Updated: Tools

25 01 2021

There’s a slang term we heard recently, when a dope was referred to as a “tool.” We had to look it up and came up with this:

Someone who others normally refer to as a prick, dick, or schmuck.

Then there’s the version that is:

A guy with a hugely over-inflated ego, who in an attempt to get undue attention for himself, will act like a jackass, because, in his deluded state, he will think it’s going to make him look cool, or make others want to be like him….

Which brings us to Veera Prateepchaikul’s latest op-ed. Veera felt the need to boil over on the vaccine crisis. Veera, along with Somchai Jitsuchon, research director for inclusive development at the Thailand Development Research Institute, both defend the vaccine deal with the king’s company, Siam Bioscience.

Somchai said “he had come came across no evidence of Thailand paying too much, although he admitted he was no expert in the subject.” Somchai is an adviser to Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, a point not made by the Post. He did say “he did not know much about why Siam Bioscience Co was picked as local vaccine manufacturer for AstraZeneca,” but still defended the deal. You get the murky picture.

Veera, also no expert, and a sucker fish rather than an adviser, favored a more aggressive attack on Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit while posterior polishing the dead king.

After all that dirty work, Veera admitted that “Thanathorn raised a few valid questions about the vaccine deal between Siam Bioscience and Oxford-AstraZeneca,” which still haven’t been answered, but accused him of doing this “from the perspective of someone unaware of the background of the deal.” Now, this is an odd criticism when Thanathorn was raising questions about the secrecy and opacity of the deal.

Veera reckons Thanathorn “did not do his homework before talking publicly,” and essentially deserves a lese majeste charge or two.

Which brings us to Veera’s homework and here we don’t mean on how to polish royal ass while protecting your own. How’s Veera feeling about the Thai Enquirer report that “India offered to sell over 2 million doses of their AstraZeneca-licensed vaccine [but] was rejected by the Thai government…”?

How’s Veera feeling when he learns that:

According to sources within the Indian government, the offer to supply the same vaccine, at cost, to Thailand (up to 2 million doses initially) was also presented to Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai but was rejected outright.

We don’t imagine that Don is an expert on vaccines either.

What does Veera think when he discovers: “The Ministry of Affairs … told Thai Enquirer that it was ‘better’ to get local vaccines ‘from the Ministry of Public Health or the vaccine institute’.” Which institute would that be?

How’s Veera going with political analyst Arun Saronchai’s comment?:

“I think you’re seeing this dogmatic and stubborn approach because there are people that stand to benefit from the government maintaining its course and insisting on locally-produced AstraZeneca vaccines and importing SinoVac vaccines.”

Of course, this leads back to Siam Bioscience and CP investment in the China shot.

How is that Veera’s royalist homework didn’t lead to this:

According to local news reports and whistleblower statements from inside the government, Thailand is set to pay up to 60 per cent more per dose for both the SinoVac vaccine and the Astrazeneca vaccine drawing criticisms of corruption and embezzlement from the opposition parties.

Meanwhile, confirming that lack of transparency, the erratic Deputy Prime Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul responded to Thanathorn’s “call for the government to make public the contract signed between AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience, the local vaccine-making factory, saying that was impossible as both parties were private companies, not organisations under the government.” So how’s the deal work then and why is the government defending it so vigorously. And so the circle is completed….

Update: Remarkably, the Post has published what looks like a paid-PR effort by Siam Bioscience, which reproduces the limited information provided at its website. Interestingly, the company explains its lack of preparedness and tells of “the deal”:

The mission to manufacture this COVID-19 vaccine is supported by the National Vaccine Institute, Ministry of Public Health, with a budget of almost 600 million baht, with an additional 100 million baht budgeted by Siam Cement Group (SCG). This will enable preparation of the manufacturing facilities and processes. In return for the government support, Siam Bioscience will procure the AstraZeneca vaccine with a value equivalent to the funding it receives and will give the vaccine to the Thai government to support vaccine availability to the public.

Clearly, the regime must now release the details of the agreements made as this statement raises all kinds of issues that cannot be resolved when transparency is not provided.





Further updated: The monk and lese majeste

16 11 2020

Many readers will know that the regime has banned monks from protesting. It did this after increasing numbers of monks were showing up at protests.

As one report has it:

Thailand’s National Office of Buddhism (NOB) ordered Buddhist monks to abstain from participating in anti-government protests, adding to rules prohibiting monks from political activity, Buddhistdoor Global reported. The announcement was prompted by photographs of Buddhist monks at ongoing protests….

The NOB has threatened that monks who continue to participate in the protests could be defrocked.

Clipped from Khaosod

But not many – including PPT – will have heard of a monk who has fled into exile, first in December 2019 until May 2020 and again more recently, fearing a lese majeste charge. The story begins:

Phra Panya Seesun glanced at the police summons that had been delivered to his temple outside Bangkok. Within seconds, he grasped that he was being accused of defaming the powerful monarchy, which can carry up to 15 years in prison. It was the start of a painful process that would see him flee Thailand and seek asylum in an undisclosed country, a rare collision of politics and religion in the Buddhist-majority kingdom.

“They’re trying to put me in jail,” Panya told VICE News from the undisclosed location abroad. “If they don’t shut my mouth, there could be a second, a third, ten, or a thousand monks.”

The monk claims it was his “Facebook posts from last year that first attracted attention from the police.” In these posts he shared information about King Vajiralongkorn’s controlling shareholding in Siam Cement. This was and is public knowledge and available in the SCG’s annual reports. But he also pointed out that “some monks were rising through the ranks because they were affiliated and personally selected by the monarchy,” and he “criticized links between the royals and the military-backed government…”. He was especially “outspoken over the fact that Vajiralongkorn has the authority to appoint the Supreme Patriarch, the top position in the Sangha, or Buddhist clergy. The change was adopted in 2017 to keep rules in line with a ‘long tradition’ where the monarch has been responsible for picking the candidate.”

VICE News says that “Panya’s case is unusual,” but insists that it sighted “the original summons for royal defamation.” However, when the monk “reported to the police station, he was told that the charges had changed to violating the country’s computer crimes act…”.

Panya states that the response from royalists to his posts was rabid as they bombarded “him hate messages and physical threats.” He adds that:

Many of the messages came from hugely popular royalists groups led by Thai celebrities. His name spread rapidly online from page to page. Panya estimates that there could have been thousands of hateful comments directed at him from numerous pages.

The monk is now in limbo and seeking asylum. His situation is uncertain. He says returning to Thailand is too dangerous: “I’ve seen that many people are missing. Some have been abducted, some were killed…”.

Update 1: Related, an article by Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang at New Mandala on monks supporting contemporary protest rallies, is well worth reading. He argues that:

The activism of young monks is impressive. Contrary to the conventional view that monks are detached from worldly sufferance, these progressive monks are aware of the Sangha’s role in upholding the status quo and injustice. They want to reinterpret the role of the Sangha anew to serve the people and be the voice of public morality.

Update 2: Khaosod has now covered this story. It says the monk “left the country a month ago.” He states that his decision to flee was because “he stood little chance to prove his innocence…”. Panya stated:

From what I saw on the news, no one won lese majeste cases, no matter how nonsensical the charges may be…. The rulings were mostly abnormal and the interpretation ever more vague.

He won’t say where he is residing, “citing fears that he could end up like so many other exiles marked as critics of the monarchy who ended up dead or missing.”

Phra Panya “is now trying to travel to Europe and seek political asylum status; he believes he is the first Buddhist monk in political exile in recent history…”.





The Economist on King Vajiralongkorn

16 10 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money, money, money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow belongs to me

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

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

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

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

Why should I wake up?

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe this time

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

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

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

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





Humpty’s men

3 07 2019

Marwaan Macan-Markar, at the Nikkei Asia Review, contributes a long and useful review of the remolding of the relationship between monarchy and military.

He claims that diplomats in Bangkok know which military leaders are closest to King Vajiralongkorn by a pin with an “image of Prince Dipangkorn, the king’s 14-year-old son” which are “pinned on the left breasts of a select few military leaders…”. (Dipangkorn is widely considered to be heir apparent, lives in Germany and seldom appears the full quid.)

Gen Apirat

One diplomat described those wearing the pin as “a small network,” with Army boss Gen Apirat Kongsompong an important bearer of the pin. Gen Apirat is known to present himself as “fiercely loyal to the king.”

Macan-Markar says that this “network” indicate “a major change in the relationship between two of Thailand’s most powerful institutions — the monarchy and the military” under King  Vajiralongkorn.

While his analysis, based on interviews with diplomats, pundits and academics, is interesting, it is one that is based on a kind of “Kremlinology” of military watching which can be somewhat misleading if the forest is obscured by the trees. Hence the interminable speculation over Queen’s Guard versus King’s Guard.

In our view, it is misguided to see the king’s faith in the “senior generals of the King’s Guard, a Bangkok-based faction” as representing a spurning of Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta. As far as anyone can tell from available evidence, the junta has done everything that the king has wanted and it is Gen Prayuth, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan and Gen Anupong Paojinda who have put in place military succession plans that lead from Gen Apirat to Gen Narongphan Jitkaewthae, currently commander of the First Army region and Gen Songwit Noongpakdee, the leader of the Bangkok-based 1st Infantry Division.

That “defense analysts say the monarch’s choice of trusted lieutenants stems from his own military record” is no surprise, now. What they miss, however, is that the king’s succession was a long one, with his father incapacitated, and the then crown prince and his advisers long having had influence over the military brass.

Interestingly, and barely mentioned, is the ways in which the king revamped the Privy Council, the Crown Property Bureau and the palace administration over that period of long succession. In these moves, he made these institutions his own, bringing in junta loyalists and advancing those closest to him, including Air Chief Marshal Sathitpong Sukwimol, long the king’s private secretary and now, arguably, his most powerful adviser, heading the CPB, Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement Group, among other important bodies.

ACM Sathitpong Sukwimol (clipped from The Nation)

All of these rearrangements, promotions and not a few demotions and ousters do mean that a military man on the throne has ensured that he has the military under control. Just in case of problems, there’s some “insurance,” with ACM Sathitpong’s younger brother Pol Maj Gen Torsak at the head of a large force of “protectors.”

Naturally, Prawit remained a Prayuth confidant during the five years of the junta, serving as the deputy prime minister and defense minister. Gen. Anupong Paochinda, another former army chief from the Queen’s Guard, was also a key figure in Prayuth’s coup and junta.

That the king promotes the “King’s Guard, the faction he was part of, in the driving center of army power,” hardly seems a revelation. Yet there’s no evidence that the Queen’s Guard is in any way untrustworthy or disloyal. (It was King Bhumibol who placed his son in the King’s Guard.)

With little evidence, Macan-Markar discerns that the generals of Queen’s Guard is somehow more “politically ambitious” than those of the King’s Guard. There’s no evidence for this. In addition, there’s an amnesia for previous claims made. In the view of many pundits, it was the Queen’s Guard who conducted the 2014 coup in order to ensure the current king’s succession. What happened to that position? And, it was the Queen’s Guard coup masters who purged the military of those perceived as disloyal.

Former foreign minister Kasit Piromya is quoted as saying: “The king clearly wants a vertical hierarchy without any distractions and divisions that can cause splits in the army…”. That seems to have been the junta’s aim as well. To see this as a move against the Queen’s Guard ignores the fact that the junta’s role has been to “cleanse” the military, to immeasurably strengthen it and to embed it at all levels of society. That’s the important message, not the Kremlinology of watching factions.

It seems that “experts” on the military blame “factional rivalries” for “repeated coups.” We think the experts need to re-read the history of successful coups.

Former ambassador and new author James Wise is right to observe that “the monarchy and the military exercise authority in their own right, often without reference to the more familiar legislative, executive and judiciary…”. The big picture matters.

When Kasit predicts: “No more coups,” we think he’s in la-la land. It will depend, as in the past, on on perceptions of “threat” to the monarchy and the broader ruling class.





Working for the man?

9 03 2019

As we mentioned in a recent post, King Vajiralongkorn is very wealthy. After changes to the Crown Property Bureau Act, his shares in the Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) and the Siam Cement Group (SCG) are valued at US$9.23 billion. On those shares alone, the Forbes billionaires list should have him 3rd for Thailand. Of course, his portfolio is far larger than these two companies.

As well as being the major shareholder in both SCB and SCG, the king’s personal assistants hold positions on both boards of directors.

All of that makes a story at The Nation about the SCG very interesting reading. It begins: “There is a growing outcry over the government’s recent decision to allow corporate giant SCG to utilise parts of a forest reserve in Saraburi province, as a special case, till 2036.” SCG quarries the area for limestone, used in cement production.

The junta’s Cabinet on “Tuesday passed a resolution to permit cement manufacturer SCG to use … land in the Tab Kwang and Muak Lek Forest Reserve for its operations.”

According to reports, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Ministry “persuaded the Cabinet to give the green light mainly on grounds that those parts of the forest reserve had once been SCG’s concession area.”

The ministry said “the allotted land plots have enormous potential for mining, and SCG … has always complied with conditions related to permits issued to it.”

SCG’s previous permit to “use the … land plots expired in 2011, but its mining licence remains valid until April 27, 2036.” That permit was issued in 2002.

An official at the Royal Forest Department, reported anonymously, said: “The request to use these old concession areas has won approval from the National Environment Board and all relevant screening committees,” adding that “the authorities also recognised the importance of industrial development.” It was also stated that “the government can put in place efficient control measures to ensure the private miner won’t cause any adverse environmental impacts…”.

According to the Bangkok Post, the SCG “facility is located in the Tab Kwang and Muak Lek Forest Reserve in Saraburi province…. The forest covers 3,223 rai and contains a large protected Watershed Class 1A zone.”

Watershed Class 1A zones are considered “ecologically rich and were given protection under a 2005 cabinet resolution.” However, case-by-case exceptions are permitted.

The grant to SCG has drawn considerable (and surprising) criticism. Mahasarakham University’s Chainarong Setthachua called for an investigation of the concession. He worried that the area is a “top-grade headwater area” and reckoned that the area might be inside “a national park that was established in 2016,” he said.

Other critics included the deeply yellow Veera Somkwamkid and Srisuwan Janya who demanded Cabinet rescind its decision or be faced with court action. Somlak Hutanuwatr, said to be “an independent expert on primary industries and mines.” who claimed the Cabinet’s decision was “illegal,” as did EnLaw Foundation coordinator, Supaporn Malailoy,

Meanwhile, Amnuayporn Choldumrongkul, deputy chief of the Royal Forestry Department, “said the decision to extend the operating permit was made in accordance with the state concession previously awarded to the company, SCG Plc, to mine there.”

Some questions arise. One is what was SCG doing in the area from 2011 to today? If its permit expired in 2011, what did it do for lime in the intervening period? Another is to ask how much the junta’s Cabinet was influenced in its decision making by SCG’s royal connection? Does that connection and ownership provide the king with influence over the junta?

We think this story needs a lot more investigation. Is the media up to it?





King and Privy Council

14 10 2018

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a well-known critic of the monarchy. He has a new article at The Diplomat. Most of it, though, will be familiar to PPT readers. However, it is worth remaking some of his points.

He focuses on the recent reorganization of the Privy Council and notes that the:

king’s decision to evict old members of the Privy Council close to his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the stripping of the power from its president, General Prem Tinsulanonda, as well as the appointment of his close confidants as new Privy Councilors, suggests that, more than just a process, this is part of the growing aggrandizement of political power of Thailand’s new King….

In fact, the king has not really done anything that should not have been expected. Any new king would want to have his most trusted advisers in place.

The dead king made sure he had pliant royalists as advisers “working outside the constitutional framework to compete with other elite groups for administrative and political power.”

They protected and advanced the king’s and monarchy’s positions:

Successive coups have over the years strengthened the partnership between the Privy Council and the military. The Privy Council played its part in endorsing past coups, including the most recent one in May 2014. Prem, in the aftermath of the coup, openly praised the coup makers for being a force that moved Thailand forward. This underlined the quintessential role of the Privy Council as an engine behind the Thai politics.

In the past reign, the link with the military mostly revolved around Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and, to a lesser extent, Gen Surayud Chulanont. The Privy Councilors

… constructed a complex web of relationships as a way to sanctify the royal power above other institutions outside the constitutional framework. In his overt intervention in politics, Prem placed his trusted subordinates in key positions in the bureaucracy and in the army. He had an influence on the defense budget, and dominated national security and foreign policy, and thus the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Pavin also notes that the:

Privy Council under Prem also had its members seated on boards in major conglomerates including Bangkok Bank, Charoen Phokphand, the Boonrawd group, and the Charoen Siriwatanapakdi business group. For the Privy Council, reaching out to these powerful factions was as crucial as allowing them to reach in, thus consolidating a network of interdependence. The Privy Council’s strong ties with the bureaucracy, the military and businesses effectively circumscribed the power and authority of the government of the day.

The new king wants similar influence, but he’s been busy pushing the old duffers aside. Prem is infirm, doddery and being made essentially powerless:

On October 2, Vajiralongkorn added three more Privy Councillors to its team: Amphon Kittiamphon, currently advisor to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha; General Chalermchai Sidhisart, former army chief, and; Air Chief Marshal Chom Rungsawang, former Air Force chief. This latest move can be regarded as Vajiralongkorn’s plot in strengthening his political position by setting up a new trusted team to replace the old one—the team that has its links with the current military strongmen.

At present, 10 of the 16 councilors have been appointed by the current king. He can appoint another two. At the same time, he has already ditched three he appointed, presumably because they annoyed him about something or other. So the “trusted team” is being put in place, but there’s still some work to do or dying to be done.

Pavin also mentions the “law was enacted in regard to the ownership of the rich Crown Property Bureau…, [where] crown property assets reverted to the ownership of the king with the bureau’s investments now being held in Vajiralongkorn’s name.”

He might have mentioned that the king is now personally the largest shareholder in both the Siam Cement Group and the Siam Commercial Bank, the latter ownership having been seen in stockholder information fairly recently. (We also think Pavin should update the $30 billion assets of the CPB/king. That was from data collected in 2005 and imperfectly updated in 2011. We would guess that the real figure is closer to $50-60 billion.)

Pavin is undoubtedly right that while “many predicted that Vajiralongkorn, perceived as having lacked moral authority, could become a weak king.” As he now says, “He is quickly proving them wrong.”





Updated: Money matters

19 08 2018

Readers may recall the changes made to the Crown Property Bureau in June and the somewhat murky associated share transfers at two of Thailand’s biggest firms, Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement Group that preceded that. These changes were demanded by the king and approved by the military junta.

Reuters reports that one of the flow-ons of these deals is that:

Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn is now the largest shareholder in the country’s biggest industrial conglomerate, Siam Cement Group Pcl, data from the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET), published on its website on Saturday showed.

It shows the king as having a 33.30 percent share, making him the biggest shareholder in the construction and industrial supplies firm. The monarch’s holdings in the company have a value of nearly 180 billion baht ($5.43 billion).

Data for the Siam Commercial Bank has not been updated. There the CPB is till listed as the second top shareholder (19.61%) while the king is listed with 3.33%. Presumably that will change soon.

Update: We corrected the link and the data in the final paragraph above.





Another royal money move

16 03 2018

Reuters reports that “Thailand’s king now has a stake worth nearly $150 million in the country’s biggest industrial conglomerate, Siam Cement Group Pcl, according to stock exchange data, while his close aide is in line for a board seat.”

As background, readers might recall that it was last October that it was reported that the Crown Property Bureau’s shareholding in Siam Commercial Bank suddenly declined by 3.33%, amounting to about 17 billion baht. It was then reported that these shares had been transferred to King Vajiralongkorn from the Crown Property Bureau.

The latest move on Siam Cement followed the same pattern: “The 0.76 percent stake in the king’s name in Siam Cement was acquired on Feb. 8 while there was a matching reduction in the stake of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages palace assets…”.

In total, the shares previously held by the CPB and now transferred to the king’s portfolio amounts to about $690 million. These holdings would produce a “dividend yield [of]… more than $25 million per year.”

The report continues by commenting on the secretiveness of these transfers: “The terms of the transfers have not been disclosed in public. Neither company nor the Crown Property Bureau would comment on them…. The palace has a policy of not commenting to media.”

The CPB remains the largest shareholder in Siam Cement, holding 30% of the company.

Since taking the throne, outside the CPB, the king has become “the 15th largest shareholder in Siam Cement and the sixth biggest in Siam Commercial Bank…”.

At Siam Cement, “Air Chief Marshal Satitpong Sukvimol, a close aide to the king who was made director general of the Crown Property Bureau this month, is recommended for a board seat at a March 28 annual general meeting.”

Satitpong, 69, has been responsible for managing the king’s personal affairs and assets for some time. He reportedly “became personal secretary to then-Crown Prince … Vajiralongkorn in 2005, and served on the board of national flag carrier Thai Airways International from 2009 to 2013.” The then-prince had a long relationship and “position” with Thai Airways, as well as having a personal  interest in several women with the airline.

The SCG annual report for 2017 (clicking downloads a PDF) lists former CPB boss Chirayu Isarangkun as a director of the company since 1987 until 1999 and then since 2007. The board is a coterie of old royalists, with an average age of 72. Of the 24 listed as directors and management in the company, only one is a woman. A look through the CVs of the directors reveals that most have long royal links and serve on other royal-owned companies, including those making, managing and investing the personal wealth of Vajiralongkorn and Sirindhorn. Details of retirements and nominations for the SCG Board can be downloaded as a PDF. According to this document, Chirayu will remain on the Board.

Speculation about the reasons for the king needing to control large personal stakes in two of Thailand’s largest listed companies is rife. One reason suggested is his lavish lifestyle and the need for cash rather than relying on the CPB, although the king now has more or less personal control of the CPB. Another suggestion is that he plans grand palace construction in the expanding royal precinct.

The various reports note that the CPB remains huge. The usual estimate of its assets is around $30 billion. But that’s a figure Forbes came up with back in 2011. Yet an earlier estimate by an academic came up with more than $40 billion in 2005. Since then Thai shares have performed reasonably well and land prices have increased substantially.  Our guesstimate is that the CPB, if it has done as well as the rest of Thailand’s wealthy Sino-Thai tycoons, should now be valued at between $50 billion and $70 billion. (It is possible that the CPB has been underperforming, but its operations are a secret, as is its worth.)





Big business, wealth, royal connections and fines

21 03 2016

Big business supported the coup and the junta. It supported notions of anti-corruption, so long as it was elected politicians who were in the firing line. We wonder how it is doing now?

At ThailandBusinessNews it is reported that “top executives and shareholders of five companies listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand for insider trading…”. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) pursued insider trading for the second time in three months “on top managers who have abused their power in publicly traded firms for their own benefit or for their accomplices.”

Insider trading has long been normal in Thailand, as it has been in many Asian bourses and internationally as well.

In December, the SEC hit “four top executives of CP All Plc, Thailand’s biggest convenience store operator, with hefty financial penalties. For more details, see the story at AEC News Today. The company, one of Thailand’s whales and under the Chearavanont family’s Charoen Phokphand Group, ignored the fines and allowed the executives to continue in their positions. CP has long had connections with the palace but has also been wiling to bet on all sides of politics.

Now, the SEC has “fined top executives and shareholders of five companies listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand…”. The report has details on Siam Makro:

It fined Korsak Chairasmisak, chairman of the executive committee, Piyawat Titasattavorakul and Pittaya Jearavisitkul, two vice-chairmen of the executive committee, and Athueck Asvanund, the firm’s chief legal officer, a total of 33.34 million baht for using inside information to buy shares in Siam Makro Plc.

At its website, the company has a 13-page “good corporate governance” document. Its board includes three scions of the Chearavanont family and the chairman of the board is none other than Asa Sarasin, and a board member of royal-dominated companies and other CP companies. Asa retired as secretary-general of the Office of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary in 2012, having held the position for 12 years.

Another hit in this bout of insider trading crackdowns is also a business whale:

On Wednesday, the regulator said it had banned Chai Sophonpanich, chairman of Bangkok Insurance Plc (BKI), from being a director at Bangkok Life Assurance (BLA) for three years for his involvement in insider trading. He has also been barred from working in capital markets for the same period. The ban took effect yesterday, but he is not prohibited from working at BKI.

The Criminal Fining Committee has imposed a fine of 500,000 baht on Chai Sophonpanich for disclosing inside information for other persons to purchase shares of Bangkok Insurance Public Company Limited (BKI).

Following a referral from the Stock Exchange of Thailand, the SEC’s further inspection has revealed that Chai, then chairman and chairman of the executive board of directors of BKI, proposed a dividend payment plan for BKI shareholders at the ratio of five existing shares to two dividend shares, on top of the normal dividend payment plan for the operating performance of 2013.

This was material information that would have supported an upward trend of the BKI share price. Chai disclosed such inside information to other persons who purchased BKI shares during 24-25 February 2014 before the information became publicly known on 28 February 2014. Such action was deemed taking an unfair advantage of other people.

The Sophonpanich family has been one of Thailand’s leading business families since the late 1940s. It operates a related family in Hong Kong, involved in banking, politics and other businesses.

Other executives found guilty of insider trading practices by the SEC were:

… Somyos Anantaprayoon, current chairman of WHA Corporation Plc, who was fined 500,000 baht for telling two newspapers — with the articles published on Oct 27, 2014 — that the company was in talks to acquire a listed company worth 50 billion baht, though such information had not yet been made public.

The Criminal Fining Committee has fined Somyos Anantaprayoon for dessiminating news that may have led other persons to understand that the share price of WHA Corporation Plc. (WHA) would rise or fall, and such information had not been disclosed to the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET).

Following a referral from the SET and the SEC’s further inspection, it was found that Somyos, then Chairman, CEO and a major shareholder of WHA, had released news to the public through two media publications issued on 27 October 2014 with the key message that WHA was negotiating a business deal worth approximately 50 billion baht to take over a listed company that had long been established for more than 20 years in the same industry as WHA with a multiple P/E of 10.

His misconduct with regard to the dessimination of facts that had not yet been disclosed to the SET and contained material information that could have influenced investors’ decision making and the price movements of WHA shares being traded on the SET, was in violation of Section 239 and liable to the penalites under Section 296 of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1992. He was imposed a criminal fine of 500,000 baht

He’s one of the founding family of WHA. WHA has a 4-page code of conduct.

Another group hit is the family-controlled Siam Global House, with its boss Witoon Suriyawanakul listed by Forbes as entering Thailand’s richest list in 2013:

… Witoon Suriyawanakul, chairman of the management committee and director of Siam Global House (Global), and three other shareholders, who were given a combined fine of 25.3 million baht for insider trading.

The SEC found that Mr Witoon bought 8.02 million shares and 3.5 million units of warrants of Global from June 29 to Aug 23, 2012 using accounts of people who have a relationship with him in order to take advantage of inside information regarding SCG Distribution’s planned acquisition of Global. The other three shareholders were viewed as accomplices. The acquisition was disclosed to the public on Aug 27, 2012.

The Criminal Fining Committee has imposed a total fine of 25,322,064.39 on four offenders for using insider information to purchase ordinary shares and warrants of Siam Global House Public Company Limited (GLOBAL).

The four offenders are: (1) Witoon Suriyawanakul, (2) Kunnatee Suriyawanakul, (3) Apilas Suriyavanakul, and (4) Kriangkai Suriyawanakul.

All are from the founding family. The deal that was considered insider trading had a connection to the royal-controlled Siam Cement:

Following a referral from the Stock Exchange of Thailand, the SEC’s further investigation has revealed that Witoon and the three other persons in the same group purchased GLOBAL shares and GLOBAL-W warrants and gained benefits from such transactions. Witoon, who was chairman of the management committee of GLOBAL, had the decision making power over the terms and conditions of an agreement between GLOBAL and SCG Distribution Co., Ltd. (SCG), a wholely owned subsidiary of The Siam Cement Public Company Limited, with regard to SCG’s plan to hold at least 30 percent of GLOBAL’s total voting shares by purchasing GLOBAL ordinary capital shares through a private placement.

In this regard, SCG would make a partial offer of GLOBAL shares, which was expected to increase business strength for GLOBAL.

Making the most of being close to the royal center.

As the report makes clear, most of those found guilty “are from the country’s richest families.” The Forbes’ 2015 list of Thailand’s 50 richest has this:

– Mr Chai’s half brother, Chatri Sophonpanich, was ranked 14th with estimated assets of US$1.5 billion (about 52 billion baht)

– Mr Somyos and his then-wife Ms Jareeporn together were ranked 32nd with estimated assets of $765 million

– Witoon Suriyawanakul was ranked 48th and worth $470 million

The Chearavanont family was worth ranked 1st, worth US$14.4 billion.

It seems that the rich never have enough.

By the way, for interest, insider trading in other places seems to sometimes draw bigger penalties: In the US, 11 years in prison and fined a criminal and civil penalty of over $150 million; in the US, $8.8 million fine; and in Australia, more than 8 years in jail.





$40K royal outhouse unnecessary

23 02 2016

Guess what? According to the The Cambodia Daily, Princess Sirindhorn did not require a royal toilet seat. $40,000 down the toilet, as it were.

According to the report, “Sirin­dhorn flew [by helicopter] from Phnom Penh to Ratanakkiri province and back again on Monday, alighting for a lakeside lunch and the open­ing of a health center on the first day of her three-day visit to the country.”money_down_toilet 2

The report states that at “Yeak Lom Lake in Ban­lung City, where a luxurious outhouse had been constructed at her request” was inspected but went unused.

Deputy provincial governor Nhem Sam Oeun stated: “She did not use the toilet … but she went to see the bathroom…. When she went back to Phnom Penh, they re­moved the modern toilet.”

We had thought that this was only “necessary” if the vast expanse of royal butt was seated on the “throne.” Apparently not.

Built by the Siam Cement Group, firmly lodged in the Crown Property Bureau, the unused toilet remains as an empty building.

Absent its “throne,” the 8-square-meter building might be used for something else. Or it might not.

What did the toilet shy princess do in Ratanakkiri? Reportedly, she “presided over a ribbon-cutting cer­emony for a public health cen­ter in O’Chum district that had been donated by the Thai roy­al fam­ily…”. The “investment” in the toilet and building was 15% of the health center.








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