class. It also unleashed a rabid use of lese majeste to destroy that class’s political opponents.

One effort to recall the 2006 coup was by Ji Ungpakorn. He observes the:

forces behind the 19th September coup were anti-democratic groups in the military and civilian elite, disgruntled business leaders and neo-liberal intellectuals and politicians. The coup was also supported by the monarchy….

2006 coup

And adds:

Most NGOs and large sections of the middle classes also supported the coup. What all these groups had in common was contempt or hatred for the poor. For them, “too much democracy” gave “too much” power to the poor electorate and encouraged governments to “over-spend” on welfare. For them, Thailand is still divided between the “enlightened middle-classes who understand democracy” and the “ignorant rural and urban poor”. In fact, the reverse is the case. It is the poor who understand and are committed to democracy while the so-called middle classes are determined to hang on to their privileges by any means possible.

For a flavor of the times, see reports of the coup by the BBC and The Guardian. For early efforts to understand the 2006 coup, consider Ji’s A Coup for the Rich, Thailand Since the Coup, and Thailand and the “good coup.”

It’s been downhill since 2006: repression, military political domination and ultra-royalism, leading to a form of neo-feudalism in contemporary Thailand.





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.