We continue to look for data on Thailand in the Panama Papers. So far we aren’t having too much luck. We were, however, reminded of an earlier report of some 600 Thais stashing loot overseas.
That 2013 report, also from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, included Pojaman Shinawatra, Nalinee Taveesin, Bhanapot Damapong, members of the Chirathivat family, Yuenyong Opakul, and note this very carefully, the Vongkusolkit family and Admiral Bannawit Kengrian.
The latter was described as “the former deputy permanent secretary of defense, who is listed as one of many shareholders in the British Virgin Islands company Vnet Capital International Co., Ltd in 1998” with 2006 coup connections and who is described in a Wikileaks cable as an acolyte of Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda.
On the new release of leaks from Mossack Fonseca, the main new report we have seen was in the Bangkok Post. It states that the “Office of the Auditor-General has weighed in on the so-called Panama Papers, asking the Revenue Department to look into tax payment records of Thai nationals named in a list of people allegedly using a Panama-based law firm for offshore holdings.”
Yet, as might be expected in a country that is protective of its wealthy elites and ruled by a military junta, a cover-up seems likely, unless the junta can come across the names of those it sees as political opponents. At the moment, “Justice Minister Gen Paiboon Koomchaya and the business community are urging the public not to rush to conclusions and let regulators verify the information first.”
“Verify” sounds like “cover-up” or “manipulate.”
Like the rich everywhere, the first bleat refers to law rather than ethics: “… using offshore company structures is a normal and legal business practice.” Not paying tax is legal they say. In Thailand, tax, like so many other things, is malleable and politicized.
Recall that Thaksin Shinawatra’s sale of the Shin Corp involved tax havens. While he didn’t have to pay tax on the transfers in Thailand, there was an outcry over this, and the opposition to him was strengthened. Now, it seems, things are to be reversed. So much for Buddhist ethics and the “good” of “The Good People.”
The report says there are “almost 400 Thais among 780 individuals who used Thailand as a residence and 50 companies were named on the lists.” While it is stated that “[p]rominent names include well-known business people, politicians, a former military officer and celebrities…”, only a few names are named.
As the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) observes, “there are legitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts and it does not intend to suggest or imply that those named in the leak have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly.”
General Paiboon said “… the leak is not verified information. But once it’s verified, no one can dodge an investigation. So let Amlo [Anti-Money Laundering Office] work on this first…”.
Our question is: Where are Thailand’s journalists who should be working on this? In most other countries, journalists are pouring out stories.
Auditor-General Pisit Leelavachiropas says “he has seen the list and had proceeded to ask the tax authority to review tax records to detect any possible wrongdoing.” He names no names.
Pisit also suggested that the “Centre for National Anti-Corruption (CNAC) can facilitate the probe by acting as a coordinator as it is the hub of 11 anti-corruption agencies.” Some of this group and Pisit were recently part of another cover-up, finding no corruption in the military’s Rajabhakti Park, while making “commissions” acceptable.
Now to some of the names and what they say.
One name in the Panama Papers is Isara Vongkusolkit, who is chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce. His response was to say that “he did not know and had noting to do with Mossack Fonseca. He was wondering how his name was mentioned on the lists.” Wondering? Really? He doesn’t remember the 2013 report?
He did admit that offshore banking and companies were necessary to avoid taxation in Thailand. He then went on to blame government for tax avoidance because it has had “high” tax rates!
The Vongkusolkit family maintains a tight set of relationships. One Chanin Vongkusolkit is a member of the Council of the Private Sector Collective Action against Corruption (CAC), which is:
an initiative by the Thai private sector to take parts in tackling corruption problem via collective action. The CAC aims to bring effective anti-corruption policy and mechanism into implementation by companies in order to create an ecosystem of clean business community.
To offset volatility in sugar prices, Isara Vongkusolkit’s privately held Mitr Phol Sugar, Thailand’s largest sugar producer, is expanding its energy business, which generates 400 megawatts of electricity, half for its own consumption. The company, which recently faced allegations of human rights abuses and illegal land- grabbing in Cambodia, said it was in discussions with the Cambodian government about its concessions. Brother Chanin stepped down as CEO of family’s Banpu, the country’s biggest coal miner, after running it for more than 3 decades.
Chanin remains on the Banpu Board of Directors. Others from the family on the Board are Buntoeng and Verajet Vongkusolkit. Australia’s controversial Centennial Coal Centennial is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Banpu.
The point seems to be that Isara and his family are fabulously wealthy Sino-Thai tycoons and like their ilk everywhere, seek to “minimize” tax while claiming to engage in ethical business behavior, if that is not an oxymoron.
Another listed is “Banyong Pongpanich, chairman of Phatra Capital and a member of the State Enterprises Policy Commission, posted a message on his Facebook page saying he was taken aback that his name was on the list.” Like Isara, he claims to not know Mossack Fonseca: “I have just learned of the company today and I never contacted or did any business with Mossack Fonseca…”.
We are reminded of Sgt. Schultz, again and again. How many times can “I know nothing” be used?
Patra Capital is a “certified” company at the Private Sector Collective Action against Corruption and Phatra Capital promulgates a Code of Ethics for Directors, Officers and Employees. In part, it states:
By adhering to exemplary standards and conducting our business with excellence and integrity, we enhance our reputation and cultivate the growth of our business. All of us must take personal responsibility for conducting ourselves in a way that reflects positively on the Capital Market Business Group and with the letter and spirit of the Guidelines for Business Conduct.
Like many of Thailand’s tycoons, Banpong has royal links, his with the Mae Fah Luang Foundation. He is also a member of the junta-created Superboard, which is said to be “overseeing all state enterprises has the stated aim of getting them all moving in the same direction towards strength and efficiency.” A Superboard of bankers, coal miners and more means endless conflicts of interest.
Both the Vongkusolkit and Pongpanich families are represented on the Board of Trustees of the royalist Thailand Development Research Institute, which has often commented on corruption and ethics in Thailand’s politics.
The last Sgt. Schultz excuse came from Admiral Bannawit Kengrien. The “former deputy defence permanent secretary, whose name is also on the lists, said this came as a surprise to him…. According to the retired officer he never conducted any business transactions overseas or given permission to anyone to use his name to set up offshore accounts.”
Bannawit has appeared previously at PPT as one of “Dad’s Army,” which was an elite forerunner to the more popular People’s Democratic Reform Committee in trying to bring down the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. He was a member of several other yellow-shirted and royalist groups that sought to create conflict with the Yingluck government. Earlier, he was previously a member of the assembly appointed by the junta in 2006 and then caused controversy when deputy defense minister. He was not averse to very odd and racist claims when opposing red shirts.
Bannawit also seems to have conveniently forgotten the 2013 leaks from the British Virgin Islands. Or perhaps the rich and powerful expect the junta to enforce collective amnesia on the country.
Update: Khaosod has cast doubt on the Bangkok Post story, above, saying that the newspaper (and many others) confused the 2013 leak with the Panama Papers. INterestingly, whether its 2013 or now, nothing in our post would seem in need of change.