Military and monarchy as Siamese twins

10 12 2017

The Asia Times has another long commentary on Thailand’s political predicament by Shawn Crispin. There’s some interesting bits and pieces.

For one thing, it is stated that in “the lead-up to the cremation of … King Bhumibol …, authorities rounded up 42 suspects at check points around the royal ceremony…”. Further,

Rights groups and diplomats monitoring the arrests say the detained suspects likely face prosecution on national security-related charges for threatening the ceremony, including under the penal code’s harsh lese majeste provision that shields the royal family from defamation, insult and threat.

It is interesting that Crispin credits The Dictator “for steering a smooth succession from Bhumibol to Vajiralongkorn, a delicate transition many feared could spark instability.” To be honest, we think the “delicate transition” was a bit of a beat up.

The next royal big deal, he says, is “Vajiralongkorn’s formal coronation, now seen as astrologically auspicious to be held in March…”.

Crispin asks “how stable is the transition from royal old to new, and how serious is the threat posed by anti-monarchists supposedly lurking in the shadows?”

He notes that Vajiralongkorn “has set a tone for his reign in moves that diplomats and analysts say shows his intent to shake-up royal institutions in terms of personnel, protocol and operations.”

That’s somewhat bland for what he’s doing, which is erasing all notion of popular sovereignty in favor of a monarchy that is independent of all checks and balances introduced after 1932.

Crispin says that the “Royal Household Bureau has also openly targeted those found to have abused their palace positions or association for personal gain.”

That’s somewhat bland for what somewhat bland for what’s happened. Rather, the new king has been purging the palace and appointing his trusted allies.

One interesting observation is that “[c]hampions of the new reign say the housecleaning is overdue and that ill-deeds grew in the latter years of Bhumibol’s reign when he was hospitalized for ill-health.”

That’s what might be expected, but it is one of the first statements of the fact that the new reign is embedding in a manner that is essentially neo-feudal and that shifts political and economic power to the palace.

The notion that the new palace will “challenge the big business families that have long leveraged royal connections to corner sectors of the economy, a commercial domination that has grown since the 2014 coup” seems to come out of nowhere, but it is known that the king maintains relations with several Sino-Thai tycoons.

It isn’t clear to us that Vajiralongkorn taking “full control of the Crown Property Bureau …[and] the board of the palace’s Royal Project Foundation,” seems like him establishing his dominance and lining his pockets rather than a challenge to the big tycoons.

Crispin is correct to note that the military junta has “unquestioningly” done the palace’s bidding, but adds a note:

Thailand’s military and monarchy have long had a symbiotic relationship, with the former sworn to the protection of the latter, but the new emerging balance between the two powerful institutions is still being determined under Vajiralongkorn’s young new reign.

Both General Prayuth Chan-ocha and the king are self-centered and erratic, leading to concerns that the two may clash.

Crispin is also on the money when he notes that the king is asserting authority of Bangkok-based military units, He refers to the “absorption of military combat units, including the First Region Command’s First Infantry Division, a top-fighting force, into the king’s personal guard.”

That division “was recently moved from the military’s main command in Bangkok to Vajiralongkorn’s secondary Tawee Wattana palace on the capital’s outskirts, with certain soldiers transferred upcountry.”

On the transition to an “elected” government, Crispin observes the junta’s reluctance and suggests that “anti-monarchy elements remain bent on undermining the royal institution…” may be a “reason” for further “election” delays. at a still uncertain juncture of the succession.

He reckons that there are 1,000 lese majeste complaints “still under police investigation…”. That’s a whole lot of anti-monarchists and a whole lot of justification for ongoing military repression.

For the moment, the junta and the king remain joined as Siamese twins in neo-feudal repression.





Junta learning from China

31 10 2017

Over the years, there have been efforts to suggest that various Thai leaders in politics and the economy have turned to China in part for reasons of ethnic loyalty. Certainly, several Thai leaders have been of Chinese extraction and some Sino-Thai tycoons at CP and the Bangkok Bank (to name just two) have been early and long active in “giving back.”

But what does this mean in practice, especially when China’s economic rise has been noticeable for decades and its political sway has been increasing for some time? And, consider that almost all of Thailand’s wealthiest, including the dead king, were Sino-Thai. Chineseness has seldom been a hot political issue since Phibun’s time and a period when the OSS/CIA were worried about the “overseas Chinese” as a “fifth column” for Chinese communism.

The most recent effort we can recall was by Sondhi Limthongkul, in some accounts claimed to be China-born and the son of a Kuomintang general. Back in the days when the People’s Alliance for Democracy – dominated by Sino-Thais of the Bangkok middle class – declared that they too were loyal to the nation (and the monarchy).

When we look at the current military dictatorship, for some time shunned by the U.S. and by some major countries in Europe, the draw of China became important. While on a well-worn path, where China was already a major trading partner, the significance of China rose substantially for the regime as it sought to arm and boost the economy. But one of the attractions does seem to be, as one academic has it, mutual authoritarianism.

But we don’t think we have ever seen such an enthusiastic embrace as that provided by the junta’s 4th generation Sino-Thai Wissanu Krea-ngam in an interview with the official Xinhua news agency on the day the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China concluded.

Speaking of the amendment to the CPC Constitution that made “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era a new component of the party’s guide for action,” Wissanu was enthusiastic, declaring:

Xi’s thought makes “Chinese characteristics” more prominent, the Thai deputy prime minister said.

He praised China for being very good at accomplishing its goals efficiently as can be proved by the anti-corruption campaign that started five years ago.

He said he believes that the new goals set at the 19th CPC National Congress will be accomplished as before.

“The Chinese set long-term goals and ask people to do it together. That is something we can learn from, as we are also working on a 20-year national strategy to guide the development of Thailand,” Wissanu said.

“It is just magical that we have consistent policies or strategies as China put forward the Belt and Road Initiative. We have Thailand 4.0 and ASEAN … has ASEAN Connectivity,” Wissanu said, adding that China and Thailand can still find a lot of aspects to cooperate in the future.

Maybe he’s just noticing economic opportunities? But those have been evident for decades. Wissanu seems attracted by the Chinese model of marrying authoritarianism with markets. That seems pretty close to the junta’s aims.

 





On using funerals

26 10 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The “necessity” of military dictatorship

13 10 2017

In the Bangkok Post, commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak comes up with his repeated excuse for military domination. He claims the succession explains it:

The consequent royal transition is likely to be viewed in posterity as the principal reason why the Thai people have had to put up with Gen Prayut.

Later he states, as he has before, that:

To appreciate how Gen Prayut and his cohorts could seize power and keep it with relative ease, we need to recognise the late King Bhumibol’s final twilight. The royal succession was imminent by coup time, and the Thai people collectively kind of knew the special and specific circumstances this entailed. Power had to be in the hands of the military, as it had to ultimately perform a midwife role. Unsurprisingly, ousted elected politicians may have complained about and deplored the coup but none wanted to retake power during the coup period. They knew that after seven decades of the reign in the way that the Thai socio-political system was set up around the military, monarchy and bureaucracy, it had to be the generals overseeing this once-in-a-lifetime transition.

This is nonsensical propaganda. There were, at the time, and today, many, many Thais who reject this royalist babble. But Thitinan just ignores the deep political and social struggles that marked the period of discord that began with the Asian economic crisis in 1997 and which was punctuated by two military coups.

Thitinan appears to us to be expressing the views of the socially disconnected middle class of Bangkok, those who hate and fear the majority of Thais, and “protect” themselves by attaching themselves to the economic and political power of the Sino-Thai tycoons, monarchy and military.

Thais have “put up with” ghastly military rulers for decades. The military dictators and rulers have used the monarchy to justify their despotism. General Pin Choonhavan used the “mysterious” death of Ananda Mahidol; General Sarit Thanarat promoted the monarchy as a front for his murderous regime; General Prem Tinsulanonda made “loyalty” de rigueur for political office.

Thitinan is wrong and, worse, whether he wants to or not, he provides the nasty propaganda that is justification for military dictatorship. We can only imagine that the military junta is most appreciative.

One reason Thais “put up with” military dictatorship now is because anti-democrats want it, because many of them hate elections that give a power to the subaltern classes. And, as Thitinan acknowledges,

Gen Prayut and his fraternal top brass in the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) have guns and tanks to intimidate and coerce. In their first year in power, the ruling generals detained hundreds of dissenters and opponents for “attitude adjustment”. They even put some of those who disagreed on trial in military court. They also came up with their own laws in an interim charter, including the draconian absolutist Section 44. And they have used and manipulated other instruments and agencies of the state to keep people in check and dissent suppressed.

To be sure, dozens of Thais are languishing in jail during junta rule. One young man, a student with his own strong views, has been jailed for re-posting a social media message that appeared on more than two thousand other pages. The junta also has banned political parties from organising, and has generally violated all kinds of human rights and civil liberties all along.

In addition, the generals have not been immune to corruption allegations….

Thais, it seems, must just “put up with” all this in order to facilitate the death of a king, succession and coronation. Thitinan goes even further, lauding The Dictator:

who grew up in the Thai system from the Cold War, who came of age at the height of Thailand’s fight against communism in the 1970s, seeing action on the Cambodian border against the Vietnamese in the 1980s, serving both the King and Queen and the people in the process with devotion and loyalty.

In fact, General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military promotion was not forged in “battle” but in providing service to the palace and especially the queen.

Thitinan declares that General Prayuth is the “soul of the nation,” a term once used for the dead king:

When Gen Prayut spoke for the nation [after the last king died], he meant it. Fighting back tears, in seven short minutes, he said what had to be said, and directed us Thais to two main tasks, the succession and the cremation after a year’s mourning. Had it been Yingluck [Shinawatra], who is not known for her eloquence, she might have stumbled during the speech. Had it been Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is fluid and flawless in speechmaking, it would have lacked the soul of the nation.

It had to be Gen Prayut, the strongman dictator and self-appointed premier. He is an earnest man, purposeful and well-intentioned….

Make no mistake, this is pure propaganda for military dictatorship. Make no mistake, Thitinan is justifying military dictatorship for the West, “translating” Thai “culture” for those he thinks are Thailand’s friends. He is saying to The Dictator and to “friends” in the West that 2018 or 2019 will mark the end of an “unusual” time and a return to “normality.” That “normal” is Thai-style democracy, guided for years by the military and its rules.

For those who seek a more nuanced and less propagandist reflection try Michael Peel in the Financial Times. He was formerly a correspondent for the FT based in Bangkok, and has penned “Thailand’s monarchy: where does love end and dread begin?” (The article is behind a paywall, but one may register and get access.) Peel asks: “In a country where few dare to speak openly about the royals, how do Thais feel about their new ruler?”

That is, how do they feel about the succession that Thitinan propagandizes as having “required” military dictatorship working as midwife.





Red Bull and the privilege of great wealth

12 09 2017

Both the Bangkok Post and Prachatai have stories on demands for Interior Minister General Anupong Paojinda to be “investigated” after he signed an order that allowed a private company to make use of a 31-rai community forest in Khon Kaen’s Ubonrat district.

General Anupong issued a land use permit to KTD Property Development, allowing it to construct a water storage facility for an adjacent beverage production plant it owns.

KTD Property Development is said to have connections to the giant Red Bull corporation. Red Bull’s Yoovidhya family are reported to be shareholders of KTD.

We wonder if one of those shareholders is Vorayuth Yoovidhya. He’s the Yoovidhya who is a “suspect” in a brutal hit-and-run case in which a police officer was killed, and who has been allowed to miss court appearances time and again as the various charges he faces time out.

His case is an example of the double standards where the rich get benefits from the support they provide to officials and to the royalist ruling class.

Protecting one Yoovidhya is just another aspect of the work of tycoons and the best “justice” and officials that money can buy. These are the tycoons who treat justice as a business tool to keep the profits flowing. The benefits they enjoy through their wealth and extensive corporate control are counted in baht and dollars.

That seems to be what’s happening in Khon Kaen.

KTD has been buying land in the area for five years and requested that it be allowed to use Huay Mek community forest land in 2015. It is reported that the “local community had repeatedly rejected the request.”

The local level officials reckon that KTD will pay. How much? It is stated that the local administration will “collect an annual fee of 1,000 baht per rai, or about 31,000 baht per year.”

What a deal! For KTD and its Red Bull investors.

That said, we assume the company has invested heavily in local, provincial and national officials.

The ever activist Srisuwan Janya has “filed a petition with the National Anti-Corruption Commission to initiate an investigation against Gen Anupong and other high-rank officials of the Interior Ministry.”

Srisuwan and many others reckon General Anupong and his underlings have abused power in favor of a private company.

That support for big business has been a part of the military dictatorship’s “reform” agenda.





CPB and more shopping

24 08 2017

A major reshaping of Bangkok’s Lumpini area is planned. The Crown Property Bureau is about to make another fortune. Yukako Ono reports on this at the Nikkei Asian Review.

The CPB has made several prime pieces of real estate available for large major urban redevelopment projects.

The biggest of these is with the TCC Group, “the family-owned conglomerate known for brewery subsidiary Thai Beverage,” owned by Sino-Thai tycoon and heavy investor in royal futures, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi and his family.

The CPB is leasing land to TCC for up to six decades for its One Bangkok project, “the nation’s largest-ever private redevelopment project, valued at 120 billion baht ($3.6 billion).” Ono says this “vast mixed-use complex will cover 167,000 sq. meters along Witthayu Road, an area home to Japanese, U.S. and British embassies as well as luxury hotels. That prime location drew redevelopment proposals from 21 bidders.” It will include “[f]ive office buildings, five hotels, three condominiums and a shopping mall will take over the location, which used to field a Thai boxing stadium and a night market.”

Part of this land is an area that was an area that was taken from the royals after 1932 but returned to them at an undisclosed time.

Up the road, “hotel operator Dusit International has joined hands with Central Pattana, a property development unit of retail giant Central Group, to close the … Dusit Thani … hotel and replace it with a 36.7 billion-baht mixed-use project that is to include a new Dusit hotel and shopping mall. In extending its property bureau [CPB] lease for the land, Dusit was able to gain an additional 8,000 sq. meters of real estate.”

The property bureau [CPB] itself is participating in the redevelopment boom through fully owned subsidiary Siam Sindhorn. Its first project, an 89,600-sq.-meter hybrid facility, is set for full completion in 2019.

Siam Sindhorn opened a condo at the site earlier this year, which the company says contains interior furnishings and utilities from across the globe. A 30-year lease commands an average of 240,000 baht per square meter, about twice the average going rate for Bangkok’s city center. Siam Sindhorn has begun marketing the development to investors in China, Japan and Western nations.

More upscale shopping, more luxury condos, more luxury hotels. Remember the CPB propaganda about helping small shophouse owners?





Journalists do the state’s work

18 08 2017

The Associated Press’s report on Red Bull family is worth reading in full. It is getting considerable international attention for issues of tax avoidance and the unaccountable power that comes from great wealth in Thailand (and elsewhere).

We won’t repeat it all here. We do recall that, back in May,

“Red Bull scion Vorayuth Yoovidhya, the suspect in a brutal hit-and-run case in which a police officer was killed, gave authorities the slip once again by leaving Thailand for an unknown destination on April 25, just two days before he was due to answer charges over the 2012 incident.”

Five years after the allegedly coked-up and drunk rich kid ran over a cop and drove off, dragging the body along, to hide from the law in his gated and guarded family home. Lawyers and fixers got to work.

Five years have produced no justice. How can that be? Vorayuth lived the high life around the world as he avoided justice. Some police and others with power in Thailand were obviously complicit.

PPT said that this case demonstrated how Thailand’s (in)justice system doesn’t work, except for the junta when it wanted to lock up the poor and political opponents.

Vorayuth’s flight and high life around the world was revealed by AP (not the Thai authorities) back in March. It was AP researchers and reporters who tracked him down in London.

Why is it that journalists do this investigations while Thailand’s leaders and state agencies remain silent.

AP’s pursuit of the Red Bull killer and the continuing (manufactured) failure of the Thai authorities to track down a scion of one of Thailand’s richest ($12.5 billion) and most influential families has led to the latest AP story.

Thai authorities will probably now issue statements about how they have been “investigating,” but then go back to their legal slumber, induced by the influential.

AP has trawled the Panama Papers for this story and investigated the Yoovidhya family’s secret money trail, its tax avoidance minimization and its extraordinary efforts to conceal all of this. Their concealing of ownership even baffled Mossack Fonseca, the company that managed its international transfers and concealing.

On Thailand’s failures, the AP story makes that wider than just the Red Bull family:

While other governments were swift and aggressive in responding to Panama Papers revelations, that has not been the case in Thailand. More than 1,400 Thai individuals were identified in the documents, but the government calls the reports rumors with no evidence.

Last year, Thailand’s Anti-Money Laundering Office said it was investigating more than a dozen of those individuals — unnamed current and former politicians and business people. To date, that office has not reported any crimes, however, and it would not answer AP’s questions.

The rich and powerful in Thailand can get away with murder. Readers will soon realize just how scary these plutocrats can be when the AP story interviews Viraphong Boonyobhas, the director of Chulalongkorn University’s business crime and money-laundering databank. It is added:

Viraphong would not speak directly about the Yoovidhyas or any other Thai person or company, saying he feared for his legal and physical safety, but added that his expectations for accountability in the military-run government are low.

Thai authorities have vowed to fight corruption, but “wealthy people in Thailand are influential people,” Viraphong said. “Maybe the government can’t untangle such a complicated network.”

That’s a story about how Thailand is actually run. The whole system is not just built on double standards, but is structured to funnel wealth to the top Sino-Thai tycoons through corrupt military and bureaucratic machinery that, for a fee and reflected “barami,” covers money trails. Ideological devices associated with the obscenely rich monarchy are in place to make the greedy appear among the “good” people who slosh about in troughs of money.