Further updated: Royalist skulduggery v. The People’s skulduckery

26 11 2020

Social media is better than the mainstream media on last evening’s rally at the Siam Commercial Bank HQ. Social media is reporting shots fired, people wounded, infiltration of the protesters by “third hand” elements, probably from the military, and royalist counter-rallies boosted by the king and queen.

Khaosod does report that “[s]hots were fired by unidentified assailants at pro-democracy protesters as they were leaving their rally at the headquarters of Thailand’s oldest bank on Wednesday night, wounding at least two people.” It adds some details:

Eyewitnesses said they heard a loud explosion, followed by 3-4 gunshots, at about 10.15pm, soon after the protest in front of Siam Commercial Bank’s main office concluded. One of the assailants was apprehended while he was trying to run away with others; the rest reportedly managed to flee the scene.

Sombat Thongyoi, one of the volunteer guards who provided security for the protesters, said two people were shot. Both of them were sent to hospital.

“We cannot yet establish whether it was a personal matter or politically motivated,” Sombat said.

Forensic police at the scene said they found traces of bullets; police also said they found a handgun on the man apprehended by the protest guards, though it is unclear as of publication time if it was the same firearm used in the shooting.

Khaosod reports a little on the rally:

The target was switched to the Siam Commercial Bank, a publicly held company in which King Vajiralongkorn is the biggest shareholder. The bank’s headquarters are in a different area of Bangkok, far from the district hosting the Crown Property Bureau and other royal and government offices.

Ducks and some chickens. Clipped from SBS News

An international report has more:

Thousands of Thai democracy activists have rallied in Bangkok to demand the king give up control of his multibillion-dollar fortune, turning their protest movement directly on the once-untouchable monarchy’s vast wealth….

Protest leaders have struck a defiant tone in response, with human rights lawyer Anon Numpha – who is among the 12 summoned for questioning [on lese majeste charges] – telling Wednesday’s protest “the reform of the nation has started whether you believe it or not”.

“Many Thais who had never dared question the monarchy now have started asking question about this king,” he said.

Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, a student leader also called for questioning, told AFP he was not afraid and said the summons under section 112 would simply encourage more people to join the movement.

“Does this mean the monarchy has declared an all-out war with the people – is that right?” he said.

While some of the time the atmosphere of the protest was light-hearted, the speeches were also making important points. Thisrupt reports:

… Ratsadon’s leading activist Anon Nampa stood on a truck in a yellow duck costume. Thousands of people gathered, spilling out onto the other side of the street.

Cries of “ooh” and “ahh” went up now and then. Not because Anon was cursing hell, fire, and brimstone from the truck. Instead, he was educating minds, provoking thoughts, and inspiring changes.

That’s why he’s Thailand’s most dangerous man. It’s no wonder General Prayut Chan-o-cha is bringing back Article 112, the lese majeste law.

There was also the moment when the aged Sulak Srivaraksa, “aided by a walking stick and an assistant, made a surprise appearance.”

In his brief address, Sulak said he would speak on just one issue, the lèse majesté law, or Section 112 of the Criminal Code. He said HM the late King Bhumibol once said that the invocation of Section 112 amounts to an assault on him and its use will undermine the Monarchy.

“Why doesn’t Prayut comply with the late King’s wish?” he asked, adding that HM King Vajiralongkorn has instructed the attorney-general and the president of the Supreme Court, in writing, to stop invoking Section 112.

He accused the prime minister of undermining the Monarchy and bullying HM the King by invoking Section 112 against protest leaders, as he demanded the prime minister’s ouster.

We have few doubts that Sulak is wrong on his interpretation. In his actions, the king has made it clear that the anti-monarchism of the protesters has to be eradicated. His most recent PR outing included another meeting with Warong Dechgitvigrom, leader of Thai Pakdee. At something seemingly belonging to the ultra-royalists and called The Truth, there’s a story about the meeting, quoting the king as whispering in Warong’s ear to say: “Thank you. We must help the people see what is wrong, what is bad, what distorts and what is fake news.”

It is clear that the king believes he can defeat the rising tide of anti-monarchism. His support for the ultra-royalists unleashes their fury. Hence the attempts to stoke conflict at anti-regime demonstrations.

Update 1: The Bangkok Post, which has more or less not reported from the rally at the SCB, has reported on the shooting. It recounts the police story that “shooting heard after the protest at SCB Park ended on Wednesday night involved students from rival vocational schools who worked as guards during the rally…”. Given that vocational students have been involved with yellow shirts, there remains room for some skepticism on the reporting. We’d like to hear from the rally organizers before deciding what happened. We are still waiting to hear more about the previous shootings.

Update 2: Our skepticism in Update 1 is born out in a Thai Enquirer report, where a “leader of several groups of protest guards denied on Thursday and Friday police claims that violence that occurred during the end of Wednesday’s protests was due to infighting by several vocational protest groups.” If this leader is believed, then the next question would be: Why did the police make their announcement? Possible answers are: they are an incompetent bunch of dolts, which they have previously demonstrated. Another could be that someone has paid them off, which has happened many times in the past. And another might be that they have been ordered to make false claims, which is standard practice and was seen several times in the past when red shirts were framed.





Updated: Confrontation looms

25 11 2020

The use of lese majeste and the multiple threats of arrest today have mounted. The regime has seemingly calculated that the events at police headquarters and the royal family’s PR blitz and its “demonstrated generosity,” that a crackdown on protesters targeting the king and his wealth may not earn them “too much” public derision.

Police and military are preparing for tonight’s rally at the Crown Property Bureau. Razor wire is up and the so-called “royal” exclusion zone established. That the military has been active with helicopters suggests preparations for a confrontation.

Thai PBS reports that “increased helicopter activity, heard over several areas of Bangkok on Monday night,” and “which went on for hours” was described  by Army Chief Gen Narongphan Chitkaewtae as “part of security arrangements for the motorcade of … the King and Queen…”. We fear it is preparations for tonight, especially when he added that while “it is the police’s responsibility to deal with the rally,” the army is prepared to “help” if “there is a request from the police.”

The Free Youth have also upped the anty, publishing this statement:

Meanwhile the regime is doubling down. Neo-fascist member of the Democrat Party coalition party, Deputy Transport Minister Thaworn Senniam declared that the regime arrest Progressive Movement’s Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul for being responsible for the uprising and anti-monarchism.

He “explained”:

“As a Thai citizen and a Democrat MP, I will perform my duty to protect the Nation, the Religion, the Monarchy and the democratic system with the King as the head of state,” said Thavorn, claiming that 90 percent of the Thai population agree with him.

As “evidence” he “showed the media today a video clip of Piyabutr giving a speech at the University of London, on the topic of “Is Thailand in a Deeper State of Crisis?” on June 11th, 2016.” Yes, that’s more than four years ago.

On Thanathorn, Thaworn says that “in several speeches, has stressed the need for reform of the Thai Monarchy, adding that the founding of the Future Forward Party, which was dissolved by the Constitutional Court, was intended to achieve that goal.”

He went on to accuse “Thanathorn and Piyabutr of spending more than eight months brainwashing and inciting hatred of the Monarchy among Thai youth, with the intention of turning the protests into riots and, eventually, civil war.”

In fact, Thaworn is simply reflecting the views of ultra-royalists and rightists who are baying for blood.

It will be a difficult evening as the regime, at this point, seems to have drawn its line in the sand and the rally is likely to test that.

Update: As has happened previously, the anti-government protesters have changed their rally site, reducing the prospect of a clash. The new location is related as the rally will be at the Siam Commercial Bank HQ, with the king being the biggest shareholder in the bank.

We are not sure that the change was to avoid a clash and the inordinate efforts the regime had taken to seal off the area around the CPB, or just a prank to make the regime expend effort and look a bit silly.

The regime has barricaded the area around the CPB, with “[r]olls of razor wire and steel barricades…”, mainly shipping containers stacked end-to-end and two high. These efforts caused huge traffic jams. In addition, “[s]oldiers in plain clothes were seen deployed around the CPB…”.





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.





Fallout from the Srirasmi divorce

7 03 2020

Long-time readers may recall the lese majeste case against Nopporn Suppipat, in 2014, one of Thailand’s wealthiest men, who made money on alternative energy.

He was then caught up in the purge of persons associated with then Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s estranged wife Srirasmi and her relatives in early December 2014.

His arrest warrant alleged he hired two persons connected to former Central Investigation Bureau chief Pongpat Chayapan, the princess’s uncle.

Nopporn was accused of defaming the monarchy by using royal influence to hire others to physically assault and threaten.

Nopporn fled the country for Cambodia and then France, declaring his innocence and saying he has no intention of returning to Thailand as he would be unable to get a fair hearing in the then junta-led nation.

He denied any connection to the princess’s relatives, stating that he was involved in a lengthy court dispute and enlisted the help of a senior army officer to help “negotiate” a final settlement. Nopporn said it was that officer who hired Srirasmi’s associates/relatives. He also argued that he was targeted because the police believed he was close to Thaksin Shinawatra.

Seemingly out of the blue, Nopporn is back in the news. A reader sent us a story where it is reported that he “has sued members of a family-run business conglomerate in London’s High Court over the $700 million sale of the business, claiming they conspired to take control of the company.”

Nopporn’s suit accuses “members, companies and allies of Thailand’s Narongdej family of conspiring to deprive him of any interest in the [W]ind [C]ompany [Wind Energy Holding Co. Ltd.].”

His suit accuses “Nop Narongdej, the scion of the KPN Group business conglomerate, of reneging on the plans and secretly conspiring with members of his family to keep the [company’s] shares” despite a deal done that would have allowed Nopporn to hold the shares outside Thailand.

Nopporn “claims he’s only been paid $90 million for his 59% stake in WEH, less than a tenth of what the shares were worth,” and a further $85.75 million since. He says that the “International Chamber of Commerce held that Narongdej’s companies owed $700 million under the share sale agreement.”

It is claimed that the “stake in WEH was eventually sold to Kasem Narongdej, Nop’s father, at a major discount…”. As a result, the suit involved Nop, Kasem and “15 other defendants, including the family’s companies, WEH employees, Narongdej’s lawyer, Siam Commercial Bank [major shareholder: the king], and individual banking employees.”

All “[e}xcept for Kasem Narongdej, … have agreed to the U.K. court jurisdiction over the case, according to court records.”

In Thailand and Hong Kong, the shenanigans have caused considerable reporting. Some of 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.





How does that happen?

16 08 2018

With the military junta in its fifth year of rule, at times it does seem to lose even its own plot. Below are three news items that PPT struggles to comprehend.

First, in a financial scandal that looks something between a white-collar crime and a Ponzi scheme with new means, the Bangkok Post reports that a big investor on the Stock Exchange of Thailand and staff from at least three commercial banks “are suspected of being complicit in a 797 million baht (US$24 million) scandal involving a foreign investor and the cryptocurrency bitcoin…”. The banks are the big three: Bangkok Bank, Siam Commercial Bank and Kasikorn Bank. Police say that “several of the banks’ employees failed to report money transfers of 2 million baht or higher, a serious violation of bank rules.” Those rules come under the Anti-Money Laundering Office.

It was just a couple of days ago that The Dictator sacked the head of AMLO. That head had only been in the job for about a month. Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha used his unbridled Article 44 powers to send the AMLO boss packing. What’s going on there?

(Call us suspicious, but we do recall the big wigs being involved in the Mae Chamoy chit fund that was exposed in the 1980s. The Wikipedia entry states:

The fund had a large number of politically powerful investors from the military and even the Royal Household and as such there were calls for the government to bail out the banks and the chit funds. After discussions with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the nature of which were not made public, the Mae Chamoy Fund was shut down and Chamoy Thipyaso was arrested. She was held in secret by the air force for several days and her trial was not held until after the losses for the military and royal personnel involved had been recovered.)

Second, the Nikkei Asian Review reports that the junta is dumping its Special Economic Zone projects. It observes:

Since taking power in 2014, the military-led government had floated SEZ projects with the idea of building industrial complexes in the poor, remote areas along the country’s border. The plans backfired by fueling property speculation and sending land prices substantially higher, driving up the costs of building the SEZs.

How does that happen? Perhaps it has to do with the third story, with the junta stating it now wants to concentrate on infrastructure rather than SEZs.

Third, the Bangkok Post reports that “Transport Ministry officials have confirmed that auctions for the construction contracts for all sections of the first phase of the Thai-Chinese high-speed railway project will commence by the end of the year, despite unsettled negotiations between both countries.” How does that work?

One way it works is by dividing up the work into “14 separate contracts, which will use design and construction blueprints from China.” Quite a few are going to be in the money!





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.)








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