Regression and the consolidation of military power

5 01 2017

Generals are saying there will be an “election” in 2017, contradicting all the flunkies they’ve hired to get all the laws in place to allow and “election.” It matters little, for as the military junta has planned, an “election” won’t change anything. The military’s Thai-style democracy is not democratic in any way and leaves real decision-making to the royalist elite.

A story at Scoop Media, based in New Zealand tells some of the story, mixed with a little royalist nonsense. We quote some of the insightful bits and ignore the royalist tripe.

[General] Prayuth [Chan-ocha]’s post-coup policies are also defending Thailand’s “old money” elite against social climbing “nouveau riche” rivals.

Those quashed rivals are led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who Prayuth helped topple in a 2006 coup, and by Thaksin’s sister former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra who was ousted by Prayuth’s 2014 coup….

During the past two years, his regime moved supporters into top positions within the military, police, bureaucracy, judiciary and legislature, to ensure the military’s leverage over future policies and governments….

Prayuth … continues to strengthen his forces against his two biggest enemies, the Shinawatra siblings.

Former Prime Minister Yingluck is being prosecuted for her alleged “negligence” while administering rice subsidies during 2012-14.

She must pay $1 billion in compensation to the government for financial “losses”….

The royalists, the “old money” elite, Sino-Thai tycoons and the frightened middle class in Bangkok are backing Prayuth. They are backing King Vajiralongkorn, even if they did have had doubts about him. They have little choice. They know their wealth and privilege requires a continuation of the conservative military-monarchy coalition.





Campaigning for regime longevity

3 01 2017

In 2016, the military dictatorship engaged in a couple of rounds of populist giveaways. At the time, we considered this “election” campaigning. However, as the “election” fades into 2018, the big spending is looking increasingly like a means to ensure the dictatorship’s longevity.

SnoutsThe latest promises about spending may be recycled, but they are held out as the junta spending big, with the promise of jobs and investment. In 2017, the junta plans to spend 900 billion baht on transport “infrastructure” alone.

Sino-Thai business buddies will be happy, military concessionaires will be raking in “commissions,” Chinese and Japanese contractors will be setting up their cash registers, and the plebians will be told that this will all result in some trickle-down as baht spill from the troughs as the big boys get their snouts in the loot.

This is old-style bureaucratic “populism,” that makes the royalist elite wealthy. It created the current crop of wealthy entrepreneurs and their forebears as well.

Junta spokesman Lt Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd said “the investment plan will comprise 36 infrastructure projects, covering air, marine and land transportation…. The projects include double-track railways, electric trains which link suburban areas and urban areas, motorways, ports and airports development.”

In fact, all the “developments” Sansern frothed and bubbled about are already on the drawing boards or even said to have begun. With the exception of railways (and associated land development), these are small projects. Railways are where the big money will be. What’s important in the “announcement” – all have been “announced” previously – is the impact the propagandists hope this will have for the regime. The scheme seems to be to say, “Yes, folks, the regime is doing things.”

Meanwhile, while we don’t know the cost, we are also told that the Army “plans to recruit civilians to work as “cyber warriors” at its cyber crime security centre…”.

Again, this is old news, and the military has been doing this for a very long time. Yet the point is to be seen to be doing something and to reinforces the repressive threats made by the dictatorship.

The suddenly very active Army commander-in-chief Chalermchai Sittisat recycled this “announcement.” Obviously, the brass and the junta are ticked off when all their sites are hacked using teenager technologies. We understand that the hiring of “[c]yber experts will … help combat cyber attacks as well as help the army enhance its computer system technology…”. This is “due to a shortage of military officers who specialise in the field…”. The military spends its time training officers to murder political opponents in real time.

Gen Chalermchai also said the “recruitment would create a unit of state-run ‘cyber warriors’ similar to other countries.” He probably means China and Russia, both of which have massive operations countering domestic political opponents and who are active internationally producing “false news” and hacking “oppositional” sites. We suspect that the targets will be anti-monarchy activists and sites that publish news that runs counter to palace propaganda.

Both initiatives seem aimed at enhancing regime longevity.





Updated: “The whim of this corrupt, mafia system”

12 11 2016

That quote is from British human rights activist Andy Hall who has recently fled Thailand. He did so, he says, because “he feared for his safety amid legal problems and harassment…”.

In a regime of repression under the military regime, Hall’s travails might be seen as just more of the same. However, this particular bit of harassment is not by the usual suspects. Rather, it is elements of the business elite that is responsible for harassment termed “irrational, vindictive and aggressive.”

Hall refers to the Natural Fruit Company, a pineapple producer. He says “it’s rare to have a company that is so irrational and so vindictive.” With due respect to Hall and his troubles over a long period, we think he’s wrong.

Many of Thailand’s business people regularly engage in actions that are vindictive and aggressive. They behave like gangsters when they are not hiring them. Often the gangsters are hired from the military and police. They act with impunity and use their wealth to ensure that justice is not for them. They invented double standards.

Rural landowners know that they are in danger when a tycoon takes a liking to their land. Union organizers have been harassed for decades. Many have been murdered.

Primitive accumulation in Thailand is still practiced and is barbarous, vicious accumulation.

Military, monarchy and local and national tycoons work together to maintain their ownership and control of Thailand. Their system is indeed corrupt and they act as a mafia.

Update: Readers will find the excellent Bangkok Post special report by Nanchanok Wongsamuth.It tells of new action against Hall by “Thammakaset Farm, a former Betagro poultry supplier, [that] had launched further legal action against him for criminal defamation and computer crimes.” The impression created is of a conspiracy among business tycoons to harass Hall.





Footballing oligarchs II

24 05 2016

Less than a week ago, PPT posted on the penchant of oligarchs for football and snapping up teams that promote their interests and, if things work out, make them even more money.

As everyone in the world knows, Leicester City recently collected some silverware as outsiders made good. As we noted in that earlier post, the club has been owned by football-loving, polo-playing oligarch, monopolist and royalist Vichai Raksriaksorn (who has a royally-bestowed moniker, Srivaddhanaprabha). Vichai made oodles of money through his monopoly on duty free at Thailand’s airports, through his company King Power.King Power

Thailand’s airports have long been the property of the military. They are now part of a listed company, Airports of Thailand. Now the Ministry of Finance controls 70% of AOT’s stock but four of the 14-member Board of Directors continue to carry military ranks. As far as we can tell, only one of the directors of AOT is not a serving or retired official or worked for AOT. The senior executive of AOT continues to have quite a few military ranks listed.

In other words, gaining a monopoly on duty free requires high-level political support and close relations with the senior brass. Exactly how Vichai managed this in the beginning has never been made clear. He went from unknown to billionaire in a relatively short time. King Power began in 1989, with a license granted for Thailand’s first downtown duty free shop at Mahatun Plaza. How it was that King Power got the Chatichai Choonhavan government to award the license isn’t easily seen, but as Chatichai opened to the former enemies across the border, King Power got a license in Phnom Penh soon after. By 1993, King Power had Don Muang airport under its wing. All of this during a period of civilian versus military political tussling.

In a story linked to below, The Nation states:

In addition to the ruling junta, the wealthy businessman has managed to build good ties with both politicians and military figures in powerful posts. And thanks to these cosy relationships, his company has managed to win coveted deals from influential people at key times, including a concession to operate duty-free shops at major airports that has grown into a Bt68-billion-a-year business.

Now that he and his kids – the Sino-Thai tycoon model of family business – are on top of the world, what does this mean for Vichai and Thailand’s politics. Some measure of this comes from recent press reports on Leicester City in Thailand.

An AFP report states that the “Premier League champions Leicester City received a royal seal of approval … at Bangkok’s Grand Palace, with the Thai-owned team presenting its trophy to a portrait of the king before a bus parade through the capital.”

Leicester 2

To most people in the world, this sentence will seem very odd. How does one present a trophy to a portrait and how does a portrait provide “a royal seal of approval”? Why would they present a trophy to a king of another land be he real or a portrait?

In royalist Thailand, however, most things associated with the monarchy are very odd. It has become normalized for sports champions to “present” their medals or trophies to the king as a sign of loyalty. Not doing so becomes disloyalty. At the same time, the businessmen and businesswomen who manage and profit from big sports (and gambling on sport) in Thailand get the reflected royal aura. That’s good for business.

So when Leicester City “present” the silverware to the king’s portrait, “[l]ocal television showed billionaire club-owner Vichai …, alongside his son Aiyawatt and manager Claudio Ranieri, presenting the trophy to a portrait of the king as they and the team then took a deep bow.” In fact, they got on their knees, another “tradition” reintroduced in this reign.

Leicester 1

The team later went on an open-top bus parade through Bangkok. More on that below.

And, oh yes, Vichai’s King Power brand was everywhere. The parade “wound its way from a King Power-owned shopping and hotel complex through Bangkok’s downtown commercial district.” Continuing the royalist theme, “[d]uring their title celebrations at the King Power stadium, a portrait of Bhumibol was held aloft as players…”.

For the company King Power, the seal of approval is also coveted. According to Chulchit Bunyaketu, listed at the company website as a “Counselor,”The fact that the company was awarded the Royal Decree and is under the patronage of His Majesty the King clearly reflects on the integrity, capability, and honesty of our company and staff members.”

The Mail Online has more on the parade, noting Vichai’s commercialization and use of pliable monks: “Vichai is a regular devotee of Phra Prommangkalachan … and took the monk to Britain to bless the stadium and the team.” So the players trooped of to the royal Emerald Buddha temple.

It is The Sun that made most of the “thousands of Thais [who] were paid to pose as Leicester City fans for the club’s Premier League victory parade in Thailand…”.

Many of those dressed in club colors were there having “responded to a social media advert offering to pay people for a ‘Leicester parade job’. They were to get 500 baht…. They were asked to meet at the Bangkok HQ of the King Power company … [and] were also given free club T-shirts and urged to clap and chant during the celebration.” King Power employees were also mobilized.

All of this is obviously good for business, but thetre is also political speculation. The Nation explains some of this. It says that Leicester City’s “well-connected billionaire owner, Vichai … has … been linked to an alliance with political friends and the ruling generals that could result in a new political party…”.

It says that “his massive wealth and strong connections” mean that “Vichai is seen by some as having the potential to be the ‘last piece in the jigsaw’ needed for the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) [the junta] to retain power via a new political party.”

Prawit, Suthep and King Power

Prawit, Suthep and King Power

Vichai is said to have good relations with “many key figures’ in the military junta, naming “Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, one of the most influential figures in the ruling junta.”

The story goes on, saying Vichai is close to “Bhum Jai Thai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul and Newin Chidchob, the former Cabinet minister and political broker who owns Thailand’s leading football club Buriram United.”

Anutin is rumored to have close links with the palace, and it was his father Chavarat who worked with Newin and the generals in 2008 to make Abhisit Vejjajiva prime minister and Bhum Jai Thai the military’s party as it went to the 2011 election. The military and the party failed spectacularly as Yingluck Shinawatra and the Puea Thai Party won in a landslide.Newin and King Power

This time around it is stated that an “alliance between Vichai, Newin and Anutin, plus support from Prawit -in the background, would be a coalition between a financial group and a power clique set for the new political landscape…”.

Newin and Vichai have a mutual interest in football and politics and blue pervades Buriram as much as it does Leicester, not to mention a group of blue-shirted thugs organized by Newin and Suthep Thaugsuban in 2009 to oppose red shirts.

Vast stocks of cash, royalism, political savvy and skills in the “dark arts” of vote-buying and great influence are just what a military party will need (if an election is ever permitted).





Updated: Panama papers II

6 04 2016

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.”moneybags 1

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.

Isara

Isara

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.

Forbes says this of Isara and family:

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.

Banpong

Banpong

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…”.

Schultz

Schultz

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.

Bannawit

Bannawit

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.





“May the dictatorship be destroyed”

18 02 2016

We are late getting to this report from Isaan Record. Yet it deserves attention.

On 7 February, the Udon Thani Environment Conservation Group organized an anti-mine protest opposing yet another potash-mining project.

Of course, when the thugs at the local Army base got wind of this, they belched and fumed about politicization. Officers from the 23rd Military Circle Command summoned six members of the group for an “attitude adjustment” session at the Prajak Silpakhom military camp.

The military gangs are usually concerned about these kinds of protests because they are partners or “employees” of the equally thuggish mining companies. These are corrupt relationships, providing funds for the officers and their higher-ups. It can be lucrative. Think of the large stash held by Police General Somyos Pumpanmuang, who was connected to mining companies. He’s now moved on to another notoriously corrupt position in football, backed by Sino-Thai tycoons.

But back to the Udon Thani case. The Army officers claimed that the environmental group  was in trouble because they had “read out a statement including the phrase ‘may the dictatorship be destroyed’…”. This required “attitude adjustment.” They called in six they identified as “leaders.”

To the surprise of the Army thugs, “about 100 village supporters of the Udon Thani Environment Conservation Group gathered in front of the Prajak Silpakhom military camp and demanded to be allowed to enter the premises.”

Eventually the military allowed “nine representatives of the group entered the military camp, while the crowd of villagers … waited outside.”

Reportedly, the officers “told the nine representatives that their protest movement was not banned, but asked them to refrain from using slogans that included the word ‘dictatorship’ because this could anger high-ranking military members.”

Odd indeed, as we thought the military junta actually enjoys being a dictatorship.

Anyway, seemingly worried by the massing of these scary villagers and after “the nine activists agreed to provide their home address and have a group photo taken with the military officers,” the Army “personnel distributed blankets in a move to appease the villagers.”

There’s a lesson in this.





Avoiding tax

3 02 2016

We are late with this post, but want to draw attention to yet more tax avoidance by Thailand’s tycoons. Of course, the rich in Thailand don’t pay much tax (nor, it seems, do they anywhere else – e.g. Britain, Australia, US, Malaysia).

As reported at the Bangkok Post, the Ministry of Finance has inheritance and gift taxes in place from 1 February. A tax on those making gifts while still alive, this move has been anticipated for some time, with the tax ranging between 5 and 10% on transfers exceeding either 20 million or 100 million baht, depending on the relationships between the parties involved. The report states that spouses remain exempt.

According to the Post, this anticipation has caused a wave of transfers meant to beat the 1 February deadline. It states that:

… [s]hares worth nearly 80 billion baht have been transferred by affluent Thais to their heirs before the introduction of inheritance and gift taxes…. Executives and major shareholders of more than 160 listed companies transferred their shares to children, spouses, parents, siblings, cousins and holding companies from July 2014 to last Friday, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reports on changes of executives’ securities holdings.

Tax

A Bangkok Post graphic

The Post has a useful graphic that we have clipped and added to the right.

The assets subject to the tax “include property, securities such as treasury bills, bonds, shares and debentures as well as investment units, deposits, registered vehicles and financial assets to be described in royal decrees.”

The list of those transferring stock in order to avoid the tax includes Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth, “the founder of Bangkok Dusit Medical Services Plc (BDMS) and Bangkok Airways Plc, transferred his stakes in both listed companies with a combined worth of over 10 billion baht to his wife and children…”. The report adds that he is “the richest businessman on the Thai stock market last year, transferred 9.96 billion baht worth of BDMS shares to his wife and children and another 868 million baht worth of Bangkok Airways shares to a daughter.” Last year Forbes listed him as 8th wealthiest in Thailand with assets worth $2.8 billion.

Another almost 8 billion baht worth of BDMS shares were transferred to family members by other major shareholders.

Thailand’s tax regime has long been regressive, and as elsewhere, the rich have many ways to avoid contributing to the common good.