Updated: Mutual back-scratching

12 12 2016

It is not a secret that companies that do well in Thailand have tended to be big “donors.” Most conspicuously, they fork out millions each year to various royal things, including charities, projects and just handing over bags of money for unspecified royal use. In the giving season, there is an endless parade of donors handing over the loot. Most recently, it has been Princess Sirindhorn doing the receiving on behalf of the world’s richest monarchy. A red royal garuda outside the company head office is one marker of these Sino-Thai tycoons having gained royal approval and acknowledgement.

These companies give less conspicuously to state events and projects. Least conspicuous of all is the myriad of payments that are made to military officers, police top brass and senior bureaucrats. This can involve positions on boards. Think of General Prem Tinsulanonda’s long chairmanship of the Bangkok Bank and all that carried with it for the company and its owners. the marvelous and still unexplained wealth of former police chief Police General Somyos Pumpanmuang, who now heads the casino known as the Thailand Football Association.

Another strategy is the creation of advisory positions, paying nice monthly stipends but where little advising is required unless their is some trouble that needs to be ironed out. And then there are the payments to those officials who are required to do favors, bend rules, overlook things and so on.

This is oiling the wheels of their commerce and trade through a hierarchy of corruption. Yet a blind eye is turned because this is the great and the good scratching each others’ broad backs.

Sometimes, though, through arrogance, forgetting that this is shady dealing and knowing that everyone does it, a revelation is made. The mutual back-scratching is visible and confirmed as in a recent report at the Bangkok Post.

Perhaps believing that revealing unexplained wealth and extra income is okay because so many others have done it with impunity, city police chief Pol Lt Gen Sanit Mahathavorn declared that the giant alcohol and beverage producer Thai Beverage Plc pays him 600,000 baht a year as an “adviser.” ThaiBev is a company controlled by one of Thailand’s richest, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, worth almost $14 billion (naturally, he’s also close to the palace.) The Post story continues:

The payment is shown in Pol Lt Gen Sanit’s list of assets and liabilities that he recently declared to the National Anti-Corruption Committee (NACC) as a member of the National legislative Assembly (NLA). The record shows he began receiving the monthly stipend last year.

The news from the NACC was released in the middle of a long holiday weekend, when it is guaranteed to attract the least possible notice.

It seems the senior policeman thinks receiving loot from the country’s wealthiest – meaning they must be great and good – is normal despite the fact that one aspect of his job is to implement a range of laws that govern the operations of the beer kings, who also have huge land and property investments in Bangkok (and beyond). This senior cop can’t see any conflict of interest, but can see his bank balance doing very nicely. This senior policeman probably also thinks that 600,000 is something of a pittance when compared with all the other illicit funds that funnel up to him. This strategy of corruption in the police is well-documented, and that’s why senior police are so wealthy. When the NLA was put in place by the junta, the top cops averaged a whopping 258 million baht in assets. And, moonlighting by doing favors for the rich and powerful is widely believed to be “legal.”

The criticism has been muted. After all, this corrupt cop has just been appointed by the junta to the NLA, so criticis have to be careful or they could end up in jail, harassed or worse. Somchai Armin, the chairman of something called the Lawyers Association for Rights and Environment Protection, has demanded Sanit give up his job as adviser to ThaiBev. That’s it? Even the Post wonders: “Somchai provided no reason for failing to call for Pol Lt Gen Sanit to resign from the police.”

Of course, Sanit is laying low: he “was not available for comment as of the press time Sunday and it is not clear what advice he has offered to the firm.”

Update: Serial petitioner Srisuwan Janya, secretary-general of the Association for the Protection of the Constitution, has filed a petition on this case with the Office of the Ombudsman.  Srisuwan argues that the Police Lt General “might have violated the Royal Thai Police code of conduct and ethics of 2008, the Prime Minister’s Office regulation of 2008 regarding ethics of political office holders, and the National Anti-Corruption Act of 1989.” The Office of the Ombudsman now has to decide if it will do anything. The military junta has apparently done nothing.

The rich get a bit richer still

8 06 2016

Forbes has released its annual rankings of the rich in 2016. There are a number of stories and a listing of the 50 wealthiest in Thailand (sans the royal family and its Crown Property Bureau).

The Forbes list is compiled, they say, “using shareholding and financial information obtained from the families and individuals, stock exchanges and analysts, the Stock Exchange of Thailand and regulatory agencies.” Forbes also states that “[u]nlike our billionaire rankings, this list encompasses family fortunes, including those shared among extended families of multiple generations. Public fortunes were calculated based on stock prices and exchange rates as of May 20. Private companies were valued based on comparisons with similar companies that are publicly traded.”

PPT has put together the list of the top 10 and compared this with the list for 2015:

Wealth 2016If our calculator and fingers have worked well, the richest 10 are worth $72.7 billion ($67.85 billion a year ago) and the wealthiest 50 are collectively worth $106.445 billion.

Populism banned

16 03 2016

The military dictatorship has been throwing plenty of money about to various constituencies, even bringing back Thaksin Shinawatra-era programs. Not that long ago PPT filched this diagram to show the junta’s populist programs:populist-freebies

Of course, with its usual dry wit – better seen as lies – the junta declared that its repressive populism was nothing at all like the policies it was copying from its political enemies.

In a report in the Bangkok Post it is now revealed that the junta has decided to ban populism whenever there is an elected regime put in place: “The cabinet yesterday approved a draft monetary and fiscal bill which includes controls on spending for populist policies. The move is aimed at preventing future fiscal problems and enhancing transparency in the state fiscal budget.”

In other words, bureaucrats, and probably an appointed senate and the constitutional court, will direct what kind of policies political parties can put to voters.

Apparently, the geniuses in the junta think that this will “close a loophole that allows the government to squander cash in the state coffers on any populist purpose, eventually leading to fiscal problems.” Bureaucrats and unelected nabobs will decide what is populist and what damage such a policy might do. In fact, the bill will simply prevent political parties from being truly independent.

We note that the junta and faceless bureaucrats have an “agreement that off-budget expenses for the government should not exceed 5% of the fiscal budget, while the central budget set aside for emergencies and other necessities should not be above 3-4%. Debt repayment, in turn, should be 3% of the fiscal budget.”

Naturally enough, we are not left wondering why the military’s secret budget is not considered subject to bureaucratic control or why the ever expanding royal budget is not kept under control.

Prince in Munich

28 06 2014

Quite a few readers have asked where the prince is. As many will recall, he left Thailand about a week before the coup, and it is unclear whether he has been back.

This latest news is from the celebrity watchers at Germany’s Bild newspaper. It has the prince in Munich, where he has spent long periods of time in recent years.

PrinceThe report, translated to English says:

They fly in on their own Boeing 737 around the world. For the visit to a garden center in Erding (Bavaria), Thailand’s Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (61) used a Porsche 911 Turbo S from (560 hp, from 197,000 euros).

A BILD reader reporter discovered the Crown Prince with his wife and 20-strong entourage. The luxury car parked the pair in front of the entrance of the center. After 30 minutes they went on their way again.

The BILD reader reporter reported: “There was a bit of a commotion. One of the bodyguards knelt down to open the car door for the princess. Another helped her out when putting on the seatbelt. “

And what did they do at the Center? A spokeswoman: “The couple was interested in plants, aquariums and solar figures. What have just bought it, I do not know. “

As far as we can tell, the woman is not his official wife; readers may correct us.

The report suggests the prince is well settled in Munich.

VIPs and royal charity

9 11 2012

Buddhists are often interested in charity. In Thailand, the very rich have been interested in charity for its ideological and political significance. This has increasingly meant charity directed to royals and their foundations. The lines of Sino-Thai tycoons lining up to throw money at the rich royals in exchange for being seen to be loyal and charitable is standard fare on television and in the newspapers diligently reporting royal affairs.

Such shows of royal merit making and charity have been important in tying the ruling class together through the now huge official royal charities. This was one of the revealing parts of Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. The opportunities for “donating” to things royal have expanded considerably to allow for these mutually beneficial events to show how charitable and good the very rich are.

Collecting the meritorious money has become quite a task, as the ritual of handing it over takes up considerable time, as anyone who still watches the televised royal news knows. So it is that Matichon reports on a rather more efficient congealing of royals, charity and Buddhism. As Christine Gray noted some time ago, “Merit ceremonies are the primary context in which economic power is converted into religious prestige…” and royals and the other rich make much use of this. Joining with royals to make merit is good business and good sense, especially as one may bathe in the reflected glory and just enough of the vaunted barami might rub off.

For a mere 500,000 baht each, 100 of the rich can buy a seat on a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Khon Kaen piloted by Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. Billed as a chance to make merit at a forest temple in Khon Kaen, while raising money for scholarships. And they get to be seen in the royal news as well.

While 49 seats are reserved for Thai Airways and related VIP guests, the other 100 seats are up for grabs and this seems like an opportunity too good to miss for rich royalists who want an efficient way to demonstrate loyalty, be royally charitable and to be recognized for this.

Monarchies in comparison

27 08 2012

Personal or public?

Readers may recall that back in April this year, PPT posted regarding the scandal facing the Spanish king at that time and some of the historical coincidences that haunted the Spanish and Thai kings. At the Council on Foreign Relations blog, Joshua Kurlantzick has a post with a contemporary comparison.

Referring to a Washington Post article of a few days ago, Kurlantzick writes of how European austerity programs are impacting the monarchies there. Kurlantzick reminds readers of the criticism of the Spanish king, Juan Carlos, for his 19th Century and colonial-like penchant for shooting wild animals in Africa (see PPT’s earlier post). That criticism “led to a major backlash against the monarch.” The blog article states that that event has seen calls for “Juan Carlos to drastically cut his annual spending and to be much more transparent about how he is spending money on royal activities.”

While the well-funded and seemingly well-fueled escapes of the youngest British prince/playboy in Las Vegas may suggest that the austerities are not cutting too deep for some, the calls for greater transparency for the more controversial and big spending and well-connected royals has been growing, while establishment figures and self-serving royalists seek to protect the extravagant royals.

Kurlantzick then turns to Thailand:

Though it may be able to hold off such inquiries for now, via harsh lèse-majesté laws and the genuine reverence the monarchy enjoys, the Thai monarchy could learn some lessons from Juan Carlos. Like the Spanish king, the current Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has truly earned a high degree of respect from many Thais over the course of his lengthy reign. But that respect, and the fact that the king’s reign is strongly supported by a core of arch-royalists in Bangkok, does not mean that questions are not increasingly being raised, in private, about the royal family’s finances.

Kurlantzick’s view of “respect” is couched in terms that don’t obliterate history in the way that several news agencies have long done, and the point he makes about transparency for royal finances is an important one. While he believes that “royals seem to understand this [need] in Thailand,”we are not so sure the royals are in any way keen on opening up about health, wealth or much else.

His evidence for feeling that the Thai royals have been given a message is the “recent, royally-approved biography of the king’s life” that he says “contained significantly more information on the Crown Property Bureau “than any royally-approved book had in the past.” That’s true, but it is a bit of closing the gate after the horse has bolted given the high profile of an academic account (get it here) and the related Forbes story of the CPB. Essentially, the book is a royalist and palace attempt to steer the public account of the monarchy, post-Handley (and his The King Never Smiles).

Kurlantzick believes that as the average Thai knows something about the monarchy’s wealth, that knowledge “only fuels a hunger for more —though Thais will not say so in public. On social media sites, and in private conversations, discussion of the Crown Property Bureau now is far more common than in the past.”

Juan Carlos has apparently “announced he would be taking a pay cut voluntarily, according to the Washington Post story, in tune with the austere times.” Kurlantzick asks if that isn’t a “model for other monarchs?” Probably not, for as the palace and those responsible for the recent biography points out, this king is unlike any other…. and other such concoctions that serve “protect” and conceal.

Much that contributes to the wealth and power of the Thai monarchy remains missing from public view. See sets of PPT posts on this here and here.

As a most basic of examples, it remains unclear – make that opaque – how much taxpayer money goes to support the royal family, its activities, projects and personal spending. Efforts have been made to cull information from Budget Bureau papers, but there is no clarity and a myriad of government agencies pour funds into the support of the royals, with no accounting or public accountability (as one small example, think of royal cars). No minister or politician dares  raise questions about royal funding in parliament, which is meant to be one site of scrutiny over the expenditure of public monies; many of these people assist in what amount to cover ups. Senior bureaucrats regularly come out with dopey letters denying royal wealth.

Transparency remains pretty much off the agenda and accountability is a term that is unlikely to be used in the same breathe as monarchy.

More money for royals

17 07 2012

Already the world’s richest royals and receiving hundreds of millions of baht in taxpayer funds each year, governments continually throw ever more taxpayer money at the royals.

The Bangkok Post reports:

The cabinet on Tuesday approved a fund of 112 million baht from the central fund of the 2012 budget to cover expenses for the celebration of Her Majesty the Queen’s 80th birthday on Aug 12….

The extra loot was proposed by the Office of the Prime Minister. It was explained that the additional bags of money were to be used for:

expenses expected to be incurred are for the meetings of the organising committee and other related committees, the public relations, an exhibition in honour of Her Majesty the Queen, a feature film about Her Majesty, and a garden party.

PPT can hardly wait for the “feature film.” We can’t wait for the Democrat Party to claim that the amount is too little and part of a plot to make the monarchy look trivial.

Throwing money at the biggest moneybags in the country seems to be required. The more than US$350 million they already receive just seems somehow inadequate for this royal family. Another $3-4 million for these trifles seems like a drop, but it keep happening. The drops soon become a bucket and then a reservoir. How much does this royal family really cost?

Eat the rich

18 06 2012

One of the ways that the filthy rich feel better about themselves and their often ill-gotten wealth – through the black economy, using influence, corruption, exploiting and enslaving workers – is by shoveling money at royal charities. For the rich, one of the most pleasant ways of doing this is the annual “feast” described by The Nation as it details the lavish 2012 event at The Oriental (where else?).

As in previous years, the portly Princess Sirindhorn chows down with Sino-Thai tycoons, vacuous celebrities, minor royals and the odd politician as 22 “top chefs team up to create a lavish meal to benefit underprivileged kids…”.

An AP Photo

Yep, the 10-course (6++) wine-matched banquet is all for the tiny unwashed. All that Hokkaido scallop tartare, Foie gras egg royal with tofu and shiitake mushroom, chilled duck liver soup, Atlantic lobster, and slow-cooked Les Dombes quail served with (oddly inexpensive and middling) wines like 2007 Domaine Blondelet Pouilly-Fume, 2009 Rhone Valley Tavel Rose and 2006 Chateau Fonroque Bordeaux, washed down with Moyet Fins Bois Cognac will make life better for those who are lucky to eat at all.

For this royal presence and nosh-up, tickets are just 10,000 baht for a nosebag, although you actually have to shell out for a table of 10.

Supporting the BPP

Last year, the dinner raised more than 12 million baht and handed “the bulk of the funds” to the “Border Patrol Police Schools under the Patronage of Her Royal Highness.” Wasn’t it for the kids? Well, they do go to schools….

In fact, the need for the Cold War-era schools and the royal-BPP propaganda is debatable, but the royal family has a long relationship with the often corrupt and murderous BPP, associated with some of the nastiest of vigilantes.

The “gala dinner” is apparently organized as “a way of paying back to society…”. A paltry 12 million hardly seems a “pay back” for the huge wealth the rich have plowed from the exploited, but it probably makes the rich feel better as they bathe in royal aura.

More seriously, the event is a part of the endless events that tie Sino-Thai tycoons and their families to the royal family, in a set of ceremonies and donations that go back to the late 1950s. Royal-capitalist bonding is crucial to the solidarity of the royalist elite in maintaining political and economic control.

In case readers are wondering, our headline is from 1987 black comedy by filmmaker Peter Richardson, which featured a song of the same name by Motörhead, with lyrics here.

Another expensive royal visit

24 05 2012

As readers know, PPT has attempted to present information on the cost to taxpayers of the royal family and its activities. In the past we have posted on royal aircraft and cremations and have posted on estimates of the cost of maintaining the monarchy. The most recent estimate was (a low end) of US$350 million a year.

Today, the Bangkok Post adds a little more to our knowledge of the costs of this very expensive and politicized monarchy, with details on the royal visit to Ayutthaya.

As PPT recently posted, the king is leaving the hospital where he has been for almost three years, to visit a field in Ayutthaya where he is said to have harvested rice 16 years ago. Somehow the field is also associated with one of the king’s “inventions” regarding water control (that appears to flood much of the province to keep Bangkok drier).

The visit, which has the king and queen in the area for all of two hours, will involve “59 vessels … in the maritime procession and nine elephants will take part in the procession on land.” In addition, the visit involves “[a]bout 9,000 officials…”. Multiply that by three to account for two “rehearsals.”

The Nation adds some further details to the cost. Locally, the government has “revamped” a “park in preparations for the king’s visit.” The visit will include “[g]rand performances “to replicate a floating market in the good old days…”.

In addition, the local authorities plan to “use the actual sickle from [the] 1996 [visit] on a statue that commemorates that rice harvest,” where “10,000 sets of documents about the royal visit … will be given away…”.

The Nation remarkably claims that: “On May 14, 1996, His Majesty visited Thung Makham Yong and personally laboured to harvest a rice crop there.” PPT imagines that “labour” means something different from what the average farmer does.

As is common with royal stuff, when they sprout off about a notion, an official project results. The Nation tells readers that the project in the province is to “encourage residents to grow rice for consumption themselves.” It will expand to tell farmers what is supposedly “best” for them.

Readers can guess at how much this is going to cost the taxpayer.

Interestingly, The Nation also has a rather different spin on the story. It states:

His Majesty will visit Thung Makham Yong in Ayutthaya’s Muang district and pay respect to the statue of Queen Suriyothai there. Thung Makham Yong was where Suriyothai climbed aboard an elephant in battle against an invading army and sacrificed her life to defend her king in 1549.

Of course, it is the queen who has long been rumored to see some kind of lnk between herself and the (probably mythical) Suriyothai. Maybe there is also a link between Suriyothai and Naresuan.

Thailand’s richest minus one

31 08 2011

Forbes has published its annual rich list for Thailand. It notes that Thailand’s stock exchange has been one of the world’s best performing over the past year and the baht has appreciated, adding to the wealth in dollar terms for many of the already fabulously rich. For all of the political conflict, Forbes says:

Collectively the wealth of the richest 40 advanced 25% to an aggregate $45 billion. Their asset growth is helping these industrialists ramp up investments in operations abroad like never before. The wealth of three-quarters of those on the list rose.

The top ten on the Forbes list are as follows:

#1 Dhanin Chearavanont, Net Worth $7,400 mil

#2 Chaleo Yoovidhya, Net Worth $5,000 mil

#3 Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, Net Worth $4,800 mil

#4 Chirathivat family, Net Worth $4,300mil

#5 Krit Ratanarak & family, Net Worth $2,500 mil

#6 Aloke Lohia, Net Worth $2,100 mil

#7 Chamnong Bhirombhakdi, Net Worth $2,000 mil

#8 Vichai Maleenont, Net Worth $1,500 mil

#9 Isara Vongkusolkit & family, Net Worth $1,400 mil

#10 Praneetsilpa Vacharaphol & family, Net Worth $1,050 mil

Of the top three, Forbes says this:

Dhanin Chearavanont, who owns agribusiness conglomerate, Charoen Pokphand Group, remains in the top spot at $7.4 billion. In second place is the $5 billion fortune of Chaleo Yoovidhya, co-owner of Red Bull energy drinks, closely followed by the $4.8 billion of whiskey king Charoen Sirivadhanbhakdi. The top three have seen their net worths swell over the past year as consumers buy up their wares.

Thaksin Shinawatra has not been left behind either, although he ranks much lower than he would have a decade ago:

… Thaksin Shinawatra (No. 19), rose 53% to $600 million, thanks to a stock split and doubling of share price of his family’s real estate development firm, SC Asset.

One of Thaksin’s enemies, Prachai Leophairatana, is said to be a phoenix story:

rising from the ashes of Asia’s 1997 financial conflagration. Prachai Leophairatana, the former billionaire once known as Thailand’s biggest defaulter, with $3.8 billion in bad loans at his defunct Thai Petrochemical Industries group, is on the rebound. Shares of the remaining part of his empire, cement maker TPI Polene hit a three-year high in August, putting this controversial tycoon on the list at No. 29, with $300 million.

As usual, Thailand’s richest family, the royal family, is not on the list. Forbes usually includes the king at the top of its world’s richest royals each year.

Even so, there are plenty of royalists in the list. The top four are all known to be generous supporters of royal galas and other pet projects and Prachai was long seen as a funder of anti-Thaksin yellow shirt rallies, led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

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