Reflecting the regime IV

10 09 2021

Beyond the headlines, what does Wednesday’s sacking of Deputy Minister for Agriculture Thammanat Prompao tell us about the regime’s rotten political system?

He was sacked as deputy minister, along with Deputy Labor Minister Narumon Pinyosinwat, via an announcement in the Royal Gazette on Thursday following a “royal command” issued on Wednesday, that “stated that the prime minister said it would be appropriate if some ministers were removed for the sake of government.”

When asked, Prime Minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha said “he had his own reasons for the changes.” Thammanat remains, for the moment, secretary-general of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, but that is unlikely to last long.

Thammanat released a “resignation” letter just before the official announcement that he’d been sacked.

Was he booted because of his shady background as a convicted heroin trafficker. Nor for his unusual wealth. Nor for lying about his education credentials. Nor for his underworld links via the lottery. Nor for links with a murder.

No, Thammanat was sacked for insufficient loyalty to Gen Prayuth:

Speculation is rife that the sackings have something to do with the alleged campaign to challenge the prime minister’s power. The campaign’s aim was said to replace Gen Prayut and rebuild a government that would result in a cabinet reshuffle, where certain key politicians in the PPRP, who are now deputy ministers, would be elevated to full ministers of A-grade ministries.

As one of those ministers, Thammanat “stands accused of manoeuvring the ouster campaign which allegedly involved a number of PPRP heavyweights and renegade members of micro-coalition partners and politicians in the main opposition Pheu Thai Party.” Thammanat wanted to be Minister of the Interior, which carries immense power and handsome rewards.

Clipped from Khaosod

It seems that Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan is another target as the two sacked ministers were close to Prawit. A party source said that Prawit’s position “hangs in balance following the dismissal of the pair who are his close aides.”

This is exactly the kind of party system that the military junta designed. This is how it works. Multi-party coalition governments mean there is always maneuvering for position and fortune. Allies fall out and become opponents. Money and power make the cement that holds coalitions together. Leaders must always watch their back, wondering whether friend or foe will stab them; usually the former.

Political instability in such a rotten system defaults power to the military chief and palace.

The system is corrupted and encourages criminals and other “dark influences” to seek power for the funds that inevitably flow from ministerial position.

This is the junta’s legacy for Thailand’s political system.





Reflecting the regime I

24 08 2021

Some recent reports would be funny if they weren’t serious. These reports shed light on the nature of the regime.

Thai Enquirer reports on a turncoat politician. This time it is not the execrable Suporn/Seksakol Atthawong but “Ruangkrai Leekitwattana, a former party-list MP for the Pheu Thai Party turned member of the pro-junta and ruling Palang Pracharath Party, is not the brightest bulb in parliament.”

It may be that Ruangkrai is a complete lug nut or he might just be reflecting the level of impunity afforded the regime and its members when he is “telling everyone that he received two Mercedes from ‘kind adults’ since he switched sides.”

Clipped from Thai Enquirer

Author Erich Parpart is right to wonder “what is the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO) doing?” He might have added the National Anti-Corruption Commission, but we all know that they are hopeless accessories of the regime.

Like Suporn, Ruangkrai is a useful political stooge. He has recently petitioned the “Election Commission (EC) to investigate the Move Forward Party (MFP) for bringing up the palace bureau during budget debate” and wants the party dissolved by the Constitutional Court. Both organizations are also regime accessories.

While mentioning the hopeless NACC, let’s nod to the story that the agency needs another “16 months to complete its investigation into alleged mishandling, by 15 officials, of the controversial hit-and-run case against Red Bull heir, Vorayuth ‘Boss’ Yoovidhya, including both retired and active high-ranking police officers and senior prosecutors.” No one who has followed this story of the escaped but very rich (alleged) cop killer would be at all surprised. After all, the cases against Vorayuth have gone on and on since 2012, with many of them expired and the rest of them buried, delayed and forgotten.

Both Ruangkrai and Vorayuth show how the legal system in Thailand is not just corrupt but provides a means to escape justice. Under the junta-cum-military-backed regime, what we used to call double standards in the judicial system has been transformed into a sytem of political repression with limited attention to anything resembling justice.





Secret money

24 06 2021

A recent story in Thai PBS reveals the secret funds used mainly by the military. Of course, the existence of secret funds has been known and controversial for many years, but this report seeks to remind us of the corruption of parliamentary and budgetary processes by the power of the military.

Vaji's bahtBudget papers are voluminous and the budget vetting committee has limited time to scrutinize it. Even so, the opposition reckons it has found secret budgets worth more than Bt1 billion in the 2022 budget. These are funds allocated to state offices with no stated use. That is, their use is secret.

The budget vetting committee can cut some budget items but cabinet can reinstate them, and the committee can agree or not, but the budget still goes back to parliament. One way the committee can get some action is by drawing attention to some items members consider problematic. That seems to be what’s happening here.

In this case, it is reported that the budget bill “was criticized by both opposition and some government MPs for allocating large unexplained funds for national security and military purchases at a time when COVID-19 is crippling the economy.”

Puea Thai Party deputy leader Yuttapong Charasathien “cited the lack of details available for the budget allocated to several state agencies.” Mostly he refers to the military. The report states:

The Thai Army set Bt290 million for its secret operations, with Bt62 million going to the Navy, Bt30 million to the Air Force, Bt32 million to the Office of the Permanent Secretary for Defence, and Bt55million to the Thai Armed Forces Headquarters, said Yuttapong who is also a member of the budget vetting committee.

Military money

Add in the 20 million baht allocated to the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, and the security operations account for a secret 427 million baht.

But that’s not all: “Also unexplained is the Bt558 million of spending for the Prime Minister’s Office, which supervises the National Intelligence Agency and National Security Council, who are set to receive cloaked budgets worth Bt232 and Bt50 million respectively.”

That’s at least 750 million baht for secret operations.

Yuttapong asked: “What is the purpose of the secret spending? Is it for information operations [IO] and to monitor opposition activities?” We take that as a rhetorical question.

Other unexplained secret funds go to the Foreign Ministry and Labour Ministry. No one seems to know why these ministries need secret funds.

Yuttapong states: “If agencies cannot explain their need for such funding, it should be cut…”.

Overall, the “national security budget worth Bt387.9 billion, or 12.5 percent of the total budget.” Meanwhile, spending for public health is 306.7 billion baht.





Silence on monarchy

4 02 2021

We have been trying to get to this post for a week or so. In the meantime, as we have collected news stories, it has grown and grown.

Among the demands of the democracy movement were constitutional reform and monarchy reform. When they come together, it is in parliament, where constitutional reform, law reform and lese majeste reform is meant to be considered.

On monarchy reform and especially reform of Article 112, the usual royalist rancor and “opposition” spinelessness has been on display. Khaosod reported a while ago that “[o]nly one opposition party is planning to raise the issue of the excessive use of the royal defamation offense when the Parliament reconvenes for a censure debate…”.

That is Move Forward, and a couple of their MPs have expressed reservations and fears. Move Forward plans to criticize the use of the draconian law to intimidate political dissidents. The party plans to “push for reforms of libel laws, including lese majeste…”.

Spineless politicians

Other opposition parties panicked, and even walked back on their censure debate which mentioned the political use of the monarchy. Puea Thai stated that while the “formal motion of the no-confidence debate accused PM Prayut Chan-o-cha of ‘using the monarchy as an excuse to deepen the division in the society,’ … the party has no plan to raise the issue of the lese majeste during the censure debate or support the law’s amendment.” A spokesperson added “We didn’t include monarchy reforms in the motion either. We only wrote it broadly, that PM Prayut damages the confidence in democratic regime with the King as Head of State.”

That sounds remarkably like backpedaling with a political spine gone to jelly. Former political prisoner Somyos Prueksakasemsuk observed: “… Pheu Thai still lacks moral courage. It will only worsen and prolong the problem of political divisions.”

Acknowledging the status quo of decades, it was observed that “discussions about the monarchy during a parliamentary session are generally discouraged,” adding: “There are restrictions … we cannot mention His Majesty the King unnecessarily…”.

Khaosod reports that there’s a parliamentary regulation that “bans … ‘referencing … the King or any other person without due cause’.”

The Seri Ruam Thai Party also ran from the lese majeste law and monarchy reform. Thai PBS reported opposition chief whip Suthin Klangsaeng as saying they are “fully aware of the sensitivity surrounding the [m]onarchy, but he insisted that the opposition will refer to the [m]onarchy during the debate while trying to be very discreet and referring to the institution only if necessary.”

The part of the motion causing all the royalist angst states that Gen Prayuth has not been “…upholding nor having faith in a democratic system with the King as the head of state; undermining and opposing democratic governance; destroying the good relationship between the monarchy and the people; using the monarchy as an excuse to divide the people and using the monarchy as a shield to deflect its failures in national administration.”

Of course, the regime’s supporting parties are opposing any discussion of the monarchy and lese majeste. These parties announced they will “protest if the opposition makes any reference to the [m]onarchy during the censure debate…”. Government chief whip Wirat Rattanaseth said “he would feel uncomfortable with any reference to the Monarchy in the opposition’s censure motion which, in essence, says that the prime minister referred to the Monarchy to deflect accusations of gross mismanagement and failures in national administration.”

In the military’s Palang Pracharath Party royalist fascist Paiboon Nititawan emphasized that the pro-military/royalist parties will invoke parliamentary rules to silence any MP discussing the monarchy. He was especially keen to silence critics of the lese majeste law. He declared: “Our party’s policy is to defend the monarchy.” On the broader issue of constitutional reform, the Bangkok Post reports that Paiboon demands that “any provision related to the royal prerogative should not be changed at all, regardless of which chapters they were in.” No change to anything related to the monarchy. We recall that the last changes made to the king’s prerogatives were made on the king’s demand and considered in parliament in secret.

Democrat Party spokesman Ramet Rattanachaweng said MPs had to toe the royalist line: “Everyone knows what their duty is, because we’re all committed to the institutions of Nation, Religions, and Monarchy.” He said his party will oppose amendment of the lese majeste law. Why? “…[O]ur party has no policy to amend it, because we are not affected or damaged by it directly…”.

The parliamentary royalists were cheered on by mad monarchist and royal favorite Warong Dechgitvigrom who declared “he would regard attacks on lese majeste law – or any move to amend it – as an attempt to overthrow the monarchy.”

Soon after this pressure – and plenty more behind the scenes – the opposition buckled. Thai PBS reported that they “agreed to remove a reference to the monarchy, which the government may find provocative, from its censure motion to avoid protests from coalition MPs.” This came after a meeting  to resolve the conflict over the motion. The meeting was chaired by House Speaker Chuan Leekpai.

Puea Thai leader Sompong Amornvivat was reported as pedaling backwards and was reported to have promised “that he will withdraw the motion and rewrite it.” He later denied that he had made this promise and the opposition pushed on with the motion.

Back at the debate about parliamentary (non)debate, Thai PBS had a story about royalist allegations that Sompong had broken his promise to delete the reference to the monarchy in the censure motion. Palang Pracharat MP Sira Jenjakha “threatened to file a lèse majesté charge with the police against opposition MPs who sign in support of a censure motion…”.

Government chief whip Wirat Rattanaseth “warned today that the opposition‘s refusal to delete the offending reference may lead to protests in parliament, to the extent that the debate may be disrupted and end prematurely.”

The last time the royalists disrupted parliament. A Bangkok Post photo showing a Democrat Party member grabbing a policeman’s throat.

Thai PBS took sides, declaring that “Thailand is bracing for unprecedented chaos [not really, see above] in Parliament later this month when the opposition shatters a deep-seated taboo by citing the monarchy in its censure motion against the prime minister.” It asserts: “Involving the monarchy in the no-confidence motion has sparked angry accusations from the government camp that this constitutes a grave insult to the revered institution.”

In response, the Bangkok Post reports that the regime “has formed a legal team to monitor the upcoming censure debate for inappropriate references to the monarchy…”. The person in charge of this is quisling former red shirt Suporn Atthawong, a vice minister to the PM’s Office whose own 112 case sems to have been forgotten. The regime’s legal team will “gather false allegations made during the debate against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and cabinet ministers and lodge complaints with police.”

The threats have come thick and fast. The regime is furious. Presumably the palace is too. What they want is to roll back politics to the golden era when the king was never discussed, by anyone, except the seditious.





Updated: Jatuporn’s meltdown

13 01 2021

One of the not very well hidden tasks of the regime, sometimes supported by the mainstream media, has been to nitpick at the protest movement and exacerbate divisions and differences.

That follows a tested junta tactic of trying to divide and conquer former opponents in Puea Thai and among red shirts. This involved buying off red shirt leaders like the detestable Suporn Atthawong, who has been rewarded with legal cases dropped and lucrative positions. Those turncoats have assisted the military junta to transform into the current post-junta regime.

A more activist Jatuporn

Over the past couple of months we have watched United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, leader Jatuporn Promphan say some odd things and, finally, have a meltdown. His story is told by a seemingly gleeful Thai PBS.

Jatuporn’s role as a red shirt protest leader resulted in numerous criminal charges and several arrests, and he eventually served 19 months in jail when a court found him guilty of defaming the reprehensible former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who led the regime that murdered red shirts. Jatuporn’s defamation was to call Abhisit “a murderer” who “order[ed] the shooting dead of the protesters.”

He was also seen court orders for 100 million baht “in civil rulings stemming from riots and arson attacks by red-shirt protesters.” We won’t go back over the details of these false charges. In addition, he faces charges of “terrorism, illegal phone-tapping, and provoking public disorder, as well as other libel offences.”

Many activists looked differently at Jatuporn when, in July 2020, he “warned student activists not to cross a line, by infringing upon the [m]onarchy…”.  Some took this as a warning that the students should be wary of yet another murderous military attack on protesters. Others, however, wondered why Jatuporn appeared to be defending the monarchy. Many red shirts who joined with the student demonstrators calling for monarchy reform were stunned by Jatuporn’s statements.

In September 2020, his commentary was taken up in an op-ed by the notorious anti-democrat journalist Tulsathit Taptim who used Jatuporn’s “advice” to demonstrators to call for them to back down. Referring to campaigns against royalists, it was stated:

According to Jatuporn, it is all right for dictators to seek to destroy or suppress opposite or different opinions because it’s what they do. But it’s not democratic, he says, if minority or unpopular opinions are condemned, insulted or forced to undergo changes.

Oddly, in 2010 and during the Yingluck Shinawatra government, it was Jatuporn who was accused by yellow shirts of supporting “majoritarianism” – in this case, supporting an elected government.

Two further outbursts by Jatuporn suggest that he has had a political meltdown. He has seen increasing opposition from former comrades, with accusations that he is a “traitor” and “lackey of the military.”

Staggeringly, Jatuporn has called for the UDD “to disband and pass the baton on to the young-generation protesters now battling for democracy. That push drew another barrage of criticism – this time that he was betraying fellow red shirts.” Some wondered aloud about Jatuporn’s motives and asked why, in 2014, the red shirts went off stage with a whimper. Was Jatuporn complicit in demobilizing red shirts? Some disgruntled observers suggested that Jatuporn’s paymaster had changed.

Then, he drew more criticism when he campaigned for the re-election of Chiang Mai’s provincial administrative organisation (PAO) chief, Boonlert Buranupakorn, himself considered a turncoat. Boonlert lost to a Puea Thai candidate who also had Thaksin Shinawatra’s support. Even other red shirt leaders spoke out against Jatuporn.

Just a few days ago, Jatuporn’s meltdown and slide to the other side was illustrated when he filed “a police complaint against some 200 netizens he accused of posting false information and defamatory abuse against him” during the [PAO] election campaign.”

Jatuporn said the “online attacks part of a concerted attempt to destroy his reputation,” something he seems to be doing for himself. Sounding like the regime’s nastiest of lying, cheating politicans, he vowed “many hundred more cases.” He seems to be taking a leaf out of Thammanat Prompao’s playbook.

We can understand that all those legal cases and the threat of more jail must weigh heavily, but it does seem that Jatuporn is doing the regime’s work.

Update: Khaosod has more on the UDD. It concludes with comments by red shirt activist Anurak Jeantawanich, saying “he would oppose any attempt to dissolve the UDD.” He correctly points out that “the large number of Redshirt protesters at anti-government rallies in 2020 prove that the movement is still a force to reckon with, and what the UDD needs is a new leadership with new strategies.” He adds: “Redshirts are against the dissolution of the UDD,” he said, citing an informal online survey that he conducted. “

As for Jatuporn, Anurak states: “I don’t want to use the word fired, but I’d like to ask him to leave.”





A junta win

28 12 2020

One of the main aims of the long period of junta rule was to produce rules and manage politics in a manner that wound back the clock to a pre-1997 era of electoral politics.

Their efforts meant that the post-junta regime could finagle a national election “victory” and make use of the junta-appointed Senate to ensure that Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha could continue as prime minister. At the same time, the regime had delayed and delayed local elections so that it could ensure that it had measures in place that prevented national election-like “surprises.” Of course, it also used the Army and ISOC to control civilian administration and arranged for the Future Forward Party to be dissolved.

When the post-junta regime got around to local elections, the result provided evidence that the electoral wind back had been successful.

While initial commentary focused on the “failure” of Move Forward. In fact, while the party didn’t win any Provincial Administrative Organization chair positions, its candidates took more then 50 PAO seats and received 2.67 million votes.  This was on a voter turnout of just over 62% – low compared to the national election.

As time has gone on, commentators have become more incisive in assessing the results. Thai Enquirer wrote of a return to old-style politics, with political dynasties controlling local politics. A Bangkok Post editorial also focused on these factors, commenting: “About 40% of the winners of the PAO elections, Thailand’s first local elections in some seven years, are old faces, with the ruling Palang Pracharath Party making a big sweep in more than 20 provinces, followed by Bhumjaithai, almost 10, and Pheu Thai, nine.”

Recently, Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is Dean, College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University writing at the Bangkok Post, has explained the big picture. He asks: “Are these elections really meaningful?” He concludes: “The net result is business as usual for PAOs, and Thailand will still be the prisoner of a highly centralised local administration.”

Helpfully, Peerasit lists the reasons for the failure of local democracy, all of them focused on junta/post-junta efforts to turn the clock back. He observes that the junta/post-junta has co-opted “local governments to become agents of the central government…”. He explains:

Following the 2014 coup, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), under then-army chief Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha upended a foundation of Thai democracy by issuing an order to suspend local elections. The politically powerful junta then began to co-opt all locally elected politicians and local government officials to become centrally appointed representatives of the central government.

This process began with NCPO’s Order Number 1/2557, in which one prescribed role of the locally elected leaders was to become partners of the military junta in restoring peace and order to the country. This made them complicit in undermining local governments in exchange for being able to legitimately keep their positions for an unspecified period of time without having to undergo the process of competing with other local candidates to secure the consent of the local citizens to allow them to serve. In other words, if they played ball with the junta, they would not need to face elections.

This “co-optation was then delegated to the Interior Ministry. This change obligated the leaders and the executives of all local governments to be accountable to the central government, thus becoming de facto representatives of the central government. Consequently, local leaders then had an allegiance to the powers in the central government.”

His view is that a promising decentralization has been destroyed: “In effect, the central government is — and has been — committed to failure from the beginning, by creating weak local government organisations.”

The people are not fooled and he reports data that “revealed that, when compared to other types of local governments, the PAOs were perceived as less beneficial than all other types of local governments within the surveyed provinces.” PAO level government is a processing terminal for the regime:

… PAO’s primary function has remained: serving as a conduit of budget allocation to be “authorised” by the provincial governor. This budgetary control by the governor is actually a smokescreen for influence by the central government of 76 provincial budgets, accounting for a very large amount of funding.

While yet another decline in Thailand’s democracy can be lamented, the fact remains that this is exactly what the junta wanted when it seized power in 2014.

 





Palace PR at full throttle I

13 11 2020

The palace public relations machinery has long had to “manage” Vajiralongkorn’s “problems.” His explosive “divorces,” his erratic behavior and , and the rumors of violence, illnesses, philandering and associations with crime. Generally, the PR exercises revolved around strategies that had “worked” for his father.

The explosion of dissatisfaction with Vajiralongkorn that has been seen recently, reflecting tension over his neo-feudal absolutism, his bahavior and his preference for living in Germany, has seen a new twist on palace propaganda. This involves a rebranding of Vajiralongkorn and the younger royal family members as celebrities. This might be called the Hello! strategy. Obviously, this follows the model of royals in some other countries.

As PPT has said previously, we think this new PR strategy reflects the influence of the royal family’s younger women, including Queen Suthida, Princesses Bajrakitiyabha and Sirivannavari, and some of the harem.

After rousing the raucous royalists in Bangkok, and getting good PR in Thailand (always expected and demanded) but also internationally, with that CNN interview contributing to an image of “compromise” and “popularity,” ignoring the king’s unsteadiness and giving him an instant free pass on all his previous black marks, the palace “influencers” have decided to have the king do “populist tours.”

Reuters reports that “Vajiralongkorn wrote messages of national unity and love on Tuesday during a visit to the northeast of the country two days after protesters sent him a letter demanding royal reforms that would curb his powers.”

In a PR stunt, the king wrote a message to the governor of Udon Thani province: “We all love and care for each other. Take care of the country, help each other protect our country with goodness for prosperity and protect Thainess…”. Going full-on celebrity on a “picture of himself and the queen … the king wrote”: “Love the nation, love the people, cherish Thainess, real happiness.” Another message stated: ““Thank you for all the love and support. We love and care for each other. We must take care of the country, and we must help each other protect it with virtue for it to prosper. Preserve the marvel of Thainess…”.

If the protests against the king have been unprecedented, so is the palace PR response, seeking to create a new image for the king. Previous efforts at this kind of image making have been undone by Vajiralongkorn’s inability to stick with the PR plan and messages.

As these reports of “good king” are being managed, there’s also been “bad king” reports. Hype (Malaysia) had this”

King Maha Vajiralongkorn was married to his third wife, Srirasmi Suwadee, in 2001, before divorcing her in 2014.

Since then, the ex-princess is currently under house-arrest and has decided to take on life as a nun.

Back in 2014, Srirasmi’s uncle, parents, sister and three brothers were convicted with several offences, including “lèse-majesté”, which is defamation to the monarchy. They were all sentenced to prison with different offences and Srirasmi got her royal title stripped of the same year.

As aforementioned, Srirasmi is under house arrest as she hasn’t been seen in public ever since she was forced to leave the royal house. As per China Press, Thai royal experts have exposed photos of the King’s third wife in white robes with her head shaved, as a sign of her nunhood, at her house in Ratchaburi province in central Thailand.

In the photos, she can be seen living a simple life of planting seeds and sweeping leaves in her backyard, despite previously living as a monarch. However, it might not be so simple for her as her eyes tell a different story.

According to SCMP, she was forced to leave her son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, who is the next in line for the throne after the king. There are photos on the internet of Srirasmi’s last meeting with her son before she was forced to leave the palace.

We’re unsure of the exact reason behind her sadness but being under house-arrest while separated from your child can definitely drain one’s mental health.

But the PR/propaganda rattled on. In a Bangkok Post report it is stated that the king “has been told that many red-shirt villages that used to support former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra are now sworn to uphold the monarchy.” Apparently, the person doing the telling was the queen: “They are from the red-shirt villages to protect the monarchy…” she said as she and the king were “mingling with supporters at Wing 23 of the air force in Udon Thani on Tuesday night.”

Of course, many millions of red shirts never considered Thaksin an enemy of the monarchy, but the queen seems to have taken this position. How does she know? For one thing, the yellow shirts constructed this narrative and clearly Suthida has imbibed the yellow shirt kool-aid. She’s had this view reinforced by the fawning betrayers of the red shirts, Anon Saennan and Suporn Atthawong, both of whom sold out to the rightists long ago.

The king appreciates the turncoats. The regime has rewarded Suporn with legal cases dropped and lucrative positions.

As the report states:

Mr Suporn was prosecuted for disrupting the Asean summit in Pattaya in April 2009, but the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship member evaded the charges because police could not find him before the case expired in April last year.

An earlier Post report adds further detail, stating that Suporn:

a vice minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office. His appointment to this political post is said to be a reward for his defection from Pheu Thai to the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party prior to the March 24 election.

We assume the regime and the military are pouring funds into the Suporn-Anon anti-red shirt campaign.





The Economist on King Vajiralongkorn

16 10 2020

The Economist has a timely briefing on the king. With humble apologies to the publisher for taking it in full, but it is very good and deserves to be read by all. Here it is:

Battle royal
Thailand’s king seeks to bring back absolute monarchy
Maha Vajiralongkorn has provoked something new in Thailand: open criticism of a king

THE MONUMENTS disappear in the dark. In April 2017 it was a small bronze plaque from Bangkok’s Royal Plaza. It marked the spot where, in 1932, revolutionaries proclaimed the end of Thailand’s absolute monarchy. In December 2018 a statue was hauled away. It commemorated the defeat of rebels who attempted a coup against those same revolutionaries. Last month activists installed a plaque in the heart of Bangkok’s royal district to protest against the missing monuments. “The people have expressed the intention that this country belongs to the people, and not the king”, it stated. Within a day it was gone.

The world knows Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn as a playboy who has churned through four wives, lives among lots of women in a German hotel and relishes skimpy crop tops that reveal elaborate temporary tattoos. For Thais, his four-year-old reign has been more sinister.

The king makes elderly advisers crawl before him, shaves the heads of courtiers who displease him and has disowned several of his children. Worse, he has steadily amassed power, taking personal control of “crown property”, assuming direct command of troops and ordering changes to the constitution. He makes no secret of his hankering for the days of absolute monarchy (hence the disappearing monuments). But Thais began to protest in July. Can they prevent the removal not just of plaques, but of constitutional constraints?

On October 14th thousands of protesters marched through central Bangkok to camp outside Government House, where ministers’ offices are located. They also formed human chains to carry away potted plants that blocked the way to the country’s Democracy Monument. Not far away King Vajiralongkorn himself, in the country on a fleeting visit, passed by in a motorcade. Clusters of royalists gathered wearing yellow shirts to show their loyalty to him.

That night a spooked government issued an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people and prohibiting reporting on topics that could “harm national security” or “cause panic”. The government warned that protesters who insulted the monarchy would be prosecuted. Several prominent leaders of the protest were arrested the following morning. Yet tensions increased as protests continued in defiance of the decree.

Thailand defines itself as a democracy with the king as head of state. The monarchy is revered. Photographs of royals adorn public buildings and private homes. Father’s Day is celebrated on the previous king’s birthday. Thais hear a royal anthem before films start at the cinema.

Technically King Vajiralongkorn rules as a constitutional monarch. But ancient structures have never entirely disappeared. The king used to sit at the apex of society in a semi-divine role. Defenders of the vestiges of this order have long clashed with those claiming to represent an alternative source of authority: the Thai people.

The conflict helps explain why Thailand has endured 12 coups and 20 constitutions since 1932. Since the 1950s a symbiotic relationship between the army and the palace has bolstered the legitimacy of military regimes. For the past two decades the greatest foe of such elites has been Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist prime minister ousted by the army in 2006. His supporters, known as red shirts, battled their yellow-shirted foes in the streets on several occasions in the years after he lost power.

The generals engineered a coup in 2014. The commander who led it, Prayuth Chan-ocha, remains prime minister. An army-friendly constitution disadvantaged large parties, such as Mr Thaksin’s flagship one, Pheu Thai, in an election last year.

One supposed reason why the army seized power six years ago was to ensure a steady succession between the ninth and tenth monarchs of the Chakri dynasty. King Vajiralongkorn’s path to the throne was not simple. Thailand’s elites took against him while his popular father still lived. King Bhumibol Adulyadej was considered the richest monarch in the world, his wealth outstripping that of oil-endowed Middle Eastern rulers and Europe’s royals with their castles and palaces.

Aristocratic types fretted because the crown prince, as Vajiralongkorn was previously known, caused so many scandals. Even his mother likened him to Don Juan. After leaving his first wife, a princess in her own right, he disowned four of his five children with his second wife, an actress, who eventually fled Thailand. When the relationship ended with his third wife—once filmed almost naked and crouching before her husband with birthday cake—several of her family members went to prison. The prince spent lavishly and indulged in eccentricity, elevating his beloved poodle, Foo Foo, to the rank of “air chief marshal”.

Still, King Vajiralongkorn took over unimpeded after his father’s death. Whereas the father was publicly loved, the son is privately loathed. His coronation last year attracted tiny crowds compared with those at the late king’s funeral rites. Despite his co-operation with army regimes, millions of Thais felt King Bhumibol displayed the virtues expected of a Buddhist monarch.

King Vajiralongkorn does not even live in Thailand. He rules a country of 70m people from more than 5,000 miles away in Germany. One insider bluntly appraises his activities there: “Bike, fuck, eat. He does only those three things.” The German government finds his presence awkward. “We have made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil,” the foreign minister, Heiko Maas, told the Bundestag on October 7th.

Money, money, money

The king’s militaristic harem inspires embarrassing headlines around the world. Just months after his fourth marriage to a former air stewardess last year, he elevated one concubine, a former nurse, to the status of “royal noble consort”. She is the first woman to hold this title since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy.

Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi fell from grace soon after her elevation. She disappeared from view. Then, in September, she was reinstated and declared “untainted”. Chinese netizens have likened Ms Sineenat to a crafty concubine from a popular television series, “Empresses in the Palace”.

In March 2012 permission from the Justice Department was published in the Royal Gazette for a temporary prison. A spartan map appears to show its location as possibly within the grounds of a palace owned by Vajiralongkorn. His bad books are a miserable place to be. Pictures allegedly of Srirasmi Suwadee, once his third wife, appeared in a German newspaper last year. Head shaved and tearful, she was reported as being under house arrest.

Airing such dirty linen in public in Thailand, however, is perilous. The country’s lèse-majesté law allows between three and 15 years in prison for insulting “the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”. King Vajiralongkorn has instructed the government not to use the law. But this hardly reflects newfound tolerance. Critics instead risk charges for sedition or computer crime, among others. In July one man was sent to a psychiatric hospital for wearing a T-shirt that stated: “I have lost all faith in the institution of monarchy”.

Playboy antics distract from the more sinister feats of the monarch since he came to power. In political, financial and military matters King Vajiralongkorn has gained powers never possessed by his father. His interventions appear part of a larger strategy to push Thailand closer to absolute monarchy once more.

Take his finances. In 2017 he gained full control of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), which manages royal investments (it was previously run by the ministry of finance). Its holdings are estimated to be worth $40bn. In 2018 the CPB declared that its assets would be considered the king’s personal property. As a result the monarch has stakes in some of Thailand’s corporate titans. He is the largest shareholder in Siam Cement Group, a conglomerate with revenues of almost $14bn in 2019, with a third of its shares. The head of the CPB, long a stalwart in the king’s circles, is a director of Siam Cement Group and of the 113-year-old Siam Commercial Bank, one of Thailand’s biggest, in which the king also has a stake.

In addition to the king’s private means, the Thai state showers the royal family with funds. For the 2021 fiscal year government agencies have drawn up budgets which allocate more than 37bn baht—over $1.1bn—to the monarchy. The Royal Office will receive 9bn baht of that directly. Much of the rest goes to government agencies, the police and the defence ministry for security and for development projects. By comparison, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth cost her taxpayers the equivalent of $87m last year. Precise details on where the money goes are elusive. Huge sums go to pay for royal transport alone (there are many planes and helicopters to maintain).

King Vajiralongkorn’s political interventions are another demonstration of his growing authority. In theory the monarch sits above parties, parliament and politics. But after a referendum in 2016, in which campaigners were banned from opposing the constitution put forward for approval, the monarch demanded changes to the charter. He altered it specifically to make ruling from afar easier.

He meddled even more audaciously ahead of last year’s parliamentary election. Mr Thaksin persuaded the king’s older sister to run as a putative prime ministerial candidate for a party with links to him. But the crown in effect came to the rescue of Mr Thaksin’s military foes. The monarch declared his sister’s ambitions “unconstitutional”. He also stated that royals should stay out of politics—yet the night before the election, he urged Thais to vote for “good people”, which was taken as an endorsement of Mr Prayuth and his allies.

Tomorrow belongs to me

This is just one example of how the palace and the barracks have continued to support each other since King Vajiralongkorn came to the throne. The king has a deep interest in military matters. Trained in an Australian academy, he holds the titles of admiral, field-marshal and air-marshal. The queen is a general and Ms Sineenat a major-general. The king has drawn military forces to his direct command. The Royal Command Guard has been created with some 5,000 soldiers. They are stationed in Bangkok, while other important army units, including an infantry regiment and a cavalry battalion which have facilitated past coups, have been moved out of the city. Overthrowing any government without advance co-ordination with royal troops would prove extremely difficult.

Why has the army permitted such manoeuvres? Defence of the monarchy is one of its central reasons for existing. Both the powerful army commander who retired in September, and his replacement, are deeply loyal to the king. They also rose through the ranks of the King’s Guard, in which Vajiralongkorn himself once served. Mr Prayuth and his closest allies, by contrast, emerged from the Queen’s Guard within the Second Infantry Division.

The prime minister can hardly counter the monarch’s power grabs. He depends on the king’s support for a semblance of legitimacy. Whereas the middle and upper classes of many countries contain democratic champions, those of Thailand “have never needed mass support to advance or protect their interests”, explains James Wise, a former Australian ambassador to Thailand, in his book “Thailand: History, Politics and the Rule of Law”. These conservatives would not stand for an army-linked prime minister rebuffing the royal institution.

Mr Prayuth is also weak: he wrestles even with his allies in the ruling coalition and lacks personal popularity. That hinders his ability to tackle the difficulties Thailand faces. Growth was slowing even before the coronavirus pandemic struck (see chart). Now the central bank expects the economy to contract by more than 8% this year—worse than the crash in the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Why should I wake up?

A very few opposition politicians have resisted King Vajiralongkorn’s growing control. In October most MPs from the liberal Future Forward Party, founded in 2018, opposed an executive decree in the lower house of parliament. The decree, which passed anyway, facilitated the partial transfer of army units and related budgetary allocations to the Royal Command Guard. Even so, it was the first time that lawmakers had ever opposed a legal procedure linked to the monarchy.

Future Forward no longer exists. Its platform in favour of democratic freedoms and army reform, as well as the popularity of its charismatic leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, made it a threat to the establishment. The outfit grew from nothing to become the country’s third-largest party in parliament in little more than a year. Legal cases against the institution and its leadership started to mount. In November Mr Thanathorn was stripped of his status as an MP. In February the party was dissolved by the constitutional court and its executives banned from politics for a decade. The judges decided that a loan Mr Thanathorn gave the party was an illegal breach of individual-donation limits.

Flash mobs mounted protests, though social-distancing measures soon put an end to them. The lull was temporary. Social media have provided an outlet for audacious criticisms. So widespread was moaning over the traffic jams caused by royal motorcades, for example, that in January the king instructed police not to close entire roads for travelling royals.

Other grumbles could not so easily be sorted. In August, after legal threats from the Thai government, Facebook blocked access from Thailand to a 1m-member group criticising the monarchy. “Requests like this are severe, contravene international-human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves,” the firm stated. It is preparing to mount a legal challenge.

Popular anger has moved from screens to streets. Since July protesters have gathered to call for the dissolution of the government, reform of the constitution and an end to the harassment of opposition activists. Students’ demonstrations inspired a wider swathe of Thais to march, too. Their efforts mark an evolution from the feud between red shirts and yellow shirts. New battle lines are over democratic freedoms.

Maybe this time

The boldest protesters have called openly for reform of the monarchy. They object to the king’s financial set-up and his consolidation of military power. Mr Thanathorn has also called for transparency about how state funds are spent on the monarchy.

The situation grew more serious as the protests swelled in size. The great fear is that the bloody treatment of student protesters in the 1970s will be repeated. In 1976 police, army and vigilante groups attacked students after they staged a mock hanging in protest against the killing of two pro-democracy activists. A story spread among royalists that the figure hanged resembled Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. According to official figures, 46 students died and more than 3,000 were arrested.

So far the authorities have arrested a few dozen protest leaders. The government had claimed it wanted to talk to students about their grievances. “Having a peaceful and civil dialogue where we exchange our views is the best approach for moving forward,” said the education minister. However, this week the establishment ran out of patience. If the prime minister cannot bring calm he may be replaced. Any drastic intervention is unlikely, however, without the monarch’s foreknowledge.

But King Vajiralongkorn’s clout has come at a price: open criticism of the monarchy. “The ghost is out of the bottle and you won’t get it back again,” reckons one diplomat in Bangkok. The more brazen the king’s moves towards a more absolute form of rule, the more forceful the criticism. “We are trying to bring the king and monarchy under the constitution,” explains one teenage protester. “We aren’t trying to bring them down.” King Vajiralongkorn’s actions could determine whether Thailand continues to revere royalty, or starts to revile it.





More EC buffalo excrement

2 10 2020

The latest case before the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions, deserves attention, for the court has been forced to make a decision that is sensible and legal. Not even the judiciary was prepared to uphold the hopelessly biased and junta appointed Election Commission’s decision in a case against former Puea Thai Party MP Surapol Kiatchaiyakorn.

As Khaosod reports, the court overturned an “orange card” given to Surapol by the EC during the 2019, when it accused him of bribing voters. Surapol won in Constituency 8 of Chiang Mai province, for Puea Thai, and in its efforts to ensure that the junta’s party, Palang Pracharat “won” government, the EC disqualified Surapol and, with the orange card and a one-year ban, prevented him from running in the election re-run in the constituency.

The new poll gave “victory” to Palang Pracharath, but in a convoluted way. As Thisrupt explains, District 8 was won in the new poll by Srinual Boonlue won 75,891 votes, the largest in the entire country. Back then, she represented the now-dissolved Future Forward Party…. It was understood, supporters of Pheu Thai and Future Forward banded together to vote Srinual.” Within a year, “Srinual defected and joined the government coalition partner, Bhumjaitai Party, and became an avid defender of General Prayut Chan-o-cha.”

Chitpas and royalists opposing lese majeste reform (a Bangkok Post photo)

But the junta’s EC did far more for The Dictator than just overturning the voter’s original choice. Under the complex vote allocation system the junta put in place, “Surapol’s disqualification allowed two party-list candidates to become MPs.” The victors of this electoral sleight of hand were Palang Pracharath’s Watanya Wongopasi and the (anti)Democrat Party’s Chitpas Kridakon, both royalist anti-democrats, supporters of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee that paved the path to the 2014military coup, and and fans of Gen Prayuth’s premiership.

In other words, the disqualification – ruled legally wrong – eventually gave the regime three seats in parliament.

But guess what? None of this matters! Why? Because the junta’s 2017 constitution makes all EC decisions final, even if they are wrong and ruled so by the courts. The relevant section states:

Section 225: Prior to the announcement of the result of an election or a selection, if there is evidence to reasonably believe that such election or selection has not proceeded in an honest or just manner, the Election Commission shall have the power to order a new election or selection to be held in such polling station or constituency. If the person who committed such act is a candidate for the election or selection, as the case may be, or such person connives at the act of other persons, the Election Commission shall temporarily suspend the right of such person to stand for an election in accordance with the section 224 (4).

The order under paragraph one shall be final.

In other words, the junta’s constitution elevates the EC above courts.

While Surapol is not giving up and may sue the EC and get charges laid against the Commissioners in the Criminal Court,

For its part, the wrong and probably illegal actions of the EC count for nothing. According to the Bangkok Post, the EC insists “it did not wrongfully disqualify the politician.” EC secretary-general Jarungvith Phumma, said he disregarded the court’s decision: “The court saw him [violating the election law] without an intention [that’s buffalo talk for the court finding he hadn’t engaged in money politics], which is not in line with the EC’s opinion. But all the investigation processes were legitimate, and the court also agreed with the EC’s decision to give the orange card.”

How high can the double standards be piled in Fantasy Land? If the investigation was legitimate, how did it get it wrong? If the decision was wrong, how could the vote be overturned?

The answers are, of course, that the EC and the judiciary worked hand-in-glove with the military and the junta to rig the election and they got away with it.





Sharp right turn

28 09 2020

About a week ago, PPT posted on an op-ed by rabid anti-Thaksinista and supporter of everything yellow, Veera Prateepchaikul where he seemed to have reached a political crossroads as he praised the behavior of activists and even boosted their causes and demands as reasonable.

But something changed. At the crossroads he turned sharp right. Veera’s latest op-ed is suddenly anti-student activist, declaring the 19-20 September rally “anything but a success.” Where he previously praised the protesters for compromising when handing over the petition, he now damns them as failures.

Conservative commentators are getting back into yellow formation to attack the students.

Veera now thinks that the rally was a measure of the regime’s power. It can ignore the protests: “The sudden twist in parliament … when government MPs joined senators to stall the vote on six proposed charter amendments … is a clear indication these legislators are not treating the protesters as seriously as they were before the rally.”

The rightist mantra now says the rally “was not as big as was predicted.” But, here’s the main point that is driving the rightist response and lie: “More important … most of the protesters were not students, but red-shirt followers — many of whom were said to have been mobilised by a political party.”

Red shirts did not make up the majority of protesters and there was no secret that the student leaders had called on red shirts to join the rally. For Veera and others, this raises the Thaksin Shinawatra threat. And away they go into rabid attacks.

This comes as the junta/regime is working hard to bribe and coax more Puea Thai Party MPs to its side or perhaps even the whole party.








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