Royal wealth extraction

19 01 2021

Readers may recall the demonstration at the Siam Commercial Bank, where the king is the largest shareholder, when activists “demanded public oversight of … Vajiralongkorn’s vast wealth…”. In our view, the king’s control of huge wealth is as significant as his political meddling. And, perhaps more important than his personal wealth, and how he and his forebears got it, is the huge piles of taxpayer’s money that “supports” the monarchy.

Helpfully, and in the current circumstances, bravely, Prachatai has posted on these topics.

On the money sucked from the taxpayer, the Prachatai report states:

In summary, in 2021, various agencies allocated budget related to the monarchy, all of which total approximately 37.228 billion baht or 1.12% of all the national budget (3.3 trillion baht), divided into 20.653 billion baht in direct expenses and 16.575 billion baht in indirect expenses.

That’s a lot of money – more than $1 billion! Helpfully, there’s considerable detail, all extracted from the Budget Bureau’s reports. The report states that “many of the projects among the indirect expenses are for the public benefit.” We are not convinced. After all, money sucked out of the public purse to glorify the monarch is money lost to other possibly good purposes.

The Royal Offices alone get more than 8.98 billion baht in 2021, up almost 17% over 2020. Meanwhile, the Thai economy languishes and millions are struggling to make ends meet. By 2024, this budget is forecast to increase to almost 10.7 billion baht by 2024, up almost 40% over 2020.

We at PPT also wonder if the figures mined by Prachatai are complete. For example, does it include the budget for the hugely expensive royal projects? Our feeling is that the monarchy eats far more taxpayer wealth than we are seeing here.

Further information on how the monarchy accumulated its wealth is covered in a second Prachatai report. This is mainly focused on historical wealth. We guess it is too difficult and potentially dangerous to add up Vajiralongkorn’s many property grabs.





On a few things royal II

6 12 2020

Yesterday’s events memorializing the dead king get special treatment in the media, including faux details regarding public support for them.

The Bangkok Post headlines: Thousands gather to commemorate late king” and adds “Sea of yellow in Sanam Luang as Their Majesties preside.” Yes, there were probably a few thousand diehards, including notable monarchy maniacs like

… actors including Duantem Salitul and Methanee “Nino” Buranasiri. Former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban was also spotted, and activist Suvit Thongprasert (the former monk once known as Buddha Issara) was seen handing out drinking water and snacks to attendees.

But a sea of yellow at Sanam Luang? Only if you ignore the large islands of lawn. The photos (right) may not be directly comparable, but you get the picture.

Thai PBS headlines: “Thais across country commemorate late King Bhumibol’s birthday anniversary.” Well, sort of. As usual for such propaganda events, the regime brought in people in yellow shirts for “celebration” events, even ordering officials to round up attendees, in some cases, fishing them out of flooded provinces (see clips left).

As ever, the media tends to quote the usual monarchy tropes mouthed by some of the “regular” people attending. One is diligently reported as stating: “The king has always been there to take care of people’s happiness, and without the king there would be chaos…”.

In line with recent palace PR efforts, these “celebrations” were an opportunity for the king, his wife, consort and various other royals to show off how happy they all are to suddenly have become “of the people” and Hello!-style celebrities. Again, it is the palace women who are leading that charge.

Yesterday, we mentioned the the RID’s royal projects – almost 4,000 of them, all taxpayer funded. Today, the Bangkok Post reports on even more royal projects. We are not sure if the RID projects are included in the longer list, but we can probably assume some overlap.

The Post (and others) have pumped out similar reports for the palace propaganda effort for several decades, and they are always exercises in providing information that is never entirely clear. The numbers seldom add up and they never refer to the cost to taxpayers.

This report is about explaining that the dead king’s legacy is likely receiving huge state investment. This is hinted at when it is stated that “… royal initiative projects and sufficiency economy projects” are being “deepened … thanks to six state organisations”:

the Pid Thong Lang Phra Foundation, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Ministry of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, Interior Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and Office of the Royal Development Projects Board.

We may be wrong, but it appears to us that the  Pid Thong Lang Phra Foundation is government-initiated and funded. Some of the information is simply recycled from earlier Foundation propaganda exercises. But what interested PPT is the scale of activities. There are Covid job schemes in nine provinces, claiming 450 water projects using at least 777 million baht, so far.

Over the past decades, the Foundation claims to have “developed 6,259 small dams and reservoirs … benefiting 80,247 families.” That’s about 12-13 families per project. It claims to have a large “economic forest” project, and fund management projects. There’s no information provided on cost and who pays.

The Office of the Royal Development Projects Board is quoted as claiming it is “developing 4,877 royal initiative projects…”.

It seems that the country has a thousands and thousands of royal projects, and as far as we are aware, it is the taxpayer that pays for these, successful or not, and with little transparency or accountability.





On a few things royal I

5 12 2020

There are a number of royal “stories” that caught our attention today.

The first was a gaggle of stories about the dead king. Of course, 5 December – the dead king’s birthday – was made especially important by palace propaganda and before he became ill, on his birthday eve, the palace would round up the great and the good and the captive audience would sit through the king’s often incoherent ramblings. It would be left to the media to try and interpret the meaning of these sometimes long homilies.

The Bangkok Post outdid most other media that we looked at, with four lengthy propaganda pieces. One was a PR piece about the Bangkok arm of the former junta, the BMA, recalling that the day is also father’s day. That came about after an order from military dictator and double coup leader Sarit Thanarat who made the king’s birthday National Day in 1960. Then there are almost obligatory stories on the late king’s interventions in the nation’s water policy, including his backing of huge dams, sufficiency economy, reproducing all the usual blarney from the world’s richest monarchy, and education, in a country with what is now an awful education system, so bad that its students have revolted.

The passed king is said to have “spent decades trying to combat the twin crises besetting Thailand: droughts and floods,” yet these problems persist and plague the nation every year. Chalearmkiat Kongvichienwat, a deputy director-general for engineering with the Royal Irrigation Department describes the late king as “a great hydrological engineer.” We should recall that the king only had a high school diploma and that his “reputation” as an “engineer” was manufactured by palace propaganda and RID, which gained huge amounts of cash for its projects.

RID observes:

… there are 3,481 royal water projects in which the department is involved. Among them, 3,206 projects are already complete.

They comprise 1,277 projects in the North, 758 in the northeastern region, 498 in the Central region and 673 in the South. These royal projects when completed will provide water to 589,000 households living on 4.90 million rai. The projects can store a total of 6.771 billion cubic metres of water.

Some 87 of the 275 remaining projects are expected to be completed by 2024 and 188 are in the pipeline.

That’s a lot of money. We wonder how many continue to operate and at what cost to environment, locals and taxpayer. The propaganda value for the king and palace was inestimable.

There’s no mention of the dead king’s support for dictators, coups, or the military.

A second story line that is appropriate for today is from Bloomberg at The Japan Times. It is focused on royal wealth: “Thailand’s taboo-breaking demonstrations are about more than the right to criticize the monarchy without fear of going to prison: Protesters want taxpayers to control investments and real estate worth tens of billions of dollars.” It has some of the existing information, but there is some additional information.

On the current king’s PR efforts, a third story line caught our attention. As is usual, there are royal pardons and sentences are cut for thousands of inmates. Also usual is the handing out of bags of charity goods to victims of natural disasters, said to be from the king, and usually accompanied by royal portraits. In this case, it was flood victims in the south. The Army claims that “[m]ore than 300,000 households in 90 districts in 11 southern provinces have been affected by flooding…”. The king “donated 10,000 relief bags to flood victims in the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, where at least 13 people have died in recent flooding.” Clearly, a symbolic effort by the world’s richest king.

Then we saw, at The Nation, a series of photos about a recent royal outing-cum-PR exercise. It has the king and queen, accompanied by Princess Bajrakitiyabha Narendira Debyavati, the Princess Rajasarinisiribajra and Chao Khun Phra Sineenat Bilaskalayani,” attending a religious event for the dead king “at the Royal Plaza in front of Dusit Palace…”. Given all the recent social media attention and some news reports of rifts in the palace, between queen and consort and between princess and consort, we wondered if they didn’t look rather happy together in this photo, suggesting that some of the speculation might be overcooked:

Happy family outing? Clipped from The Nation

Finally, we want to suggest that readers might want to watch a BBC video story about the students and their revolt against the monarchy.





Piling it high

29 09 2020

In a recent post, PPT observed that the country’s Defense Council was almost entirely focused on monarchy. Defense now means “protecting” the monarchy, led by an erratic, super-wealthy, egocentric and absent king.

In that post we noted that self-selected prime minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha had “instructed the armed forces to also support activities organised by other units in promoting … the King’s work…”. He also “urged government agencies to promote … the King’s royal projects, particularly the applied New Theory Agriculture…”.

It didn’t take long for the propaganda machine to change up a gear, with the Bangkok Post placing a “story” exactly following Gen Prayuth’s demands.

The “story” reports something called the “Khok Nong Na model” which is promoted as something “new,” even if slavishly claiming to be following the so-called New Theory and the Sufficiency Economy “philosophy” promoted by the dead king.

(For those who have forgotten this bit of palace propaganda, look here, here, and here.)

The Khok Nong Na project is delivered by the largely irrelevant Community Development Department and is being piloted in Phitsanulok, Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet. These projects are said to be “[f]inanced by the department’s 2019 budget…”. At least the CDD is truthfully explaining that something attributed to royals is paid for by the taxpayer.

Remarkably, the “ideas” in the Khok Nong Na project are attributed not just to the dead king, but these “ideas” are claimed to have been “further developed by … King … Vajiralongkorn…”. There’s no evidence for this and there’s no track record of Vajiralongkorn ever having had an “idea” that wasn’t self-serving.

In essence, the Khok Nong Na project draws on 1980s notions of “indigenous farming wisdom,” and applies it to “modern-day farming.” By “modern-day,” the CDD seems to be actually talking about big farms, intensive marketing, tourism (!), and farmers taking out loans, practices which were never a part of the dead king’s Sufficiency Economy.

The CDD has big plans. Assuming “success,” it will be “expand[ed] nationwide,” and then become part of a “university that teaches a degree in the New Theory Agriculture and other agricultural concepts developed by King Rama IX.” The Department plans to call it “The University of the King’s Philosophy”, establish campuses nationwide, and will teach about “over 4,000 royally-initiated projects, 40 agricultural concepts and the Khok Nong Na model…”.

The result? “With the Khok Nong Na model, we believe that everyone in society will be happy and the country will prosper.” Further, “the Khok Nong Na model could solve almost all problems related to agriculture in Thailand such as drought and flooding.” Wow! But there’s more: “we will not live in poverty and will live a happy life if we follow the Sufficiency Economy concept.” Fantastical nonsense.

The propaganda result? “The Khok Nong Na model attests to the monarchy’s generosity to share his agricultural concepts and theories based on the principle of self-reliance…”. But there’s more! “What King Rama IX gave us and … King [Vajiralongkorn]’s determination to further develop the late King’s work will benefit humanity, not just Thai people…”.

The cost? Not stated, but it will be funds drained from the taxpayer.

How much more of this royalist buffalo manure can be spread?





King’s men II

28 09 2020

A couple of days ago, the Defense Ministry’s assistant spokesman Col Wanchana Sawasdee announced the outcomes of the Defense Council’s most recent meeting, chaired by Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha.

The Bangkok Post reports that there was apparently little that relates to the usual military missions. Col Wanchana “said the premier emphasised two issues at the meeting: the monarchy, and the mission of the armed forces.” There seems little to distinguish the two.

Thailand’s military is not a regular military force. Rather than focused on the defense of the countries borders and so on, this military is more concerned with the defense of the monarchy and the ruling class it personifies.

So, the big news provided was that the “armed forces plan to arrange a grand event to commemorate the passing of … King Bhumibol Adulyadej … on Oct 13.”

More taxpayer funds down the drain.

Gen Prayuth is reported to have “instructed the armed forces to also support activities organised by other units in promoting … the King’s work which benefits the country and reflects the long-standing bonds between the monarchy and the people.”

More taxpayer funds down the drain, spent for ideological gain.

Further, Gen Prayuth “urged government agencies to promote … the King’s royal projects, particularly the applied New Theory Agriculture based on agricultural concepts initiated by King Rama IX.”

As everyone knows, the “king’s projects” are almost entirely dependent on taxpayer funding.

With Wikipedia reporting that the military has 360,850 active duty and 200,000 reserve personnel and a budget of 227.67 billion baht, it is a powerful force for the monarchy and Thailand’s ruling class.





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.





Failing royal project

12 12 2017

The usual propaganda about taxpayer-funded royal projects is that they are all wonderfully successful. That’s buffalo manure, but there are almost never media reports about gigantic and expensive failures. The Nation, however, breaks the propaganda mold.

This report is somewhat odd in that it is about The Dictator making a trip to Kalasin to promote “his” so-called Kalasin Model “to fight rampant poverty in the province.” It is the usual royal boosterism.

In the morning, Prayut will hand over an agricultural machine and livestock from the Royal Cattle and Buffalo Bank for Farmers to farmers at Ban Pone Village in Kammuang district. He is then scheduled to travel to Lampayang Royal Reservoir in Khaowong district, followed by a meeting with local leaders at Khaowong Technical College.

Meanwhile, ageing and self-appointed NGO leader Bamrung Kayotha, a member of the junta’s sub-committee on national reform on natural resources and environment, said “he wished that Prayut had chosen to visit the Lampayang Bhumipat water diversion tunnel in Khaowong district.”

That tunnel is a “Royal Initiated Project of the late King Rama IX, he said, featuring a 740-metre underground tunnel able to provide water to over 12,000 rai (1,920 hectares) of land.” How’s that gone?

The project, costing a king’s ransom, “has been abandoned and the transportation route to the project was damaged for a long time without repair…”.

Not so says the chief irrigation official of Kalasin Irrigation, who claims the “tunnel project has been functional and could distribute water to farmers in two tambons covering about 12,000 rai (1,920 hectares) of land…”. Further, the “tunnel project has no problems…”.

Something’s wrong and one of these guys is fibbing. But when it comes to royal projects, the official line will be that the project is just great.





Still getting the monarchy wrong

17 02 2017

Ralph Jennings, a Contributor at Forbes says he “cover[s] under-reported stories from Taiwan and Asia” but seems to specialize on China and Taiwan. Thus, venturing into things royal and Thailand is thus a stretch and a test of knowledge.

He’s right to observe that the monarchy in Thailand has “massive influence.”

But the picture he paints of the last king is pure palace propaganda when he states:

He had stopped coups, spearheaded rural infrastructure projects and met commoners in rough or squalid conditions. His actions helped strengthen people’s confidence in their country with an otherwise wobbly government.

Let’s correct a bit. He also initiated coups, as in 1957, and he supported coups, as in 2006, when it suited him. And that’s just two examples. He also supported right-wing extremists and acted as a prompt to massive blood-letting, as in 1976. The palace hand was always meddling in politics. The “infrastructure projects” are presumably the royal projects, many of them grand failures and, since the General Prem Tinsulanonda era, at great taxpayer expense.

And, “wobbly government” hardly seems to fit much of the reign, when the monarchy collaborated with ruthless military regimes, just as it does now.

The author is correct to observe that King Vajiralongkorn “is not expected to advocate changes in Thailand that reflect mass concerns or even go around meeting people.”

Recall that the dead king also essentially gave up “going to the people” for most of the last two decades of his reign. For one thing, he was too ill. For another, the “going to meet the people” was a political strategy for winning hearts and minds in his campaign to remake the monarchy. By the 1990s, this was largely achieved.

That King Vajiralongkorn is claimed to have “signaled little interest so far in shifting Thailand from quasi-military rule toward more democracy after a junta took power in 2014” seems an odd observation. And, in this quite natural political position for a monarchy such as Thailand’s, the new king follows the dead one.

That the new king wants more power for the throne is clear to all. That’s why the military’s “constitution” has been changed. But to say that the new version – we still don’t know the exact nature of the changes – allows the king “more freedom to travel overseas, where he has spent much of his life, and can appoint a regent to rule when he’s not around” is a misunderstanding of what The Dictator has let be known. The point of the changes was to allow him to not have a regent during his jaunts.

And, Mr Jennings must be the only one who thinks “[e]lections are due this year.”

He is right, however, to add that “[o]bservers believe that with King Vajiralongkorn, Thailand will continue to retain its strict lese-majeste laws, which ban any criticism of the monarchy.” That is a requirement of continued domination by a royalist elite.





News and views on the students

7 07 2015

Below PPT links to some useful reports and op-eds on the Dao Din students and the challenge they pose for the junta.

At the Globe and Mail, Nathan Vanderklippe writes of the Dao Din students and the protest that got them arrested as “hardly the stuff of revolutions.” Yet their call for a return to democracy means the students “represent what could develop into a potent challenge to the military regime, which faces growing opposition to the tight chokehold it has maintained on civil liberties for more than a year” under the military dictatorship. The dictatorship “has shown itself to be a jittery warden of a nation it has promised to return to democratic rule.” They are jittery but they also fear opposition:

The students’ supporters say their arrest marked an important moment. People cowed by the junta came to the streets in the hundreds to demand their release. More than 300 academics also signed letters asking the government to release the young people, a risky move. Authorities questioned 30 of the signatories.

David Streckfuss observes that the students hope “to be a spark, and they’re starting to get some sympathetic ears, at least amongst other students…. They know that if no one takes a risk in standing up to the regime then the regime will stay on and on.” At the same time, there is some pessimism “particularly as opposition parties, universities and much of the country’s middle class remained silent over the students’ detention.”

In another commentary, at The Diplomat, there is discussion of the military dictatorship as “an antiquated authoritarianism.” This note argues:

While the junta is consolidating its power through constitutional revisions and clamping down on political opposition, thousands of lives are being lost. The systematic lack of respect for human rights and human life is something Thailand’s western partners cannot ignore. Yet, neither the United States nor the European Union has put any pressure on Prayuth to address the root cause of the problem.

PPT is sure that external pressure is important. However, real change must be generated within the country.

Sulak Sivaraksa, an ardent supporter of the students, is interviewed in another report. He says that “the fact that people are daring to challenge such powerful authority figures shows bodes well for the country’s future.” He’s thinking of the challenge they provide for an outdated and hierarchical education system. Sulak spoke of the Dao Din students and the challenge they pose for the dictators, referring to “divisions among junta members on the students’ case…. Some say they should be let free, so that it stops the beginning of something bad, but some others are willing to punish them…”. Splits in a dictatorship are sometimes corrosive of juntas.

Sulak also has some criticism of the lese majeste law and its negative impacts for politics and society:

“This article not only helps to stop people speaking the truth, it also helps people close to the palace to get away with economic and political exploitation as the public is unable to hold them to scrutiny for fear of the lese-majeste charge…”.

He calls the article “dangerous for the monarchy and dangerous for the country,” and claims that many royal affiliated businesses, such as the Royal Projects, are not accountable….

The article adds that the projects “are for the most part financed on the government budget and contribute to the popularity of some members of the royal family.”





Nuts, grapes and pineapple

19 03 2015

There’s not much light relief in the news these days, with the military dictatorship arresting, threatening and planning for the longevity of conservative royalism. However, there is a bitter sweet story at the Coconuts Media site for Bangkok. Coconuts says it “is a local city website network that harnesses social media and video to amplify coverage of urban areas in Asia.”

Readers may remember the infamous nuts rage incident on Korean Air, late last year, when Heather Cho (Cho Hyun-ah), vice-president of the airline and daughter of Korean Air chairman and CEO Cho Yang-ho, ordered the aircraft back to the departure gate at JFK after she was dissatisfied with the way a flight attendant served her nuts. She was widely condemned for all manner of faults but for essentially thinking she was so high and mighty that she could do anything she pleased, even over a “nut problem.”

As we well know, The Dictator can do pretty much as he pleases in Thailand. So is it any surprise that he is reported to have created a fuss over poor quality pineapple on Thai Airways. We assume that General Prayuth Chan-ocha was sitting in the big, comfortable seats, getting the best food. After his gastronomic adventure on the flight, The Dictator “smeared Thai’s fruit last month during a speech at the Stock Exchange of Thailand.” He reportedly stated: “If you want to find tasteless grapes, go on board Thai planes…. Pineapples too! Their color is pale and they are tasteless!”Grapes-pineapples

What The Dictator wants, The Dictator gets. The Bangkok Post reports that one of Thai Airway’s executive vice presidents has announced that it has “signed an agreement with Doi Kham, a supplier of food and fruit sourced from several royal factories, to cater foodstuffs and produce for the airline.”

Doi Kham is a royal project, so presumably its product could never be criticized. It is a company, but the nature of its registration and so on is, like many royal ventures, not entirely clear.

Following The Dictator’s complaint, the airline “had set up a committee to evaluate the menu on the planes regularly.” The VP added: “The committee was formed to fulfil the policy of the prime minister, who wants to add more flavour to food for passengers…”. The power of The Dictator is seen in the attention to pineapples: “There will be no more tasteless pineapples…. From now on passengers will get fresh, yellow ones.”

In Thailand, under the military dictatorship, Prayuth cannot be criticized and there will be no popular anger as in Korea. Just meek compliance. After all The Dictator demands nothing less, be it in his fruit or in politics.

 








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