On using funerals

26 10 2017

PPT has previously posted on the military dictatorship’s use of the dead king’s funeral for its political promotion, including neglecting huge flooding, except for diverting waters away from Bangkok, fearful that floods at the time of the funeral will be seen as inauspicious and will be a black mark on the regime. Flooding farmers for months seems a “sacrifice” the dictatorship demands.

Belatedly, the (new) king is also making PR of the event. He’s declaring himself a monarch concerned for his people. Army chief General Chalermchai Sitthisart is just one more official over the last few days who has spoken of the king’s “concern.” This time he’s “worried” about “mourners having to endure strong sunlight during the day that could be compounded by heat rising from the concrete pavements.” Magically, mats appeared!

The General says the king has “instructed officials to treat them nicely, not to scold them and not to be too strict…”. (So has The Dictator.)

But fears for the future continue to fester. Some royalists, like Sanitsuda Ekachai at the Bangkok Post writes of “fear and trepidation about the future.” She asserts that a “question is hanging heavy in many people’s minds: What will happen now the country’s last unifying force has gone?”

One might question why Thais should be anxious now. A king dying in a constitutional monarchy should be pretty much meaningless in terms of the nation’s future. But Thailand’s last king and his supporters, especially those in the business class and the military, were anything but constitutional and they propagandized so assiduously that a “fear” has been created. Making out that the dead king was “god-like” and a symbol of unity was so powerful because the state, at least since 1958 and even more heavily since the late 1970s, hammered it in cinemas, on state radio and television, in school and university texts.

The lese majeste law and “social sanction” allowed little thinking outside the approved narrative except in periods of democratization in the 1970s and 2000s, both periods shut down by military coup and repression, always supported by the palace. So when Sanitsuda says that “[g]rief has the power to plunge us into a dark pit of hopelessness,” it is all palace and elite-inflicted.

Yet Sanitsuda seems to mean another fear. The fear of King Vajiralongkorn and his reign. She simply doesn’t mention him and leans on the elite hope that Princess Sirindhorn will “rescue” Thais and the elite from a king they fear as dangerous, grasping and erratic. They hope her propaganda can fill the void created by the death of the king.

Sanitsuda and the elite buy the palace propaganda that Sirindhorn is the one most like her father, lodged in a dysfunctional family that for many years has looked like something between The Addams Family and The Munsters but without much family togetherness or the good humor of those television families.

Now that the eldest brother is on the throne, the elite is hoping that they might follow Sirindhorn as propaganda piece while hoping the brother will not be too much trouble.

Some of the problems Sanitsuda identifies for Thailand seem surgically removed from the legacy of the dead king. While it is said that one should not speak ill of the dead, it is an act of ideological gymnastics to allocate good points to him without looking at his and the palace’s role in these issues and problems.

For all of the guff about the dead king’s work for the people, “wealth disparity in Thailand is among the worst in the world. The third-worst, to be specific.” But don’t blame him for that. In fact, though, as wealth disparities have increased, the monarchy became the wealthiest on Earth. The Sino-Thai capitalists attached to the palace and pouring money into it also became hugely wealthy.

But don’t blame the dead king or the system in which the monarchy was the keystone. Just go on repeating the propaganda that is a fairy tale that permits the elite to ignore the things that benefit them (and the palace): corruption, political repression, exploitation, impunity, state murder and more. The elite’s fingers are crossed that the new king can continue this system without draining off more than an acceptable share. The other side of that coin is the eulogizing of his sister as the dead king’s replacement in the propaganda game. After all, if the propaganda cannot be continued, the whole system of exploitation, repression and vast wealth will be threatened.





The old propaganda tricks

22 10 2017

We at PPT haven’t spent much time on the dead king’s upcoming funeral.

That said, we did have a critical post yesterday that was about venal propagandizing for the monarchy. We did that because Thitinan Pongsudhirak locates himself as a commentator of contemporary Thailand for the West. When he makes stuff up, there’s a chance that his readers might just believe his hagiography.

Sure, there has been a lot of this, in Thai and in English. In fact, it is as if the last few years of critical attention to the monarchy has been erased.

Indeed, that has been the task of the military dictatorship. It has wanted to erase discussion, debate and contention over the monarchy. Lese majeste has just been one of the repressive and blunt neuralyzers used.

This has extended further by the dictatorship, in alliance with the palace, by seeking to erase memories of any moments when the monarchy was criticized, put in its place and opposed. Symbols of such periods, like the 1932 plaque, are stolen and disappear.

One of the untruths pedaled by Thitinan is that the dead king “owned no fancy vehicles or other trappings that would have been seen as extravagant and lavish…”.

We take it that “owned” is not a way to hide a lie, seeking to separate the man from his family and palace. But it is simply a lie but one that has been endlessly repeated by palace propagandists.

Forget all those luxury vehicles, erase all knowledge of the wealthiest monarchy in the world, blur images of palaces all over the country, and all the other lavish accoutrements of royal position, power and wealth. Forget how much the taxpayer has subsidized the wealthiest monarchy in the world.

In relation to this, we were interested in a Reuters report on the upcoming funeral. It states:

The military government has set 3 billion baht ($90 million) aside for the lavish funeral. Preparations took almost a year to complete, with thousands of artisans working to create an elaborate structure of gold-tipped Thai pavilions in a square in front of the glittering Grand Palace.

We think this is a gross underestimate, but let’s accept it and observe that it amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of roughly $2 million for each year of the reign.

One outlet, using the Reuters story had this headline: US$90MIL … FOR A FUNERAL –ISN’T THAT TOO MUCH? BUT IF YOU SAY, YOU CAN BE JAILED FOR ‘LESE MAJESTE’: THAILAND REHEARSES LAVISH SEND-OFF FOR LATE KING.

Reuters also includes one paragraph that pokes at the huge propaganda about the monarchy in general, observing that the:

revival in the monarchy’s popularity [following 1932 and especially since 1958] was helped by a formidable public relations machine –- the evening news in Thailand includes a daily segment dedicated to the royals and the late king was often featured in his younger days crisscrossing the country to meet the poor and disenfranchised.

That period was actually rather brief – in a period following the king’s fatigue-wearing counterinsurgency activism and into the General Prem Tinsulanonda period, when the taxpayer took over royal projects – but has become one of the lasting images that the palace and various regimes have not wanted to neuralize.

The hagiography associated with the funeral has reproduced every single piece of royal propaganda and all the old and familiar (approved) images.





Updated: Royal wealth and the squeeze on the taxpayer

13 09 2017

Academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun has recently published an op-ed at The Japan Times. “A very wealthy monarch grows wealthier” examines the July “reorganization of the Crown Property Bureau, to pave the way for his [King Vajiralongkorn’s] control of this financial wing of the monarchy.”

Pavin observes that:

The new legislation was approved by the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, which appointed Vajiralongkorn as the sole authority over royal wealth. This dismantled the traditional mechanism put in place by his father … who appointed a government official to manage the crown property. Instead, under the new bill, Vajiralongkorn will set up a board of directors to oversee his assets.

We don’t think this is entirely accurate. It is odd to call the previous arrangement “traditional.” Rather, laws that have been revised a couple of times since 1932 established that the Minister of Finance would chair the CPB (as Pavin later notes). It is that governmental link that has been removed and the CPB made the preserve of the king. Pavin is right to note that:

There are two key characteristics of the legislation. First, the king is entitled to appoint the board members, as well as to remove them, at his discretion. Second, the law prohibits the taking away of royal assets without the king’s approval.

As others have noted, this new arrangement means the “Crown Property Bureau is the corporate arm of the monarchy, performing as the major shareholder of the kingdom’s biggest cement company and one of the largest commercial banks.” It’s also correct that “the most valuable assets owned by the royal family are huge swaths of land, much of it in prime areas in central Bangkok.”

Pavin is also correct to argue that “the financial status of the monarchy [the CPB and private wealth combined] has dominated Thailand’s economic landscape. The super-rich status of the king played a vital part in buttressing the political power of the royal family.” Likewise, it is certainly true that part of the CPB’s business success “derived from special privileges granted to the monarchy in conducting business” without transparency or accountability.

Then there’s the capacity of this fabulously wealthy monarchy to leech off the taxpayer. Not only does the CPB pay no taxes (its listed companies do) but there’s a seemingly bottomless money pit that takes money from the taxpayer and redistributes it to the richest of Thailand’s rich.

The much touted “royal projects” are funded by the taxpayer – thank General Prem Tinsulanonda for that redistribution when he was unelected premier. And then there is the cash spent on the “operations of the Bureau of the Royal Household and the expenses of the monarch and his extended family members,” along with bags of money for “promoting” the monarchy.

Despite the wealth of the Crown Property Bureau, the monarchy is allocated generous funds from the government for private and public expenses. Around $170 million annually in state funding covers the salaries of staff working in the Royal Household Bureau and other palace offices, including protection provided for the royal family by the security forces.

Pavin reckons the “budget for the promotion of the dignity of the monarchy,” was almost $400 million in 2003, increasing to $438 million in 2015.

We looked at the 2016 and 2017 budget years in documents available from the Budget Bureau (Thailand’s Budget In Brief), and we think the figures are striking. In 2016, the amount for “upholding, protecting and preserving the monarchy”under the National Security Strategy, on its own, comes to about $555 million. As can be seen in the attached snip, there’s more in the budget for “unified reconciliation.”

The interesting thing is that when one goes through the budget lines provided it is decidedly unclear if the strategies listed as 2.1 and 2.2 overlap the roughly $340 million for royal projects, royal travel, royal bureaus, royal vanity projects and so on. Given that every ministry and department will spend oodles on royal promotion not covered under the programs above, we are thinking that, in 2016, the monarchy cost Thai taxpayers something like $700-800 million.

How does this look in 2017? The format provided is different, but we located this:It seems highly unlikely that the programs have changed this much. Rather, the changed format is suggestive of covering up the huge amount on “upholding, protecting and preserving the monarchy” in 2016. What we do observe is that the second program has gone up by about 60%. In looking at details of funding to royal projects, royal travel, royal bureaus, royal vanity projects and so on, there has been a 37.8% increase, thanks mainly to the creation of a budget line for the Chulabhorn Research Institute (about $115 million). The total budget in these lines in 2017 was $472 million. We might guess that the total taxpayer bill for all things royal is around $1 billion.

(Correct us if you think we are wrong in our calculations.)

Whatever way you look at it, this fabulously wealthy king and royal family, worth perhaps $50-60 billion, also leeches off the taxpayer to the tune of another $1 billion a year.

Update: Somsak Jeamteerasakul wants to challenge some of the points made by Pavin:

Pavin’s article contains some significant errors or misleading statements, and this post doesn’t correct them, even repeats them. For instance. it’s not “right to note” the “two characteristics” of the new legislation. Those two were already there in the previous law. In fact, the second ”characteristic” is quite misleading to put it that way, both in the case of the previous law (article 7 which was more suit to describe as Pavin does, but still isn’t entirely apt) and the new law (article 8 last para., which doesn’t really mean what Pavin says; it is not about [others] ‘taking away’ royal assets at all, just saying that the king-appointed committee couldn’t sell or make any transaction of the asset without his formal approval). Pavin was also wrong to say the late king “appointed a government official to manage the crown property”. The next sentence is also mistaken: “instead, the – no, it’s not something King X does ‘instead’; his father also did. Pavin was wrong again to say “Under King Bhumibol, the board of directors for the royal assets answered to the finance minister.” In both the letters of the old law (read carefully article 4, nothing about ‘answered to’ at all) and in practice (for 70 years, finance ministers of all successive governments did have any say in the management of the CPB). In consequence and in this context, Pavin’s next sentence is also incorrect: “NOW, it is independent of the government.” It isn’t “now” that the CPB is ‘independent of the government.’; it had always been since 1948.

As we said above, there were some problems with Pavin’s characterization of the new law, but Somsak is rather picky on this stuff, being immersed in the detail. We don’t believe that Pavin states that the “two characteristics” are new in the new law. Somsak prefers a very careful reading, and that’s fine. We pretty much agree with his other points.

However, we were more interested in taxpayer funding to the monarchy. As we said above, we are keen to know if our calculations are wonky.





Taxpayers squeezed

13 07 2017

The royals and the military are in cahoots in ripping off the Thai taxpayer.

The military is the biggest spender at present. The most recent bit of kit added to the ever-expanding list of big-ticket item for the military is a flight of Korean jets. That follows submarines, tanks, helicopters and armored personal carriers. In total, the bill under the current military dictatorship is is tens of billions of dollars.

The royals aren’t spending that much, but it is the wealthiest royal family in the world, according to Forbes. It is also dragging in hundreds of millions of baht each year from state coffers. Think of the two jets the king uses, dozens of expensive cars, his many residences, his jail, pets, girlfriends, antiques, security, and far more. It is far more than a gravy train.

Then there’s the other members of the family, each sucking at the taxpayer’s teat. One of the king’s daughters has been bathed in money for all of her foibles and fancies. The latest report on her gives a brief view into the lifestyle of this selfish royal:

If there were a prize for most enthusiastic fashionista on this list, the Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana of Thailand would undoubtedly get the title. As it is, she’s been crowned Most Stylish Princess In The World instead. A regular on the front row at couture, a designer in her own right (she showed in Paris a few seasons ago) and with a wardrobe that boasts pieces by Chanel, Balmain and Hermes, shrinking violet and modest style maven she is not. Unafraid to experiment with more out there, non-princessy looks – including exaggerated shoulders, leather and tuxedos – she’s definitely changing the face of modern royal fashion.

Taxpayers screwed again.





The junta and that tower

29 06 2017

When we posted on the junta’s proposed erection of a giant tower on prime real estate, we could smell rotting fish. No bidding, no transparency, claims of “public good,” and then the declaration that it all had something to do with the deceased king suggested – no, shouted – that there was funny business.

The Nation reports that corruption alarm bells are ringing. And they should be.

Assistant junta spokesman Colonel Atisit Chaiyanuwat was the one who “disclosed that the Cabinet had exempted the project from bidding to speed up the project. ” Recall that yesterday the claim was lack of interest from construction firms.

The this same Atisit said “private investors would fund the tower project.” Really? Atisit also “backtracked from his earlier statement that the 459-metre-high tower would cost Bt7.6 billion, bringing that figure down to Bt4.6 billion.” Wow, a discount because no one wants to build it – they aren’t interested…. In other words, this is a mixture of buffalo manure and rotting fish.

Not deterred by contradiction and spin, Atisit also “said the project only needed Cabinet approval because it would be developed on a plot of land belonging to the Finance Ministry’s Treasury Department.” The idea being that the Treasury Department can do what it likes? And the poor taxpayer just gets stiffed again?

Located in Bangkok’s Klong San district, the plot is located on the Chao Phraya River, and is one of the most expensive parts of the city. Prices for land are well into the millions of baht per square meter.  The public purse, though, will reap a glorious 198 million baht in rent, over 30 years. That’s 6.6 million baht a year. Wow, what a deal! We wonder if the taxpayer is going to also get a few glass beads and other trinkets.

The Bangkok Post adds some important information about the deal that reveals quite a lot more.

For a start, it says income over 30 years for the Treasury will be only 70 million baht. And that’s from the director-general Patchara Anuntasilpa of the department.

Then there’s this tidbit:

Registered in 2014, the Bangkok Observation Tower Foundation was originally chaired by Visit Malaisirirat, CEO of Magnolia Quality Development Corporation Co, the property development arm of Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group. The position was later taken over by former Finance Minister Panas Simasathien.

The foundation’s directors include representatives from Siam Piwat Co, the operator of Siam Center and Siam Discovery.

Meanwhile, Magnolia, Siam Piwat and CP group are the joint developer of Iconsiam, a mixed-use project by the Chao Phraya River scheduled to launch by the end of this year. The project is next to the planned tower. In the promotional material of Iconsiam released in April, it wrote, “prepare for the 7th Wonder of ICONSIAM. An Iconic Landmark that will be a symbol of national pride,” without elaboration.

We all know who CP is. They are on top of Thailand’s non-royal rich list year after year, this year worth more than $21 billion. But what of Siam Piwat? For the answer, we will send readers to a 2013 post on royal wealth. Bingo!

Yes, it is yet another royal money maker. One source calculates that Princess Sirindhorn earns more than $50 million a year from Siam Piwat and the land in the area around her palace.

We guess that the next junta task will be to ban comment on its erection because that would be lese majeste and sedition, preventing slippery deals that make the royals wealthier still. And we still reckon that there must be some generals lurking behind the scenes gathering up the change that falls from the royal pockets.





Keeping royals rich

27 01 2017

Khaosod reports that The Dictator’s wife made a mistake.*

Somehow or other The Dic’s junta managed to pass an Inheritance Tax Act and someone forgot to exempt the royals.

Heads could have been on the block!

But it has all been sorted out. A new regulation has been published in the Royal Gazette that “exempts top members of the royal family from paying inheritance tax.”

For good measure, its been made retrospective so the fabulously wealthy royals won’t have to pay a 5 percent tax.

Phew! Lucky they worked that out, especially as the old king died in late 2016. What a cock-up that would have been!

Sure, the junta did say that it brought in the “inheritance tax … as a means of reducing economic inequality in the country,” but they didn’t really mean it to apply to the exalted ones.

They are great and they are good, so they deserve all the money they can lay their hands on.

We assume that the Dictator has sorted out his wife’s mistake.*

*We allude to an episode of Fawlty Towers, The Wedding Party:

basil





Can the Prince no longer afford shirt?

21 07 2016

We are indebted to Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s Facebook page for drawing attention to a curious Bild article from Germany. It is about Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and his current wife/girlfriend and a Thai International flight. We have translated using Google Translate and include only two of the pictures in the Bild story so the output might be a little off in places.

Readers will see odd images of the prince, apparently heavily tattooed, carrying a poodle and dressed in strange clothes.

Hi, Thai Thai!

Can the Thai-Prince no longer afford shirt?

Tattooed prince

At attention! The crew of the “Royal Thai Airways” Salutes Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and his mistress Suthida

Daring/risque appearance, Highness! Crop Top, eco-flops, poodle “Foo Foo” [long dead; its a new pooch] on the arm – so ended Thailand’s Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn (63) now with his Boeing 737 in Munich. 30 bodyguards with him and luggage.

What is the half-naked prince in Bavaria? Shopping! For ten million euros he bought the Grade II listed “Villa Stolberg” at Lake Starnberg. A gift for his mistress no. 1 Suthida (32)?

The former Thai Airways flight attendant, nicknamed “Nui”, lives in Munich.

Mansion

For around 10 million euros the Prince bought swank “Villa Stolberg”

Thailand’s Crown Prince in Bavaria as the swankiest Royal since Ludwig II († 1886), to the delight of luxury and service sectors. Half of the year he spends here, with shopping and celebrations. Even for his dog “Foo Foo” [see above] he has already given a legendary festival.

In Thailand, the Crown Prince (3 marriages, 7 children) is unpopular. But no word raised. The kingdom has one of the strictest lese majeste laws in the world (up to 15 years in prison!).

King Bhumibol (88) knows about the reputation of his (single) son. It is whispered that he will prevent Vajiralongkorn becoming king. Will it be the crown daughter Maha Chakri (61)? Then the swank-Prince has more time to squander money.

Tattooed prince 1

With poodle and midriff exposed, the Thai Royals get in the chauffeured Mercedes

According to “Forbes” is Bhumibol is worth about 35 billion euros, the richest Royal World. The dissolute life of son Vajiralongkorn is paid from the state coffers.