Prem dead IV

31 05 2019

In our first post on Gen Prem Tinsulanonda’s death, we warned that there was likely to be plenty of buffalo manure, piled high by royalists and lazy commentators who recall Prem’s time as unelected premier as somehow better than anything else.

As it has turned out, while there has been some of this bleating, there’s also been some excellent assessments in the international media and in the local press.

That has seen some efforts to roll back the truth and to make a silk purse of a sow’s ear. A recent sycophantic effort is by commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak. As far as we can tell from his CV, Thitinan has never actually written much at all about Gen Prem. This would suggest that he’s working on that sow’s ear based on his impressions of a man he admired.

Thitinan seems miffed that some of the commentary on Prem has been negative. He puts this down to considering Prem’s 21st century and forgetting his 20th century work. And, he seems to think that other mistakenly use 21st century lenses to consider the earlier Prem. And/or, the youngsters of today just don’t get what their “elders” did for them back in the grim days of the Cold War military dictatorship.

He admits that “Gen Prem’s legacy is certainly mixed.” However, he wants to resurrect Prem’s 20th century when “[h]e served what he often called the “motherland”, astutely and with distinction when the heyday of Thailand’s military-authoritarian era needed him to thwart communism…”. Look at these interventions as “Gen Prem’s lasting legacies, which marked his illustrious political life and performance at the top…”.

Unfortunately, Thitinan really only begins his 20th century story when Gen Prem becomes army chief in the late 1970s, “when communist expansionism was an existential threat.” There’s stuff about Prem staring down Vietnamese tans across the border in 1979. Where does Thitinan expect the nation’s military commander to have been? At the same time, its was clear to all who were deeply involved  that the Vietnamese weren’t invading Thailand but defeating the Khmer Rouge. What this prancing at the border did was give Prem more ammunition for replacing Gen Kriangsak as prime minister.

When he succeeded in ousting Kriangsak, he relinquished control of Cambodia policy to hardliners:

… Prime Minister Prem … has delegated Cambodian policy primarily to three officials–Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila, Secretary-General Prasong Sunsiri of the National Security Council, and Army Deputy Chief of Staff Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. While Siddhi directs efforts on the diplomatic front, Prasong is in charge of Bangkok’s policy toward all Indochinese refugees. Lt. General Chavalit coordinates Chinese and ASEAN military aid to the resistance and is the principal architect of non-Communist resistance strategy.

Thitinan ignores the political turmoil of the early years of the Prem premiership and the opposition to him.

For him, the two big deals of the Prem period are “compromises.” One is the amnesty for “Communist Party of Thailand members and student activists who earlier fled to jungle hideouts and strongholds to return and restart their lives in society.” Chavalit had much to do with that too, but the fact is that there were other things happening within the CPT that saw it in decline and made amnesty good strategy. Prem did recognize this and deserves credit.

The second compromise “was between civilian leaders and military generals.” He says:

As prime minister, Gen Prem presided over three elections and five governments. He maintained control over security- and economy-related cabinet portfolios, especially interior, defence, finance, and foreign affairs, but allowed elected politicians to run line ministries, such as commerce, industry, agriculture, and transport and communications. This compromise led to a so-called “Premocracy”, that was semi-authoritarian and semi-democratic. Similar to the current Thai military regime’s situation, this kind of compromise requires fair and sufficient power-sharing, which may be lacking in the post-election political setup.

This is only part of the story. Prem was under constant pressure from civilians for real electoral democracy. He resisted and that’s why there were five governments. Prem resisted, again and again, and the palace was unwavering in its support of Prem-style authoritarianism. No politician ever challenged Prem for the premiership. They knew their place. Prem spent the rest of his life trying to prevent civilian politicians from ruling. He did his job and he was rewarded. Thailand lost elected governments time and time again.

For a different take, mostly 21st century Prem, the Council on Foreign Relations is good.

Asia Sentinel on the prince’s war

12 11 2015

Asia Sentinel has another article on Thailand’s bizarre royal politics. The article seems to be written by the same “correspondent” as an earlier piece on this topic.

Its main claim is that Thailand’s royalist elites “may be horrified by the prince’s behavior, but they have little recourse” and have jumped on board with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

The article believes that “Thailand’s elites … [have] campaigned for years  to prevent him from becoming king upon his father’s death…”. As we have said many times over the years, we are not convinced by this claim. We do acknowledge the Wikileaks cable that was unflattering, but as we said back then, despite their reservations about the prince, Prem and Siddhi Savetsila seemed resigned to his becoming king.Asia Sentinel

Even so, the claim of a succession struggle has motivated many observers and succession, once hardly mentioned, has become an important topic, discussed in whispers.

The observation that Prem Tinsulanonda, the head of the Privy Council, appeared at the “Bike for Mom” event in August does show support for the prince. The claim that Prem had previously supported Princess Sirindhorn hasn’t seemed to us to carry any supporting evidence – not that evidence is easy to find in matters related to the secretive royal family.

We are also not sure that the “massive purge [is] to cement the prince’s position…”. It is a “reign of terror,” but the reasons for it remain unclear. The prince has been erratic and violent in the past, and the current events could be another example of that petulance, enacted with the power of the military behind him. If that is so, Thais should be very frightened.

We still wonder about social media claims that the military is cutting out the prince’s advisers and backers and may be is even forcibly cleaning up the prince’s act.

Whatever the real motivation behind the purges, deaths and alleged torture of those who died, we agree that these “are dark, evil days” in Thailand.

They are also days that threaten the military junta’s efforts to put a “prince-proof” political system in place. With the king gone, the military realized that it needed to have political arrangements in place that allow for an erratic monarch but allow for the monarchy to remain the keystone of the existing system of privilege and power.

These are very strange and very scary times.

Wikileaks, Siddhi and Anand on Samak

10 02 2014

WikileaksPPT hasn’t put up anything from Wikileaks for some time, but a Facebook post we saw drew this cable to our attention. We don’t think we saw it previously.

The cable links perfectly with comments made in a post earlier today and with an interview former premier and royalist spokesman Anand Panyarachun has made today in two articles at the Bangkok Post. We’ll say more about his Post interview in a later post, probably today, if we have time.

In his interview, to cut to the chase, Anand essentially supports the anti-democrats. Yes, he says a lot about democracy, but he is making the anti-democrats point in a calm, conservative and royalist manner. Clearly, the old men are all talking behind the scenes and trying to regain control of “their” Thailand.

So we thought readers would like this line-by-line reproduction of a cable (minus paragraph numbers) of a previous time the old royalists thought they needed to solve a national political “impasse.” Their proposed “solution” then didn’t come off, but Samak Sundaravej was soon gone as premier and the end game was put in place, so that the hated pro-Thaksin Shinawatra government was soon sent packing by the toady royalist courts.

The rest of this post is the cable:


US Ambassador Eric G. John writes of a meeting he had with Privy Councilor ACM Siddhi Savetsila September 3 2008 to discuss the then “political impasse and Siddhi’s views on the way forward.”

Siddhi laid out a scenario which he said he would present to King Bhumiphol in an audience at the Hua Hin Palace later in the evening September 3. In short: PM Samak had to go. The best replacement would be former PM Anand Panyarachun, bolstered by “honest” figures to “rehabilitate democracy.” The House and Senate would stay in place; the Constitution would also remain but needed to be amended to allow non-elected MP figures to serve in the Cabinet. Ambassador repeatedly stressed that any action in Thailand needed to stay within the constitutional framework, and that the U.S. would react negatively to developments which amounted to an extra-constitutional coup. Anand subsequently confirmed to Ambassador that he had been involved in related discussions for the past week, but he refused to be involved “before the fact,” and would only discuss terms of any possible role afterwards, focused on the least impact on the contents of Thai democracy.

¶2. (S) Comment: Confirmation that a trusted Privy Councilor and long-time friend of the U.S. is on his way to seek King Bhumiphol’s approval for the above scheme is disturbing news.

Siddhi suggested that matters might come to a head in the next 48 hours (In a separate Sept. 3 converation with Ambassador, Defense Ministry PermSec Winai said there could be some “good signs” this evening). That said, Siddhi freely acknowledged three crucial pieces to the plan are not yet in place, and might not fall into place: first and foremost, the King’s assent; second, Anand has not yet agreed to  participate; third, Army Commander Anuphong, probably the only person who could deliver the necessary message to Samak, had so far refused to tell Samak it was time to go. We will continue to press our message of staying within the constitutional framework to all parties involved. Anand took Ambassador’s message on board, but made clear he did not agree with the U.S. perspective.

Samak has to go

Privy Councilor ACM Siddhi Savetsila made clear to Ambassador Sept. 3 that he viewed Thaksin and, by extension, PM Samak as an existential threat to the Thailand he supported, centered on the monarchy. Samak had lost his legitimacy, beset by multiple court cases and the violence in the streets of Udon Thani and Bangkok against civilians. The only way out of the current political impasse was for Samak to resign or the House to dissolve. But Samak refused to leave; he had lied to coalition partners about his August 30 audience with the King, had dismissed Opposition Leader Abhisit’s suggestion during the August 31 parliamentary debate to call new elections which pro-Thaksin forces would win again, and had even rejected his own wife’s and daughter’s prostrate entreaties to resign for the good of the country. Samak therefore had to go.

Stressing that Ambassador was the only foreigner he would share the information with, Siddhi laid out a scenario which he said he would present to King Bhumiphol later in the day in an audience for the Privy Councilors in Hua Hin. The solution was not by using force but to rehabilitate Thai democracy. The same Constitution would remain, amended to allow outsiders (non-MPs) to serve in the Cabinet. The House and Senate would stay. Universally respected former PM Anand should serve as the leader of the “project,” which would involve respected, “honest” ex-military and Ministry of Interior officials, academics, one or two PAD members, and perhaps some Democrat Party figures. The mandate would be to initiate a wide array of reforms in the economic, social, and political sphere. That in turn would “weed out” the bane effects of Thaksinism from the system. Army Commander Anuphong would have to deliver the message to Samak; no one else could.

Who is behind the effort and why?

Siddhi said that a group of prominent figures had approached him with the plan, more than could fit in his modest living room. The only one he named was Pramote Nakorntab, a retired respected professor and political scientist from Chulalongkorn University; others included a high ranking Air Force officer and a Constitutional Court Judge. Since, as a Privy Councilor, he was not supposed to be involved in politics, only in advising the King, Siddhi agreed to meet “as a former military leader” ready to do his best for the country. He was willing to push forward and present the project to the King in part to shield Privy Council Chair Prem Titsulanonda, who had been heavily and unjustly criticized for backing the PAD and trying to promote a Democrat Party-led government. The stakes were high; it was essential to rehabilitate the democratic system in Thailand. “If we lose, Thaksin will come back, and if Thaksin comes back, the monarchy will be lost,” Siddhi explained.

Siddhi acknowledged that neither Anand nor Anuphong were on board yet. Anand said he would need to review a proposal in detail before accepting. Even though Anuphong thought Samak must go, Siddhi said Anuphong was reluctant to push in part because he disliked the PAD, especially leaders Sondhi and Chamlong. Siddhi said he had challenged Anuphong – was he prepared to lose his principles in support of the monarchy because he did not like 3-4 people? Most importantly, it was up to the King to indicate what he thought of the plan. Siddhi would brief; the King would stay aloof, but provide his reaction. “What will happen will happen.”

Ambassador repeatedly emphasized U.S. concerns with non-elected systems of governance; the U.S. could not condone any extra-constitutional change in government in Thailand, since it would amount to a coup by another name. Ambassador urged Siddhi to explore alternatives within the constitutional framework: caretaker government prior to snap elections; reconfigured coalition with a different PM; or a national unity cabinet involving the Democrats. Leaders in a democracy needed to be elected.

Siddhi demurred, and said that Samak simply would not listen to anyone. Ambassador stressed that PAD leader Sondhi was just as stubborn as Samak, but that it was imperative to push for a dialogue to begin to seek a political resolution to the political crisis.

Anand more forthcoming the second time

Ambassador engaged Anand after the Siddhi meeting for the second time in 24 hours. More forthcoming this time than on September 2 (reftel), Anand acknowledged he had been listening to the group for the past week, but refused to get involved directly in anything before the plan was put into action. If the plan went forward, he was prepared to meet with them at that point. It was imperative to ensure the least impact on the contents of Thai democracy; even in the case of non-elected persons of supposed quality, care needed to be taken. Anand claimed that “I’m always my own man,” and that he had turned down many positions offered when he thought others sought to control him.

Ambassador underscored the critical importance of developments in Thailand staying within the framework of the constitution and rule of law; if that did not occur, the U.S. would respond accordingly. Anand replied that he had disagreed with the U.S. reaction to the 2006 coup and frequently disagreed with western views of what constituted democracy in various countries.

Is the Thai monarchy in danger?

11 10 2013

That’s the headline for a story by Florian Decludt at the International Affairs Review, a web-based magazine produced graduate students from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington D.C.

It begins with the usual nonsense about the king having “served as the sole guarantor of the country’s stability.” You really would think that graduate students would be able to read a bit more widely and finally discern that this claim is nothing more than palace propaganda. Graduate students may not have much influence, yet there is enough in the article to warrant a critical assessment.

The story told is about an “old and ailing” king and the implications of succession for the political order. If the alleged stabilizer is dying, what happens to the alleged stability? All a bit tortured really, for it depends on this fake idea that the king has stabilized politics rather than supported coups and authoritarian leaders who have a notion of stability that revolves around crackdowns, jailing opponents and maintaining the royalist political order.

Leaving this false premise aside for the moment, the article says that “[e]nsuring stability means that the succession process proceeds smoothly and that prominent figures such as Thaksin Shinawatra do not interfere with the process.”

This is an odd claim, and mainly heard from yellow shirts in Thailand who think Thaksin is somehow close to the prince, with rumors circulating that Thaksin funds the prince or once did. So while it is clear in law that the Crown Prince will succeed his father, the article notes the “unpopularity of current Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn,” as if this matters. The article goes so far as to state: “It is clear, however, that Vajiralongkorn is not fit to become King because of his unpopularity.”King, prince

To make the point clear, the article states: “Vajiralongkorn, unlike his father, does not enjoy the same prestige due to allegations of adultery and ties to criminal organizations.” It is hardly a state secret that the prince isn’t seen in the same way as his father, who has been the subject of massive, state-funded propaganda campaigns. The rest is rumor and ignores the king’s long association with the military, also long associated with illegalities in trade, on borders and in terms of state murder.

At the same time, this observation also buys into the palace line that the king has to be popular, with the implication that popularity is somehow akin to a people’s mandate. Of course, no monarchy works that way, as blood is the only critical measure. And male blood, with an heir, in place matters more than female blood and no possibility of an heir. So ignoring law and royal “tradition” in Thailand – at least for the 19th and 20th centuries – and elsewhere, relying on palace propaganda and rumor, the article then claims:

The Thai monarchy could circumvent this block by having King Rama IX disinherit Vajiralongkorn and designate Princess Sirindhorn as the heiress to the throne. This would follow the recommendations made by three prominent Thai political figures: former Prime Ministers General Prem Tinsulanonda and Anand Panyarachun, and Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila.

So this puts the claim about Thaksin interfering in a different perspective. Drawing on a famous Wikileaks cable, it becomes clear that it is actually the courtiers, as “prominent figures,” who could “interfere with the process.” The claim, often heard in red shirt circles as much as amongst yellow shirts, is that Privy Council President Prem will manipulate succession. The red shirts claim that Prem is an old interferer while the yellows seem to be hoping that he does intervene to ensure the jolly Sirindhorn may save the monarchy from Vajiralongkorn and thus maintain their feudal royalism.

2006 royalist coup

The military in the king’s yellow in 2006

Prem’s recent political game-playing – actively participating in coup planning in 2006 – was a political disaster for the monarchy and destabilized it more than any other event since 1976, when the monarchy intervened on the side of vicious rightists causing remarkable political damage. In the latter case, the monarchy intervened to protect its interests and seemed prepared to accept the damage. In 2006, it thought it was on a political winner, only to be seriously disappointed.

The article then states the royalist argument for Prem’s interference:

If the Crown Prince keeps his title, it is certain that the royal family’s standing will be weakened by Rama IX’s passing. In this situation, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration will attempt to secure more executive power at the expense of the King, and ensure the return of her brother, Thaksin.

Constitutionally, the king is meant to have little political role and the idea of wrestling “executive power” away from him is misguided. What the author appears to mean is that succession may mean that the monarchy is less able to intervene in political matters. For many, that would be an excellent development and may be the one thing that actually works to stabilize Thailand’s democracy.

The article then gets confused and lost, prophesying a military coup “in favor of Vajiralongkorn” that would seek “to topple Yingluck,” leading to “internal support to overthrow the monarchy.” If the prince is close to Thaksin, this argument seems illogical. Even so, the article then states that the end of the monarchy in Thailand “would have disastrous consequences for Thailand as a whole.” Why? Well, circular logic is employed:

Without the royals, the country would lack the unifying force that guarantees a certain level of stability, which has allowed the country to prosper despite numerous coups. King Rama IX’s prestige and influence is the sole reason why Thailand did not descend into civil war following Thaksin’s ouster in 2006.

That palace seems such a dysfunctional place that it is capable of bringing itself down. It was the palace’s intervention that led to the 2006 coup, which very nearly unraveled royalist power in Thailand.

Ignoring all of this, the article makes the following claim, which may well represent some of the parallel universe thinking that characterizes conservative elite thinking both in Thailand and the U.S.:

The only way to ensure the preservation of the status quo would be to coronate Princess Sirindhom. While it is likely that Vajiralongkorn will attempt to prevent this from happening, his widespread unpopularity will prevent him from taking the crown from his sister, forcing him to withdraw from political affairs. Princess Sirindhom’s relative popularity compared to her brother would also reduce the odds of the Yingluck administration’s attempts to secure more executive power. Such continuity in power is the best outcome for Thailand’s stability and therefore for US interests in the region.

More on Akechai’s lese majeste conviction

29 03 2013

Prachatai has a longer report on the court’s decision to send Akechai Hongkangwarn to jail for lese majeste.

Akechai was sentenced to five years in prison (reduced for “cooperation”) and a fine of 100,000 baht for selling documentary CDs of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary program on the monarchy and for having copies of Wikileaks documents that the court deemed were defaming to the queen and the crown prince.

Details of the “Foreign Correspondent” documentary and a link to the now well-known birthday party video are here. The Wikileaks cables are from 2008, indicating “the Queen supported the 2006 coup” and from 2010 about “opinions about royal succession from Privy Council Chair Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, Privy Council member ACM Siddhi Savetsila, and former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun.” These can be found here, here and here. The court essentially refused to allow any of these big shots to be called to give evidence.Akechai

The report states that the judges “deemed the content of the materials misleading and defamatory for the monarchy.” It is a royalist fabrication that the materials are misleading. In fact, they use material directly from the palace and from the mouths of royalist flunkies to paint an accurate picture of the monarchy. That these insider accounts may be defamatory says more about the palace than of anything else.

But the propaganda-defending courts noted that:

The country’s constitution and criminal code stipulated that His Majesty the King is the head of state and highly revered. No one shall violate or use rights and liberties for any adverse effects. The state and its people have duties to uphold the monarchy system forever….  Any defaming speech causing irritation to … His Majesty shall not be acceptable,” the judge read out the verdict.

As usual, the royalist courts manipulate the constitution’s words in order to lock up someone considered guilty of telling the truth. Akechai is reported as being “upset by the court’s decision as his intention was merely to spread neutral and objective information produced by foreign media outlet to the public.” The court’s ruling is a reminder that truth shall not be spoken.

Sulak Sivaraksa commented that “the punishment for lese majeste is too severe. The monarchy should also be for open for criticism as it is important for democracy…”.

Lese majeste evidence censored by court

24 07 2012

This post refers to events a few days ago that were reported in the Bangkok Post. PPT wanted to get back to it for the light it projects on the way lese majeste cases are handled by the courts.

During the third day of the now suspended trial of Akechai Hongkangwarn, accused of selling CDs and WikiLeaks documents that are allegedly insulting of the royal family, the judges halted the day’s trial “multiple times as judges asked whether the evidence should be presented in the courtroom.”

In other words, the judges want to have a trial where evidence is censored by the court. The reason for this is quite clear: all of the evidence is produced by persons close to the royal family and is damning of them, and most especially of the crown prince.

The Criminal Court “had to break the session on a few occasions to seek clarifications on the defence approach and a push by prosecutors to show the evidence in court.” The trial was said to have “been interspersed with informal discussions on how to proceed.” Further, as the “trial proceeded, the judges could be heard at one point telling the defence and prosecutors that this is a delicate and sensitive lawsuit in which ‘no one wanted to proceed recklessly’.”

Clearly, the royalist judges were in a twilight zone, between legal and constitutional rights and their need to “protect” the monarchy. Their response was to tutor the defense team, saying the “best approach should be to focus on intent.”

This dilemma is why the royalist legal system seeks guilty pleas from those charged with lese majeste; they do not want truths about the monarchy aired in any public forum.

The report states that: “So far the court has not allowed the evidence to be shown, but it is still kept in the list of exhibits.” In other words, the censorship remains in place.

The “horror” facing the judges include the defense team’s intention to call Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda, Privy Counselor Siddhi Savetsila, and royalist ideologue Anand Panyarachun to testify in relation to a Wikileaks cable. In the face of the judges claiming that this approach was an error, the legal defense team agreed to postpone this. In return, the defense got the court to agree to forward its claim that the lese majeste law “breached freedom of expression and civil liberties and so violated the constitution.”

The conduct of the trial – tutoring the defense and prosecution, keeping evidence secret and so on – are revealing of the inability of the judiciary to function lawfully and logically where the monarchy is concerned. The monarchy is an impediment to rule of law.

Wikileaks, Democrat Party, palace and lese majeste

31 07 2011

In our series on leaked cables, a Wikileaks cable dated 6 February 2009, by Ambassador Eric John, notes the rising tide of lese majeste charges.

He seems somewhat bemused by the Democrat Party’s position as ardent promoters of the use of the law. He comments: “Many of the Democrat Party leaders who have moved into top government positions are cosmopolitan, well-educated people who nevertheless appear to be facilitating growing efforts to clamp down on forms of speech critical of the monarchy. Whether that is primarily out of personal conviction or political advantage, or both, remains unclear.”

What he may have missed is the royalist heritage of the party and the fact that, in 2009, it owed its position to the Army that was also gung-ho on lese majeste and, like the so-called Democrats, dead keen to preserve the existing order that congeals around the monarchy.

John also has a comment on the case of Ji Ungpakorn, stating: “Giles [Ungpakorn] has traditionally attacked all elements of the traditional Thai elite, including all political forces without distinction, XXXX despite earlier pressure from Special Branch, formal charges did not surface until the inauguration of a Democrat-led government.”

On “friends of the monarchy” warning that lese majeste was damaging, John recounts: “15. (C) Several private Americans with long-term experience in Thailand and good connections with palace insiders weighed in ‘as friends’ February 3-5 out of concern that the increased application of lese majeste, without distinction between those who mean ill towards the monarchy and those who otherwise would be ignored, ran the risk of undermining the very institution the law seeks to protect, and which they feel has served Thailand well through the decades. The reception to the message was mixed. Privy Councilors Prem Tinsulanonda, Surayud Chulanont, and Siddhi Savetsila thanked one U.S. businessman for the ‘very good advice; we’ll take it seriously.’ The reaction from the Crown Property Bureau to a similar approach by a second businessman was completely negative; the self-described friend of the monarchy remarked afterwords: ‘these people live in an alternate reality’.” The emphasis is added by PPT.

Woof, woof. Things royal and political

11 02 2011

Veteran reporter Hamish McDonald has a great little story at The Age in Melbourne, where he refers to “Thai politics becomes a dog’s dinner.” We thought we’d just put the whole story, together with the cartoon. Of course, it draws on the Wikileaks cable of a few days ago (see here and here) and several earlier leaked cables:

Military promotions are closely watched in Thai political circles, understandably given the coups periodically mounted in Bangkok. How then to evaluate the news that one Foo Foo, a miniature poodle belonging to Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has been elevated to the rank of Air Chief Marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force?

We learn this in a cable from the former US ambassador to Thailand, Ralph Boyce, reporting his farewell calls on the royal family at the end of 2009, brought to us courtesy of WikiLeaks.

Foo Foo had attended a jazz festival gala dinner with his master, ”dressed in formal evening attire complete with paw mitts”, Boyce said. ”At one point during the band’s second number, he jumped up onto the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses, including my own. The Air Chief Marshal’s antics drew the full attention of the 600-plus audience members, and remain the talk of the town to this day.”

Royal doings assume more importance in Thailand than here. The king takes an active interest in government formation, as well as being a semi-sacred figure in the official Buddhist hierarchy. The current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has been on the throne more than 60 years. His prestige is immense; public affection enormous. But at 83 he has been ailing after a reported stroke and makes only rare public appearances.

The Crown Prince is viewed with misgivings, after a tearaway youth that doesn’t seem to have ended at 58. His behaviour continues to raise eyebrows, especially when a video circulated last year of a poolside birthday party for Foo Foo, at which his Royal Consort, Srirasmi, sat bare breasted.

The monarchy has meanwhile become political ammunition in the battle between the ”Red Shirt” supporters of the populist former telecom tycoon turned prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and the ”Yellow Shirt” backers of a more traditional elitism who wave the royal colours.

Other US diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks suggest the royal house itself is also somewhat divided. Three of the most senior officials close to the king – the former prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, the head of the Privy Council and a former army general, Anand Panyarachun, another former prime minister and air chief marshal Siddhi Savetsila – were quoted by the new US ambassador Eric John last January as saying they prefer the king’s popular daughter, Princess Sirindhorn, as successor.

The three elders were worried by Thaksin’s cultivation of the Crown Prince, by paying off his debts and providing a luxurious new house in Bangkok. Vajiralongkorn preferred to spend time in Munich with his favourite consort, rather than with his official wife and children in Thailand, and had kept a succession of air hostesses as his mistresses.

The ambassador quoted Anand as saying the Crown Prince would succeed his father according to the law, but there could be ”complicating factors” if the prince proved unable to stay out of politics, or avoid embarrassing financial transactions.

“After a pause, Anand added that the consensus view among many Thai was that the Crown Prince could not stop either, nor would he be able, at age 57, to rectify his behaviour,” John reported. But no one could raise ”such a delicate topic” with the King.

The revelations can’t be discussed openly, but are causing turmoil. Thaksin was removed by military coup in 2006, tacitly backed by King Bhumipol, but his Red Shirt backers and his banned Thai Rak Thai party keep bobbing back. They are especially strong in the Thai rural hinterland, where Thaksin’s extension of welfare broke an old pattern of patronage used by Bangkok elites.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, appointed as Prime Minister in December 2008 with backing from the Yellow Shirts after some opaque Constitutional Court manoeuvres, wants to hold elections this year to reinforce his legitimacy. But there is no guarantee he will win.

Meanwhile, authorities use a new computer crime law combined with an old lese majeste law to silence debate about the alleged misuse of royal power. Nearly 200 people have been arrested in the past four years, and lengthy jail terms of up to 18 years have been given.

The atmosphere has darkened since the appointment of General Prayuth Chan-ocha as the new chief of the Royal Thai Army last October, when he declared the army’s main purpose was ”protecting the country’s sovereignty and the monarchy”. He followed up by warning that the army would intensify arrests for anti-monarchy postings by Red Shirts. ”Do not whine, because we have warned you many times,” he said. ”From our grandparents’ generation down to the present, we have been looked after by the monarchy, no matter which king.”

The political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak noted in the Bangkok Post this week that Prayuth was indicating ”internal challenges that he has not elaborated” and ”may have unnecessarily drawn a line in the sand and defined the fault line of Thai politics around the monarchy.” Prayuth had gathered around him in top posts his old colleagues from military academy and the 21st Infantry Regiment, known as the ”Queen’s Guards” (the Crown Prince being Queen Sirikit’s favourite). Such concentrations have led to coups.

This month’s flare-up between Thai and Cambodian border troops over a disputed Hindu temple is also the result of Bangkok politics, according to Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Yellow Shirt activists crossed into Cambodian-held territory and got themselves arrested to create a nationalist wave for the election and paint Thaksin, who has been hosted during his exile by the Cambodian leader Hung [sic] Sen, as a traitor.

Meanwhile, if at the Crown Prince’s place, be careful about dogs. Chatting to the consort Srirasmi at the jazz dinner, US envoy Boyce recalled King Bhumipol talking animatedly to George Bush about his dog Thongdaeng. ”I mentioned having heard Princess Sirindhorn had a large dog, and I asked Srirasmi if she knew the breed,” Boyce reported. ”Srirasmi appeared immediately to freeze up; her body language changed, and she said curtly that she knew nothing of Sirindhorn’s affairs.”

Somsak is right on lese majeste

7 01 2011

A Prachatai report comments on the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship urging “the government to take legal action against two Privy Councillors and a former Prime Minister for their comments about the Crown Prince” over comments reported in this Wikileaks cable.

The cable named Privy Council President  General Prem Tinsulanonda, Privy Councillor Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila and former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun as making apparently truthful but derogatory comments regarding succession.

While PPT understands that red shirts see double standards in this process, we have to agree with the well-known critic of the monarchy, Thammasat University lecturer Somsak Jeamtheerasakul,  who has argued against this move.

He argues that “any accusation of lèse majesté was unjustifiable, and went radically against the principles of democracy.” He argues that the use of lese majeste by anyone further legitimates this draconian political law.

He argues that the cable should be used to further expose the hypocrisy of the  elite “such as Prem, Siddhi and Anand … [when they] are staunch advocates of the discourse on loyalty and the lèse majesté law, in order to gag public opinion.”

He wants the UDD to campaign “for the abolition of the law, instead of encouraging its use.” Well said.

The prince and lese majeste

16 12 2010

PPT understand this Guardian story is now blocked in Thailand. Photo and links added by PPT:

WikiLeaks cables: Thai leaders doubt suitability of prince to become king

Embassy cables reveal fears over heir’s womanising and links to ousted PM damaging stabilising role of monarchy in Thailand

Mark Tran, Wednesday 15 December 2010 21.30 GMT

Thai leaders harbour grave misgivings about the crown prince’s fitness to become king owing to his reputation as a womaniser and links to a fugitive former prime minister, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable.

1981 - added to post by PPT

Three senior members of Thailand’s powerful privy council, a group of advisers appointed by the king, make clear their preference for an alternative to Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is considered a political liability because of his extramarital affairs in several European countries.

The succession is of pressing concern as King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turned 83 this month, is in poor health. Revered by most Thais, he is one of the few unifying figures in a country deeply divided between an urban elite and a rural poor.

The great fear within the authorities is that with the divisive figure of the crown prince as king, any future political turbulence could split Thailand in two. The military and the police rely on loyalty to the crown to maintain control and without it their authority would be greatly weakened.

This year Thailand experienced the worst political violence in its modern history. Ninety-one people died as protesters who support Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted as prime minister in a 2006 military coup, called for the dissolution of parliament and new elections. A state of emergency imposed at the time still remains in force.

The cable, written by the US ambassador, Eric John, in January, reports on his conversations with General Prem Tinsulanonda, the head of the privy council and a former prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, another former prime minister, and Air Chief Marshall Siddhi Savetsila.

“All three had quite negative comments about Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn,” the cable reads. “While asserting that the crown prince will become King, both Siddhi and Anand implied the country would be better off if other arrangements could be made. Siddhi expressed preference for Princess Sirindhorn; Anand suggested only the King would be in a position to change succession, and acknowledged a low likelihood of that happening.”

There are repeated references to the prince’s affairs. When the US ambassador asked where the prince was, Prem is quoted as saying: “You know his social life, how he is,” which John says is a “presumed reference to Vajiralongkorn’s preference to spend time based out of Munich with his main mistress, rather than in Thailand with his wife and son”.

John also conveys Siddhi’s observations about the prince’s dalliances. The cable states: “Siddhi, in a similar vein, noted that the Crown Prince frequently slipped away from Thailand, and that information about his air hostess mistresses was widely available on websites; he lamented how his former aide, now Thai ambassador to Germany, was forced to leave Berlin for Munich often to receive Vajiralongkorn.”

Apart from their concerns over the prince’s behaviour, the privy council members also express unease over his ties with the fugitive ex-prime minister Thaksin, best known in the UK for owning Manchester City football club from 2007 to 2008. Thaksin spends most of his time in Dubai in self-imposed exile.

“Prem acknowledged Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn probably maintained some sort of relationship with fugitive former PM Thaksin, ‘seeing him from time to time’. Prem, clearly no fan of either man, cautioned that Thaksin ran the risk of self-delusion if he thought that the Crown Prince would act as his friend/supporter in the future merely because of Thaksin’s monetary support; ‘he does not enjoy that sort of relationship.'”

In the cable, Anand blames the king’s poor health partly on Thaksin, who at the time was acting as a political adviser to the Cambodian government. The king was in hospital in January, exercising 30 minutes a day on a stationary bicycle and passing a medicine ball with a physical therapist to build up strength and regain weight.

Despite their reservations about the crown prince, John’s interlocutors seemed resigned to his becoming king.

“Anand said that he had always believed that the Crown Prince would succeed his father, according to law. However, there could be complicating factors – if Vajiralongkorn proved unable to stay out of politics, or avoid embarrassing financial transactions … The consensus view among many Thai was that the Crown Prince could not stop either, nor would he be able, at age 57, to rectify his behaviour,” the cable reads.

“After another pause, Anand added that someone really should raise the matter with the King, before adding with regret that there really was no one who could raise such a delicate topic (note: implied was the need for an alternative to Vajiralongkorn).”

Royal intrigue is also conveyed in another cable by John in October 2008. This confidential message reports on complaints by Samak Sundaravej, a former prime minister, that Queen Sirikit encouraged the coup that overthrew Thaksin.

“He showed disdain for Queen Sirikit,” John writes, “claiming that she had been responsible for the 2006 coup d’etat as well as the ongoing turmoil generated by PAD [People’s Alliance for Democracy] protests. He alleged the Queen operated through privy council president Prem Tinsulanonda who, along with others presenting themselves as royalists, worked with the PAD and other agitators. Citing his own regular meetings with King Bhumibol, Samak claimed he – rather than his opponents – was sincerely loyal to the king and enjoyed the king’s support.”

What constitutes an insult?

The Thai royal family is protected by the country’s lese majesty laws, making it an offence to insult the monarchy.

Under article 112, anyone can file a complaint against someone they consider to have defamed the monarch.

Missing from the code, however, is a definition of what actions constitute defamation or insult. Neither the king nor any member of the royal family has ever filed any charges under this law.

In 2005, King Bhumibol encouraged criticism: “I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know.” He later added: “But the king can do wrong.”

Since 2005, use of the law has been on the rise, for politicians, journalists and activists.

In March 2007, a Swiss, Oliver Jufer, convicted of lese majesty, was sentenced to 10 years for spray-painting graffiti on portraits of the king while drunk. He was pardoned then deported.

In 2008, Jonathan Head, the BBC’s south-east Asia correspondent and vice-president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, was accused of lese majesty by a police colonel, Watanasak Mungkijakarndee. Watanasak said Head’s reporting between 2006 and 2008 had “damaged and insulted the monarchy”. The BBC rejected the charges as groundless.

Also in 2008, Harry Nicolaides, an Australian, was arrested at Bangkok’s international airport and charged with lese majesty, for an offending passage in his self-published book Verismilitude [large PDF download]. After pleading guilty, he was jailed for three years. He was deported last year after being pardoned by the king.

In June, the Thai government, which has removed tens of thousands of web pages in recent years for insulting the royal family, approved the creation of an online crime agency that will pursue alleged violators of the lese majesty laws.


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