Further updated: Crooks, fraudsters, and palace

16 05 2021

The story of four high-profile suspects arrested in connection with a fraudulent investment ring estimated to have made off with at least 1 billion baht reminded us of an earlier hi-so fraud.

In the recent case, police detained “Lt Col Dr Amraporn Visetsuk, chairwoman of the Tiao Puea Chart (Travel for the Country) project, and three others, on charges of public fraud and collaborating in fraudulent public borrowing. All of them denied the charges.” The one who got away was “suspected ringleader Prasit Jeawkok, chairman of the Kuen Khun Pandin (Paying Back the Land) project…”.

The story gets more interesting:

Last year, Pannika Wanich, spokeswoman for the Progressive Movement, accused Mr Prasit of being behind the army’s now-discredited “information operation” (IO) and allowing the army to use the servers under his control for free.

Prasit himself has “boasted of his royalist credentials and unbuttoned his shirt to show a ‘Long Live the King’ tattoo on his chest. Even if he supported IO, he declared, it was a ‘good IO’.”

Prasit has been praised by the wealthy Yuenyong Opakul or Add Carabao who is also a mad monarchist, writing “the song ‘Prasit the Giver,’ praising his good deeds under the Kuen Khun Pandin project in July 2019.”

All of this is vaguely familiar to anyone old enough to remember the fantastic Mae Chamoy fraud case in the mid-1980s that saw Chamoy Thipyaso and seven others found guilty of corporate fraud and on 27 July 1989, sentenced her to 141,078 years in prison. She only served 8 years.

It was her connections with the military, and especially the Royal Thai Air Force and also with the Petroleum Authority of Thailand, saw her chit fund scheme go on for almost 20 years, providing huge returns to some at the top of the pyramid scheme.

As the linked report states:

Chamoy

Among her clients there were prominent members from the military and the Royal Household, which prompted calls for the Thai government to bail out the banks and chit funds. Discussions of an unknown nature were made with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, following which the chit fund was wound up and Thipyaso arrested. She was [d]etained secretly by the Air Force for a few days.

Thipyaso’s trial only commenced after the losses of the victims from the military and royal staff were recovered….

Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles (pp. 308-9) has more on the scheme:

Chit funds were pyramid schemes that had blossomed over several years without intervention from the government, in part because many had strong government connections. One especially, the Mae (Mother) Chamoy Fund, was estimated at $300 million and involved large numbers of investors from the military and, it soon became apparent, the royal household, including probably Sirikit, Vajiralongkorn, Ubolrat, and Chulabhorn. With such prominent and politically significant people likely to lose massively in the Mae Chamoy collapse, [Gen] Arthit [Kamlang-ek] stepped in again. He threatened a coup if the government did not rescind the [recent baht] devaluation and bail out the banks and chit funds.

This time, King Bhumibol himself rescued [Gen] Prem [Tinsulanonda], without saying anything. Prem went to stay at the Phuphan Palace for nine days, and each day the media ran pictures of Prem with the king, queen, and crown prince. Making the message clear, when Prem returned to Bangkok he was escorted by Prince Vajiralongkorn and Chulabhorn’s consort Captain Virayuth. When Arthit then flew to the Phuphan Palace, Prem turned around and went back. What was said in their discussions with the king was not made public, but the episode ended with Prem still in power and Arthit unpunished for his series of mutinous acts. The devaluation stood and the Mae Chamoy Fund was shut down, but only after more backhall dealings managed by Prem. Fund manager Chamoy was arrested and held in secret by the air force until, it is believed, the losses of palace and military personnel and other high officials were recovered. Only afterward was she tried and sent to prison. Her hearing was held in camera and the records were sealed, presumably to protect the palace. Meanwhile thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of people who didn’t have special protectors lost their savings.

Are we completely mad to wonder if there aren’t some coincidences of news now and news then?

Update 1: Adding to the mystery and protection of fraudsters, it is reported that Prasit Jeawkok has done a deal with police to surrender to them on 17 May. It is common for influential people to arrange this kind of deal and arrive to meet police with influential figures and lawyers. At the same time, we are told that “the Second Army pledged the suspect, Lt Col Amaraphon, who is attached with the Second Army’s Support Command, will face punishment if she is found guilty.” That’s a familiar refrain, seldom ever carried out.

Update 2: Thai Enquirer has two op-eds on this case, here and here. Is anyone surprised that Lt Col Amaraphon already has bail? Scams like this produce huge cash flows for big shots.





The crown and the crop top

28 11 2020
The Economist’s Michael Peel has a really quite good article in one of the newspaper’s magazines. It’s behind a paywall but deserves to be more widely available, not least for the fabulous graphics. We hope the newspaper can put up with our reproduction of its excellent work:

The crown and the crop top: the king of Thailand in six objects

Decoding the mysterious monarchy that has provoked massive protests

The monarchy has long been treated with deference in Thailand. Until recently, people rarely mentioned the royal family in public except to proclaim their loyalty to it. Thailand is unusual among constitutional monarchies in having a potent lèse majesté law – a prohibition on insulting the royal family. Taking the king’s name in vain can lead to a prison sentence of 15 years.

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the current king’s father, commanded genuine respect, though it wasn’t always clear where devotion ended and fear of transgressing the law began. When Bhumibol (pronounced Poom-ee-pon) died in 2016, he was succeeded by his son and heir – a very different public figure.

To many Thais the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn (pronounced Wa-cheera-long-kon) is less worthy of veneration: he is on his fourth marriage, spends most of his time in Germany and has sought to accumulate personal wealth and power, most recently by taking direct command of two army units in Bangkok. Even his mother once described Vajiralongkorn as a “bit of a Don Juan” and suggested he might have to change his ways or quit the royal family.

Over the past few months thousands of young Thais have been staging demonstrations in the streets. In an unprecedented show of defiance, they are not only talking about the monarchy but openly criticising the way it operates. Protesters have many reasons to be frustrated – the army’s influence in politics, choking restrictions on freedom of speech and a wider sense that the gerontocratic Thai elite is closed to new ideas amid a lingering economic malaise. One personality looms over these diffuse grievances: the king.

In theory the Thai monarchy acts as a unifying force and, like its British counterpart, stays out of politics. But a long history of coups by the palace’s allies in the army (most recently in 2014) suggests otherwise. The aura of a quaint, benignly ruled country that Thailand used to project to outsiders is fading. The deliberate opacity of the monarchy doesn’t help. The king rarely gives interviews and the mainstream press is not allowed to probe his role (in a rare interview Vajiralongkorn gave as crown prince in the 1980s, he complained at being the subject of false rumours). When scraps of information about the royal family or images of the king do make it into the public domain, people pore over them, parsing the regal stage props: old fashioned Kremlinology for the media age.

King Vajiralongkorn was formally crowned in 2019 with a two-foot cone of diamond-encrusted gold enamel dating back to the start of the Chakri dynasty in 1782. The Great Crown of Victory is an expression of the mystique with which the Thai royal family has surrounded itself.

For most of history, the Chakris were just another absolutist dynasty. Then, in 1932, an uprising by military officers and bureaucrats forced the monarchy to accept some democratic changes, like a parliament. When Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946 he was only 18, and at first depended heavily on generals, business and bureaucratic elites and foreign diplomats. Within this informal alliance everyone worked to promote their mutual interests, a form of monarchical governance so unusual that a new term was coined to describe it: the “network monarchy”.

Over time Bhumibol added to his personal power with ritual and prestige. He pursued archaic practices such as an annual ploughing ceremony, held to mark the start of the rice-growing season, and reinstated a custom that individuals prostrate themselves before the monarch (a predecessor had stopped this in the 19th century, regarding it as demeaning).

The economy boomed under Bhumibol, thanks more to foreign investment and tourism than the agricultural initiatives he championed, like cloud-seeding. One of Bhumibol’s lasting agrarian interventions was to set up a department of royal rainmaking.

The coronation jewels are a potent emblem of a powerful monarchy to which some older Thais feel an almost religious devotion. The crown’s height is supposed to evoke the summit of Mount Meru, the heart of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies. Yet the crown also acts as a real-world symbol of an institution reliant on spectacle: at 7kg, it is one of the heaviest coronation crowns still in use today (the St Edward Crown, placed on the head of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, came in at a paltry 2kg). That’s a weighty legacy to bear.

Friends with benefits Beware expensive gifts

Western powers have long played a role in boosting the status of the Thai monarchy. The 1960s and 1970s were not an easy time to be a king in South-East Asia and Bhumibol’s position was greatly strengthened by his close relationship with America. But it’s a friendship with strings attached: there’s a murkier side to the bountiful displays of support and affection.

In 2018 the American embassy in Bangkok held an eye-opening exhibition to celebrate the relationship, entitled “Great and Good Friends”, a reference to a salutation American presidents used in addressing the “kings of Siam”. On display were the extravagant gifts Thai monarchs have bestowed on occupants of the White House.

Come for the gold niello turtle presented to Lyndon Johnson’s baby grandson, and stay for the diamond-embellished vine-woven bags given to Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush when each was First Lady. King Bhumibol and his wife Queen Sirikit toured America twice in the 1960s, appearing on a TV chat show and hanging out with Elvis Presley. The young Thai monarch also met the then-president, Dwight Eisenhower, and gave him a recipe for Thai noodles.

The bonhomie masked a grittier relationship. Thailand agreed to host the American B-52 bombers that pummelled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam war. The king also proved to be a valuable propaganda asset: as a Western-friendly monarch, he stood in contrast to the communists who were sweeping to power in other parts of the region. As Time magazine wrote in 1966, “(The) men who run Thailand are well aware that their youthful king is their – and the nation’s – greatest living asset.” The long line of the Chakri dynasty belies a frailty at its heart: the friends, and compromises, it has been forced to make to survive.

In dogs we trust A fuss over Foo Foo, the prince’s poodle

Dogs have featured heavily in the life of Thai monarchs. King Bhumibol, a man who projected seriousness and dignity, even wrote a book about his pet mongrel Tondaeng, extolling the virtues of canine obedience. It was widely seen as a prescription for the Thai people. Tondaeng had been a street dog and the message was clear for all: loyalty is not about pedigree, and everyone should know their place.

King Vajiralongkorn’s relationship with his pet poodle Foo Foo was quite different. When he was crown prince he reportedly appointed Foo Foo as an air chief marshal. At a gala dinner for a jazz band from New Orleans, the dog attended wearing “formal evening attire complete with paw mitts”, according to an account relayed in a diplomatic cable later published by WikiLeaks. “At one point during the band’s second number, he jumped up onto the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses.” When Foo Foo died in 2015, four days of mourning were held for him, complete with Buddhist prayers, before he was cremated.

Foo Foo also became a symbol for the playboy prince’s lifestyle. His fame began with a bizarre video which began circulating on the internet in 2009 showing Vajiralongkorn sat at a table with his third wife, Princess Srirasmi, who was wearing only a G-string. The prince clutched Foo Foo as the couple sang “Happy Birthday” (it’s not clear to whom), and then the princess crouched before the prince and his dog, offering up birthday cake from a silver dish. It’s the kind of surreal behaviour that has only added to the air of menace and unpredictability surrounding Vajiralongkorn.

His Sunday best Demonstrators mock the king’s crop tops

In Thailand King Vajiralongkorn is most often seen parading in his royal regalia, complete with a colourful array of medals. Unusually for a Thai king, however, Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time in Bavaria, where he has been snapped wearing skimpy crop tops, sometimes with elaborate temporary tattoos splayed across his back and arms.

Despite attempts by the generals in Bangkok to scrub these images from Facebook, it’s a look that has been noticed back home. Protesters have started turning up to demonstrations in similar attire, a satirical comment not just on the king’s surprising sartorial choice but what they see as his wider rejection of Thailand and the standards of propriety demanded by his office.

The king’s unorthodox lifestyle is a growing headache for the government in Germany, too. He apparently holed up in a hotel in Bavaria at the start of the coronavirus pandemic (at a time when all such establishments were ordered to close). Members of Bavaria’s state parliament have asked whether the king is liable to pay tax locally. The foreign ministry recently warned Vajiralongkorn not to conduct affairs of state from German soil.

Cementing his power The list of royal assets is long and growing

Protesters often focus their anger on the vast fortune of the royal family. With a total estimated wealth of more than $40bn, Vajiralongkorn is among the richest monarchs in the world. His many assets include a large shareholding in the Siam Cement Group: the lorries and mixers of this industrial giant are ubiquitous, a daily reminder of the king’s economic clout.

The wealth of the Thai monarchy has grown under Vajiralongkorn. Previously, royal investments had been held by the secretive Crown Property Bureau. Information about the bureau’s activities is limited, but it is known to control large amounts of property in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand, some of it highly prized (the bureau was reported to have demanded only peppercorn rent for a sprawling plot it leased to the American government for the ambassador’s residence).

Some people already suspected that the bureau was effectively the monarch’s personal piggy bank, but officially at least, it was holding the wealth “in trust for the nation”. In July 2017 Vajiralongkorn personally took over managing the bureau. The following year the bureau announced it had transferred all its holdings to Vajiralongkorn himself, removing the last element of ambiguity about whose money it was.

What a handful “The Hunger Games” defiant salute finds new followers

For years demonstrators in Thailand have staged intermittent protests against the coup-happy army (which is allied to the royal family) and its hold over the political realm. The dynamics of these demonstrations often reflected struggles among the political and business elite, as different sides mobilised their supporters.

Things are different this time. Those who started the current protests in Bangkok are remarkable for their youth – some are still at school. They don’t have an official leader. And they have a radical new agenda: wide-ranging reform of the monarchy itself. Their demands include the right to criticise the royal family, a reduction in its spending and removal from the school curriculum of material glorifying the monarchy.

This new cohort of protesters identifies with the group of rebels fighting despotic oppression in “The Hunger Games”, a series of books and films for young adults. The three-fingered salute of Katniss Everdeen and her fellow freedom-fighters had been used by protesters before in Thailand, but it has become the iconic image of the current demonstrations.

The potential dangers of opposing the Thai royal family are real. In 2018 the bodies of two Thai campaigners against the monarchy were found in the Mekong river in Laos, close to the border with Thailand. The murderers have never been identified. In Bangkok the authorities have arrested many protesters and charged some with sedition. So far the royal response to recent demonstrations has been merely to ask the younger generation to “love the country and love the monarchy”. King Vajiralongkorn has said that Thailand is a ”land of compromise”, but many reckon the biggest scenes in this drama are still to come. The house of Chakri – and those who benefit from it – do not take challenges lightly. ■

ILLUSTRATIONS: JAKE READ

Additional images: Getty, Backgrid, John Burwell, Splash News, AP, Alamy

In addition, The Economist has a very useful little podcast on recent events, which seems to be free to access at: https://embed.acast.com/theintelligencepodcast/athismajesty-displeasure-thailand-santi-monarchypush beginning on Thailand at about 0:50 and running for about 5 minutes.





Royals walking backwards

6 05 2020

The state’s propaganda outlet, the National News Bureau of Thailand is doing its best to boost the absent monarch’s profile. In a recent story the royal response to the virus outbreak sound as though it is the former king at work. Back in the days of the 1997 economic crisis, King Bhumibol asked poor Thais to tighten their belts and save the rich though notions of “sufficiency.” It was mostly the middle class who latched onto his notion of “walking backwards into the klong,” developed romantic notions of rural life and then supported yellow-shirted causes into the 2000s and beyond.

This crisis seems to have the royal household struggling for new ideological hooks, so they are falling back on 1950s and 1960s ideas of developing a “model farm project under a Royal Initiative” that is said to provide “agricultural knowledge for local residents” impacted by the virus crisis. Quasi-military “Royal Thai Volunteers” are mobilized to tell the “local residents” what is best for them.

Locals pushed back(wards) Clipped from National News Bureau

Several big shots “presided over the development of the model farm project under the Royal Initiative of … Queen Sirikit … in Angthong province.” First time we’ve heard anything about the Dowager for a while. In the few times she’s been seen in recent years, she seems to be in a semi-vegetative state. Later on in the report King Vajiralongkorn’s name is added to his mum’s, saying they have “provided a model farm project to aid the citizens of the area.”

Trainees made to feel grateful. Clipped from National News Bureau

The virus, it is reported, “has had a wide impact on citizens.” And, as the report rightly says, this is because “[m]any have become unemployed and face a financial crisis.”

The project is said to “provide careers and alleviate the burdens of daily life, by having these citizens learn specialized agricultural methods and be able to adapt them for use in their households, becoming better able to support their families.” Maybe if the king and his military didn’t such the country dry, along with their tycoon buddies, the “trainees” might have had a better life.

The big shots get the glory. Clipped from National News Bureau

In this project, though, it appears the sucking out of the surplus continues as the “villagers become agricultural attendants, the project is able to produce and develop new products for further study and for sale.” Who gets the proceeds is not clear. Who actually pays for the project is equally opaque. We guess it is the taxpayer.

There’s a bunch of similar stories around that we are too bored with to bother commenting further apart from mentioning the Pid Thong Lang Phra Foundation, which is a royal-sponsored initiative that also promotes the sufficiency philosophy and which also tells us that there are now PhD programs in sufficiency economy. That must be one of the least serious PhDs around and would certainly not encourage critical thinking. We had never heard of it but it gives out 300 fellowships a year! Its training a cadre of royalists! We guess soldiers and bureaucrats like it.

All of this activity is meant to make the absent Vajiralongkorn appear less remote, vacant and self-indulgent.





Coronation and Prayuth

23 06 2018

On his UK junket, The Dictator was wheeled out before an adoring bunch of Thais – those the London Embassy regularly mobilizes for royal visits, royalists all. Usually meant to confirm the highness of the visitor, on this occasion, being exalted and pandered to caused Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha to become loquacious.

The Dictator talked of royals and elections.

He lied that Queen Sirikit “is in good health but that it is not convenient for her to attend public events now due to her advanced age.” No one believes this but Prayuth can hardly say she’s on her death bed or that she is incapacitated or suffering dementia. Royals just stay “healthy” almost until they are pushing up daisies.

He was not likely to be lying when he spoke of the king – to do so would be dangerous, perhaps deadly. It is not the first time that The Dictator has spoken of and for the king previously.

Gen Prayuth stated that the king “has commanded his coronation ceremony be held economically…”. Gen Prayuth added that the king “commanded that it be held in a frugal not wasteful manner but asked that it align with traditional custom…”. Whatever that means…. Coronations have not always been extravagant.

Oddly Prayuth then said that the “coronation is expected to be held before the general election in February.” A couple of days ago, he said something different.

But this time he implied that it is the king who may be delaying the “election” due to the coronation. Prayuth said: “When the right time comes, … [the king] will consider signing [off on the date of his coronation]. He will take into consideration the general situation in the country…”. He added: “If it is peaceful and orderly, he [the king] would be pleased [to see the coronation held]…”.

Just to add to the picture of collusion and collaboration between king and palace, The Dictator stated that the king “has shown faith in the government’s ability to accomplish the task.” Like Prayuth, the king was said to “want … Thailand to be a disciplined country where people are instilled with a sense of voluntary sacrifice…”.

Finally, Prayuth, again referring to the king, said “the poll would fall in May at the latest but that February would be the most suitable month.” Local elections would follow national polls, not take place before them. (In fact, this was never really an options, just a junta talking point.)

We are betting on May, at the earliest, so long as The Dictator – and, apparently, the king – reckon Prayuth can deliver the appropriate and rigged result.





Celebrity and the face of the monarchy

10 05 2018

Thailand’s monarchy, politically powerful and hugely wealthy, is composed of an odd bunch of royals. They are nothing if not a visual spectacle of strangeness and some seem to delight is somewhat strange behavior.   Some of them seem to crave a celebrity status comparable with the worst of public celebrities elsewhere.

We at PPT are often reminded of a British comedy about another dysfunctional royal family.

Yet as Khaosod reports, Princess Ubolratana, now 67 years old, likes to be in the spotlight.

She has recently “performed” a series of pop and other songs. The report is replete with videos of various performances by the royal grandmother, presenting herself as someone one-third her age.

No one in Thailand dares criticize her performance or tells her to behave. That’s because of strict lese majeste laws (even though she’s not officially covered by the law).

Of course, this means that no matter what she does, she’s praised. The media carry this praise to a wider audience and Ubolratana is not shy about self-promotion.

With the queen out of sight and ill and King Vajiralongkorn – Ubolratana’s younger brother – not as visible as his father was in the heyday of the ninth reign, the public face of the monarchy is often princesses.

Their public personae and antics are increasingly defining of the public’s monarchy and present a gayer and less severe face to the monarchy than that associated with the erratic and feared king. That’s probably welcomed, even in the royal family, but the performances are often odd, sometimes bizarre.





Updated: Royalism undermines popular sovereignty

14 08 2017

Everyone knows that the prince, now king, began his purges of the palace from late 2014, when he “divorced” Srirasmi. Dozens of her family and associates were jailed. Then there were the clearances that saw “unreliables” ditched, deaths in custody, lese majeste jailings and the use of a personal jail. Some fearful palace associates, now out of favor, fled the country.

This was followed by an aggregation of control to the palace. The constitution was secretly changed to accord with the king’s desires and then secret meetings of the puppet assembly gave him control over formerly state bureaucratic departments and the vast wealth of the Crown Property Bureau to the king.

Has he finished? Probably not. Fear and favor mean that an erratic king will lose interest in some people and some things and will need to be rid of them. Then he’ll desire control over other people and things.

But one of the other things that is noticeable is the “normalization” of the reign, as if nothing has changed or that the changes made are in line with the normal activities of the king and palace. Yet even this “normalization” has been a process of promoting a heightened royalism.

The media has been used recently to promote royalism. The excuse has been the queen’s 85th birthday, with a series of “stories” about “people nationwide” celebrating her birthday. Many of the photos showed military men and bureaucrats doing the celebrating.

The Dictator was especially prominent, leading the junta in an alms-giving exercise for 851 monks at the Royal Plaza, claiming it was also a tribute to the dead monarch.

More specific propaganda pieces have dwelt on “merit” and filial piety. For example, the Bangkok Post has run pictures of the king, his mother and Princess Sirindhorn making merit together.

Other royal stories include a donation to of 100 million baht to Siriraj Hospital, with the king thanking the hospital for taking care of his father. The money is said to have “come from revenue from selling his diaries featuring his drawings…”.

While we might doubt that so much money can be made from the sale of a collection of childish drawings, the junta’s support for the king has been strong and maybe it bought many diaries and distributed them.

But back to deepening royalism. The Nation reports on a “revival” of Kukrit Pramoj’s restorationist story “Four Reigns.” Kukrit was an incessant promoter of royalism, ideologue for the dictatorial General Sarit Thanarat, booster for King Bhumibol and diplomat for royalism translated for foreigners.

The Four Reigns is now Six Reigns. According to The Nation, the “restaging of Thailand’s most commercially successful musical play is more pro-absolute monarchy than ever.”

The play opens with the scene in which the spirit of Mae Phloi starts to recount her life story and confirm her unwavering love for “kings”, and the background is the familiar image of people gathering outside the wall of the Grand Palace paying respect to the late King Bhumibol.

And with the last scene showing Thai people paying respect to King Vajiralongkorn, the play now covers six, not four, reigns.

Clearly, the play … tries, more clearly than the original novel, to prove … that Thailand was much better before 1932 than after. This outdated attitude doesn’t sit too well in 2017 Thailand, as we try to build our political system from “military junta under a constitutional monarchy” to “unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy”, a kind of democracy that is already difficult to explain to our friends from many countries.

This royalism can only deepen as the cremation of the dead king approaches and as Vajiralongkorn and the junta further embed his reign and undermine notions of popular sovereignty.

Update: The new king is the old king propaganda continues, with two stories at The Nation of the king’s donations to 300 flood victims and 39 students in the south. We should add that there is no evidence provided of where the funds come from. Like royal projects, it may be that “donations” are all taxpayer funded.





Conspiratorial musings

25 06 2017

Shawn Crispin at the Asia Times has a view that everything that happens in Thailand is a conspiracy. When he reports on Thailand’s politics, it is almost never from an on-the-record source. But he always cobbles together an interesting story of conspiratorial maneuvers.

We don’t reject conspiracies as an explanation. Indeed, our limited experience of Thailand’s movers and shakers is that they are always planning to foil the next conspiracy even when they don’t know what it is or who is behind it. So conspiracies are often built around and constructed from factual events that are put together into a story that is embellished and may or may not be accurate.

In his most recent outing at Asia Times, Crispin mixes a frothy conspiratorial cocktail, mixing knowns with unknowns and unknowns with speculation and guessing. This is apparently in the tradition of Bush era Secretary for Middle East invasion, Donald Rumsfeld: “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

He begins with the bomb that “ripped through a Bangkok military hospital in late May…”, and like many, he seems to not be all that convinced by the claims that the military got their bomber. What the bombing does is provide the “potential for Thailand’s ruling military junta to leverage the blast to further delay elections scheduled for next year for reasons of national security.”

Apart from the obvious – elections are not always predictable unless totally controlled, they love uncontrolled power and the junta hates elections anyway – why would they want further delay?

The capture last week of a 62-year-old ex-civil servant suspect with alleged links to coup-ousted ex-premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra’s “Red Shirt” pressure group underscored the notion that political instability and disenchantment are on the rise three years after the military suspended democracy and seized power in a May 2014 coup. Try this:

Polling conducted by the Internal Security and Operations Command (ISOC), a military unit under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office, has shown repeatedly since the coup, as well as in recent months, that Peua Thai would win any free and fair vote, according to a source familiar with the confidential surveys.

To be honest, we are skeptical of this, not least because the “election” will not be free or fair and the junta has been working for more than three years to prevent such a result. But let’s say it is true. Crispin’s claim is that “the premier appears to be testing the political waters for yet another delay.” That’s certainly true.

That could come in any number of forms, including the death of the queen. Crispin says there are “new worries about the state of 84-year-old Queen Sirikit’s health…”. He adds:

Royal family members, including Vajiralongkorn, recently came together when Queen Sirikit was urgently moved from Siriraj to another medical facility due to a health scare. Many anticipate Prayuth’s junta, led by troops who rose to prominence on their loyalty to Sirikit, would announce and impose another extended period of national mourning that puts politics in abeyance upon her eventual death.

He then talks of factions in the military. Of course, there are many and there always have been, but concentrating on them too closely is like reading tea leaves in a tea house that’s burning down. Prayuth’s in place as long as he can manage the troops and give them toys and positions that provide pay-offs.

But there are always younger fascists keen to get ahead, like the detestable First Region army commander General Apirat Kongsompong, a King’s Guard soldier now tipped as a likely future army commander. We don’t know the king’s preferences yet, and they are likely to be significant for we know he will want a say and that he must have remora-like officers around him.

The referendum also allowed for an unelected premier, which the military-appointed Senate’s presumed cohesive bloc will likely have strong sway over after the next poll. Until recently, analysts presumed Prayuth was the mostly likely candidate to become appointed premier over an elected “unity” government the military would check and control from above. Crispin says he has “frequent one-on-one audiences with [Generals] Prayuth and Chalermchai [Sitthisart].”

Presumably that when’s he’s actually in Thailand and not cycling around parts of Erding and being shot in the backside with plastic bullets.

Vajiralongkorn also seems to be a fan, for the moment, of the General Apirat, not least because the latter will do anything for publicity and promotion. However, that publicity may not always keep the king jolly.

Then the Kremlin watchers-cum-military-watchers in Thailand will be waiting to read October’s military reshuffle list and will see all kinds of messages there. Who won, who lost and that kind of cake decoration. But decorated cakes can have a political impact, not least when a general feels done down.

Is there rising factionalism in the armed forces? We don’t think so as the military is happy enough in harness at present. But things change. The junta is getting criticized far more widely now, and if that continues, Prayuth may be turfed out. But as Crispin concludes:

While Prayuth’s once near-absolute grip has certainly started to slip with new challenges from within the military and a more assertive monarchy, it’s not clear the solider-cum-premier is ready to yield power any time soon to the same politicians and anti-junta activists he believes caused the various problems his military government has aimed and claimed to solve.

We think that’s not idle speculation.





Updated: New king and palace propaganda

30 12 2016

A new king means that the palace’s propaganda needs to be realigned. It has a network of tame authors and journalists who are prepared to continue their work of mythologizing the monarchy.

These lackeys are being mobilized to produce saccharin stories that seek to “correct” the negative stories that appeared around the time of accession. This palace propaganda goes hand-in-hand with the efforts of the military junta to suppress the negative accounts – and there are a lot of them – about the king and his foibles and faults. That includes the use of the draconian lese majeste law.

One of the trusted palace-connected journalists is Dominic Faulder, perhaps best known for his work as “senior editor” of the palace’s “semi-official” King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A Life’s Work. That was a lengthy, expensive and faulty response to Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. In the palace handbook, Faulder is listed as having been a correspondent for the defunct Asiaweek magazine, a former president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand and an editor of another piece of royalist puff, The King of Thailand in World Focus.

Now listed as an associate editor of the Nikkei Asian Review. where he has authored a series of monarchist articles that reproduce much of the palace propaganda about the deceased king.

pattyThe most recent contribution to appear at Nikkei Asian Review is a puff piece that is the first that begins the reorientation of international “journalism” to the new king. In a series called “Agents of Change 2017,” Faulder fawns over Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol.

Who? Yes, plucked from relative obscurity (except for the royal news broadcast each day in Thailand), she “qualifies” because she is the new king’s first daughter.

Faulder describes her as holding “a unique position in Thailand, both by birth and from her life experience,” and trawls for something to say, quoting an unnamed diplomat from 2009 as saying  she had “an increasingly high profile and a reputation for being perhaps the sharpest of the royal family members.” That diplomat, if he or she really existed, was disingenuous.

Part of the reason for highlighting “Patty” is to do a bit of royal laundry. She “is the daughter of Princess Soamsawali, the first of three wives [we count 4] of then Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Her mother, a niece of Queen Sirikit, remains one of the most active and visible members of the royal family, despite being divorced in 1991.”

That refers to the queen’s desire to promote her “line” by having her son marry a first cousin. The deal on the messy divorce was that, unlike more recent women booted out by the prince, with noble blood and the queen a relative, she kept royal position and profile.

At 38, her life is said to involve “a lively social life among high society friends with a more serious side that sees her mixing with soldiers, officials, academics and diplomats.” Her hi-so lifestyle is “normalized” by the claim that she “likes to drive herself around in a red Mini Cooper S or a vivid green Volkswagen Beetle.” For those not in the know, driving oneself is considered “radical” for royals.

While she’s still single, Faulder lets on that there’s the “possibility of royal weddings after her grandfather’s elaborate cremation…”. Why is this relevant? Faulder doesn’t make the point, but as she’s the only offspring of the current crop of royals issued from the late king’s children who has royal blood on both sides of the family, Patty “is expected to play a leading role in support of her father, and in buffing the image of the House of Chakri, the Siamese dynasty founded in 1782.”

Like her royal aunts, she’s claimed to be well educated, having a law doctorate from Cornell University. (Has anyone seen her thesis?) That led to some promotion by the palace propaganda machine, with Faulder pointing out that “briefly joined the Thai permanent mission to the United Nations in New York as a first secretary,” before returning to Thailand to “work” as “a prosecutor in the office of the attorney general.” That seemed brief as well:

After returning to the Thai foreign ministry, she chaired the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in 2011. She remained for two more years in Vienna as ambassador to Austria, a post she took up at the unusually young age of 34. She was concurrently Thailand’s permanent representative to the U.N. at Vienna, one of the organization’s four global headquarters.

Of course it is “unusually young.” Such things only happen to Thailand’s royals, who are all polymaths and where positions are created for them. No one dares complain that they are dull or unqualified.

Faulder loyally repeats much of the fawning that has already gone on about this princess. She “founded the Princess Pa Foundation with her mother in 1995 to help victims of flooding and natural disasters.” That is, when she was 17. She then “founded and personally funded with 300,000 baht ($8,600) the Kamlangjai (Inspire) Project for women imprisoned with their children…”. Recall that she’s now an heir to a fortune of about $50 billion and she gave this paltry amount. But that investment allows lackey journalists to claim this “gift” is meaningful.

odd-nationalismNothing much has changed in Thailand for the “work” of the foundations and women prisoners are abused and prison conditions in Thailand remain horrendous.

Faulder explains that one of her roles “is putting an engaged and contemporary face on Thailand’s time-honored institution.” This seems to include sharing the media space with her father as she did in the Bike for Mom event earlier in 2015. True to palace propaganda, Faulder adds that the event “showed a resilient, more youthful side to the royal institution, and revealed the future king in evidently robust health…”.

Like her father, she’s portrayed as fit and well exercised. We are told that in “September, she led a mixed party up Fansipan, in northern Vietnam — the highest mountain in the Indochina region.” She took the cable car and then, quite oddly, planted a Thai flag at the concreted summit.

Now that the old king has gone, the queen is sick and senile and the new king is her dad, get used to the idea that she will be promoted and that the propaganda machine will whitewash the new king’s past.

Update: Readers may be interested in Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s take on this story about Patty.





Updated: Ill queen surfaces

27 05 2016

Little has been heard of the ill and aged queen for almost a year. She’s been ill since late 2010, not that long after she had actively gone to bat for the People’s Alliance for Democracy. She is widely believed to have suffered a stroke in mid-2012.

Queen

2015

Since then she’s spent time in hospital – said to be in a suite near where the king is kept alive. Following their brief release from hospital, the queen returned to Siriraj Hospital in late May 2015.

Khaosod reports that the queen “has undergone medical tests at Chulalongkorn Hospital which found insufficient blood flow to her brain…”. This statement of “insufficient blood flow to her brain” is exactly as the Royal Household Bureau reported it in 2012.

As usual in cases associated with royal health, she seems well immediately! The “test found no new abnormalities, and a check up of other body systems by computer X-ray found no changes compared to 2015…”.

Her last bout of “insufficient blood flow to her brain” was apparently a stroke and she underwent considerable rehabilitation. Even so, she remains out of sight and is said to struggle with walking and talking.

Update: As usual when it comes to royal health, the queen is now reported to be well again. In another one of those weirdly worded palace reports, after “[d]octors had invited the Queen to Chulalongkorn Hospital to have tests done with specialised instruments on Wednesday,” she returned to Siriraj on Friday, apparently as good as she was before there were reasons to “invite” her for scans at Chulalongkorn. The swollen-kneed doctors say they “were satisfied with the results … [and only] found a trace of a previous illness resulting from insufficient blood in the brain found in 2012, but the latest checks found ‘no new abnormalities’.” Make of this what you will; two conflicting reports from the same palace sources.





Unleashing extremism

2 11 2015

Unleashing extremists has long been a tactic employed by the military when dealing with political opposition. This was especially clear during the 1973-76 period when rightists associated with the palace and often led by military figures were used to create unrest and destroy opponents. This often led to murder and what are now called enforced disappearances. The role of the Red Gaur and Village Scouts in the 6 October 1976 is available in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (clicking downloads a 70 page PDF).

The Red Gaur was led by Army intelligence officer Maj. Gen. Sudsai Hasdin. For a time, under General Prem Tinsulanonda’s administration, Sudsai was appointed Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. He and his supporters were often used to pressure opponents with the threat of more mayhem and violence.

Also in that period, rightist monks were active, including the notorious, palace-linked Kittivudho Bhikkhu, who claimed that killing Communists was not much of a sin. He meant all “leftists” who were also considered a threat to the monarchy. He was also a fraudster and shyster. More recently, the military supported the People’s Democratic Reform Committee which had rightist and royalist monk Buddha Issara as one of its leaders.

In other words, rightist extremism is not unusual in Thailand, and has long been supported by both palace and military. Such extremism is promoted by the aggressive notions of the trilogy of Nation, Religion and Monarchy that has been promoted in society, producing xenophobia as well as ultra-royalism and ultra-nationalism.

This is a long introduction to a disturbing report at Prachatai. It states that the monk “Aphichat Promjan, chief lecturer monk at Benjamabophit Temple, a Bangkok temple under royal patronage” has “suggested that the government should burn a mosque for every Buddhist monk killed in the restive Deep South.”

He also urged the government to “arm the Buddhist population in the Deep South as a measure to protect ‘defenseless’ Buddhist monks and people in the area from being targeted by what he called ‘Malayu bandits’.” That aligns with a program that was implemented from about 2004 and saw the arming of Buddhists at the queen’s urging. The aligning of extreme nationalism, royal urging and rights is seen in a Wikileaks cable from 2005.

While this monk probably draws some inspiration from right-wing nationalist monks in Burma, with a dangerous military dictatorship in power in Bangkok, working hard to eliminate all political opposition, the emergence of such rightists and extremists is, sadly, to be expected. The support they receive from military and palace emboldens them.