Updated: Trains, land and all that money

18 06 2017

PPT likes trains. We like public transport generally. We acknowledge that Thailand’s public infrastructure has been neglected and that many of the public transport developments that have taken place have been for the middle class in Bangkok. When it comes to rail other than the subway and skytrain, the infrastructure is a crumbling mess.

In short, rail links to the region and across Thailand can have considerable benefits. That was illustrated, in part, by the Abhisit Vejjajiva regime wanted a rail link to China. It is why the Yingluck Shinawatra government established a high-powered team investigating and seeking to move the project forward.

So what is the military dictatorship up to?

As we know, after years of failing negotiations with the Chinese, The Dictator has used Article 44 “to expedite the Thai-Chinese high-speed railway line between Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima and enable work to begin this year.”

Only between Bangkok and Korat and high-speed. That means, so far, no links regionally and suggests a passenger service. It also doesn’t say what “high speed” means. But because the military junta is doing it, precious few details are available.

The junta’s decree “aims to clear technical and legal problems for the delayed 252-kilometre railway.”

It is a remarkable decree in that it “instructs the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) to hire a Chinese state enterprise to supervise the construction of the Thai-Chinese railway.”

That Chinese company “will oversee the design of the railway infrastructure as well as rail and electrical systems. It will serve as an adviser for the project’s construction and provide training in system-related knowledge for the project staff.”

In other words, the junta is establishing a kind of Chinese monopoly for Thailand on this huge project. It is not just rail because all such projects are also about land. (Yes, we know other contracts for other lines have been considered with the Japanese.)

The contract “must be ready within 120 days,” suggesting that there’s already a preferred contractor. After that, “Thailand and China would then be able to sign an agreement for the design contract…”.

As Khaosod says, using Article 44 will “remove all legal obstacles preventing China from taking charge of every step in the construction of the high-speed railway project.” It says ten “relevant laws and junta orders involving government procurement…”. It also said that “Chinese engineers and architects are also exempted from professional licensing requirements.”

Interestingly, the use of Article 44 “shielded the project from going out to international bidders and exempted it from a mandatory process to estimate costs.” The order states that an “unspecified amount of funds [is] to be approved by the interim cabinet.”

The order would also “allow construction to take place on protected lands…”.

What isn’t stated is that the line will involve the compulsory acquisition of land from landholders and will gobble up land that was previously allocated with limited title, exactly the kind of land the junta has been so agitated about in other areas such as national parks.

That Dictator Prayuth Chan-ocha is “due to visit China to attend the ninth BRICS Summit in September,” might add something to the use of Article 44, recalling that he wasn’t invited to a recent meeting in China, seen as a snub.

Another Bangkok Post report has the World Bank urging “the Thai government to hold an open bidding for the long-delayed Thai-Chinese high-speed railway project linking Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima to ensure transparency.”

Transparency may be important but it won’t happen in this project, just as it hasn’t in all major projects and purchases by the junta. Most infrastructure projects involve 30-40% “commission” payments. Junta-related interests are salivating.

And the land! So much land! It will be appropriated and then rented or sold to the tycoons for all kinds of projects that will further enrich them.

Bangkok Post’s Umesh Pandey grumbles that the use of Article 44 by a “caretaker” regime is wrong: “In any given scenario the job of the caretaker government is to look at maintaining the status quo and not undertake major policies that involve committing the country’s resources for years if not decades to come…”.

He keeps forgetting that this is a military dictatorship and that it has no intention of fading away.

He asks: “who is going to be responsible for the transparency of the multi-billion-dollar project.” The idea is that wealth generation for the few is built on monopolies and opaque arrangements. That’s Thailand’s history, and not just under juntas.

And Umesh notes that The Dictator’s order also “silences opposition to any project, overriding the system of checks and balances that would make sure Thailand gets the best deal.”

Thailand is a loose concept. We know from wealth data and from details about the unusually rich who gets the best deal. And they define themselves as “Thailand.”

Umesh continues: “People like myself are all for the project but I wonder how clean the process is going to be, especially as rumours swirl of kickbacks to contractors.”

He isn’t wondering, he knows. Then he raises another point:

Then there is the issue of a possible election late next year. As any economist would tell you, the time between green-lighting a project and seeing the money flow in can be anywhere from nine to 12 months — around the time the election is expected.

Is that a coincidence? Certainly, signs of economic growth right before the polls could be an advantage to some.

We remain unconvinced about an “election,” but we see his point. But what of the land? All that land.

Update: Prachatai has two stories on the train line, one that is about middle-class concerns regarding safety where professionals raise this issue. The other is interesting in that in a review of the week, it raises the issue of the use of Article 44 to create “extraterritoriality,” but only in the title. It is an interesting issue and harks back to the decades it took to roll back the extraterritoriality enshrined in the Bowring Treaty.





Bored witless

15 06 2017

Forgive us, we are bored by the military dictatorship. It is so, so predictable and so pathetic that we are considering banning it using Article 44.

How predictable? Its like putting a sexy dancer in front of a sexy young dancer. You know how he will behave. (Sorry, we couldn’t resist.)

How about the things that are hidden under nothing happening here-ness?

What about that poor kid shot by soldiers in the north. Nothing. Keep quiet and it won’t go anywhere.

How about the Rolls Royce and related corruption? Ignore it and the media will forget it.

What about police generals being paid by the richest guys in the country to smooth things for them. That isn’t even illegal!

And what about all those unusually wealthy members of the puppet assembly? Not even worth mentioning. That’s just normal corruption and the great and good harvesting their due.

We could go on and on. This regime is corrupt, like many of those regimes before it. But because they are rightist royalists, they are just fine for Thailand’s elite and middle classes.

Well, let’s go on a bit more.

Lese majeste? Hundreds of cases to both shut the activists up and to launder the king’s dirty underwear.

The junta reckons most Thais are stupid, and treats them as such, assessing that they haven’t a clue about democracy and are easily pushed around. A few threats can easily shut them up.

How about those pesky politicians? You know, the bad ones (because they are associated with that devil Thaksin Shinawatra). How many ways can they be repressed. Like all murderous, torturing military regime, the possibilities are many. How about charging them with corruption? That should gag that Watana guy from the Puea Thai Party who keeps saying nasty things about the middle-class cuddly dictatorship.

It irks The Dictator that Puea Thai types are still popping up. Ban them, ban their books, silence them. No debate with these guys.

While the junta is in power, its is almost genetically programmed to buy military toys from Chinese submarines to Chinese armored personal carriers (with the white sidewalls option, they should look stunning running over civilian protesters).

And while talking of Chinese, why not use Article 44 so that all of the land near the proposed railway tracks to link Thailand with China can be taken off poor farmers and become the accumulated wealth of Sino-Thai tycoons and their military allies. Money will fall line rain in the wet season into the already overflowing coffers of the rich and powerful.

It is so predictable it is now boring. What next? The Dictator campaigning for “election”? Yes, that’s already happening.

What about fixing the “election”? That’s a check. Even that anti-election Election Commission can’t be trusted, probably because they are all so thick and need ordering around, so replace them with people who can work out what needs to be corrupted without having to be ordered.

How many more years of this boring nothingness? We reckon the record is about 16 years. The current junta is aiming for 20. Only 16 and a few months to go.

And, an “election” won’t change all of this. It is embedded deeply into the fabric of administration.

It will take a lot of careful undoing when the people get a chance or take a chance.





Corrected: The tycoons and the junta

3 06 2017

This is a corrected post. We became aware that the search function we used at Forbes to list Thailand’s tycoons returned something other than a full list. We have now located a more reliable list at Forbes and have rewritten the post based on the correct data. Thanks to a reader for questioning us about the data, causing us to go back to the source.

At the same time, we remain cautious about the data given that the totals in the global list do not exactly match those in the Thailand list.

There’s been a lot of talk about the military dictatorship having done little for the economy. One group is benefiting. That’s the junta and its allies in state enterprises, those on the take, those raking in commissions and the various puppet appointments. But their takings, while huge by the standards of the average Thai, are not the measure of how the tycoons are doing.

That group are the richest Thais, mostly the Sino-Thai tycoons and a couple of foreigners who have made their fortune in Thailand.When we had the wrong data, we indicated that the wealth of the top 10 had decreased. This is corrected in the table below, showing a very large increase in wealth.

We know this from the listing in Forbes of the world’s US dollar billionaires and, now, from the list of Thailand’s billionaires. Over the years, we have listed the top 10, so we are sticking with that so that a comparison can be made.

The table compares 2014 wealth (Forbes 2015) and the year of the coup and the 2016 figures (Forbes 2017).

The totals for the top 10 show that their combined wealth has increased by almost $16 billion. The top two families have increased by more than $9billion.

When we had the data wrong we asked: How long will these economic whales put up with a military dictatorship that delivers economic decline? Now that the data has reversed the position, we can only imagine that the tycoons are loving the junta.





Tax evaders, tycoons and the palace

3 04 2017

When the subject of tax comes up, one thing can always be taken for granted in Thailand: the elite will not lose anything for they are skilled tax minimizers and evaders.

In the Bangkok Post to day there are a couple of stories that can be brought together. First, we have news that “[e]vading taxes worth 10 million baht or more, or fraudulently filing for tax refunds of 2 million baht or more through collusion, shall be considered a money-laundering offence…” under a new law.

The notion that tax evasion is money laundering strikes us as strange, but you get the picture. The tax authorities want to be seen as going after tax evaders, something they have never done much of in the past, except in politicized cases.

So, we should see the Revenue Department go after “politicians” from previous regimes. We should also expect that the Department will examine the taxation records of the unusually wealthy who report huge wealth when they get junta perk positions. We can be pretty certain none of them paid tax on it.

That set us thinking. What about Police General Somyos Pumpanmuang? He is now head of the Thailand Football Association,  had long business relationships with mining companies, and at the time of his retirement as Thailand’s top cop, was one of its wealthiest policemen. Somyos was known to have ordered police to support companies he had previously worked with. He was so wealthy that he gave rewards to cops out of his own bag of money. Has he ever been taxed?

We can also wonder whether the 50,000 baht a month that was claimed and then unclaimed as income by metropolitan police chief Pol. Lt. Gen. Sanit Mahathavorn  was ever taxed? The lucky Sanit was on the payroll of the giant alcohol and beverage producer Thai Beverage Plc owned by one of Thailand’s wealthiest Sino-Thai tycoons, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi. Sanit’s total income was also claimed to be mammoth. Was that taxed?

While on companies and wealth, we wonder how much tax is paid by Charoen and his other fabulously wealthy fellow tycoons? They get great business deals from the corrupt state and from their unusual relationships, but how much do they “give back”? And we don’t mean the piddling corporate social responsibility ruses, we mean real tax.

Readers might recall the contract for the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center which went, without going to a bid or to any significant renegotiation, to N.C.C. Management & Development Co., a company in the gargantuan business empire of Charoen, reputedly worth almost $14 billion. Naturally, he’s also close to the palace.

Which brings us to another Bangkok Post story. Charoen has revealed “plans to develop a new mixed-use project to be called ‘One Bangkok’ on the 104-rai of land that formerly housed Suan Lum Night Bazaar on the corner of Witthayu and Rama IV roads.”

It seems odd that the “development will be joint venture by two companies owned by Mr Charoen, TCC Assets (Thailand) Co and Frasers Centrepoint Limited (FCL).” There must be a tax deal there somewhere.

The mammoth development will be on a lease the “TCC Group secured … from the Crown Property Bureau in 2014.”

Before the site was the Suan Lum Night Bazaar from 2001 to 2011, it was the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School, established in 1958 “next to Lumphini Park in Bangkok…”. It moved in 2000, and allowed the tacky Night Bazaar to be built. Now, how did that land get back to the CPB? Was the military paying a peppercorn rent? Or was it “returned” to the CPB as so many other properties were. Did the CPB pay any taxes?

These deals can be exceptionally lucrative. Princess Sirindhorn is estimated to personally rake in about $54 million a year from the property she owns around the Siam-Rajaprasong area, and we know she isn’t paying tax.

Tycoons as royalists and royals, along with their helpers in the senior reaches of the civil and military bureaucracies don’t ever seem to be “threatened” with taxation.





All about the law I

29 03 2017

The media is awash with stories about law. How the rich use it for their benefit or avoid it. How the junta uses it. How the police and military manipulate it. We will just link with some of these, grab some quotes and make some comments.

Law for the rich: It is all about Red Bull heir and cop killer Vorayudh “Boss” Yoovidhya. This story and his “hiding in plain sight” avoidance of responsibility for his drug and booze addled killing of a cop has been around since 2012. In the time since, he’s ignored the cops, probably paid some of them off, paid off the cop’s family with meager “compensation” (also known as blood money) and lived what AP called “the high life” in the resorts of the world. He’s partied with the same crowd he has always been with, the rich, the “good” and the famous. His 400+ photos of his good and expensive life are at Facebook.

We can only wonder why it took AP to do the work of finding him. Not the cops (who lost one of their own). Not the prosecutors. Not even Thailand’s media. Why is that? Money, huge influence and power are, like a military regime, threatening. Hired thugs often do the dirty work for Thailand’s Sino-Thai tycoons, so few are prepared to challenge any of them.

And, oh yes, he is due to “appear” before prosecutors. As the Bangkok Post states, this spoiled rich untouchable “has been repeatedly summoned to face authorities but he avoided it each time, claiming [that should read “lying”] through his lawyer that he was sick or out of the country on business.”

Law and the junta I: Thaksin Shinawatra is not short of a baht. In fact, a previous court decision extracted about $1.4 billion from him in 2010, representing more than half of the assets the state had frozen. No matter what one thinks of that decision, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this decision made sure that the state got back what it thought necessary.

It seems not, for the junta has decided to suck back more of Thaksin’s money. In fact, another $510 million in “tax.” Of course, this is a part of the junta’s paranoia about Thaksin and political opposition. It is also meant to scratch the junta’s anti-election itch about voting being about money paid for each vote received.

Law and the junta II: While on Thaksin and hobbling the Shinawatra clan, the junta’s minions have closed Voice TV for a few days for daring to report on things that make the military dictatorship uncomfortable. The Thai Journalists Association and the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association have generally been dominated by yellow-shirted journalists and media entrepreneurs, but even they feel the threat from the junta.

Two media associations have “called on the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission … to review its committee’s order to black out Voice TV’s broadcasts for seven days, saying it harms media freedom.” They also determined that the NBTC’s decision “conflicts with both the 1997 and 2006 constitutions, which safeguard those in the media who deliver news or opinions in compliance with their career ethics.”

Such calls have no impact on the military dictatorship because it has “law” in its holster.

Law for the politically connected: Anti-democrat and military junta-supporting Suthep Thaugsuban leads a charmed legal life, at least under the junta. He’s broken more laws than anyone could keep count of and gotten off  every  charge he’s faced (that we can recall) under the military junta he worked with and helped bring to power (or never even been charged). Having something in common with the Red Bull fugitive, he even got away with murder. But that’s not unusual in Thailand…

This time, in a case where he was accused of defaming leading members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship who were standing for election, accusing them of arson and other crimes, a politicized court ruled “Suthep had not made false accusations against the three UDD leaders as alleged, and dismissed the case against him.” Thailand’s judiciary simply fails to dispense anything resembling justice when it comes to the politically-connected and powerful.

Then there’s the case of ultra-nationalist and anti-democrat Veera Somkwamkid who toddled off to the Thailand-Cambodia birder to check on casino graft. Locals blocked his visit yet PPT couldn’t help but recall that it was only about two weeks ago that The Nation reported that “[p]olice are launching a manhunt for well-known political activist Veera … after he published an opinion survey’s result on his Facebook wall, saying the majority people lack confidence in the Prayut administration.” So there he was, ath the border, surrounded by cops and troops and … well, nothing.

Law, police and military: We saved the grossest and nastiest stories. These are the reports surrounding the extrajudicial killing of Chaiyapoom Pasae, struck down with a single shot by the Army. The stories from the authorities on this case have been banal. Accused of drug dealing, being armed with a knife and a grenade, the dead boy is now accused of somehow having a gun because the police chief says Chaiyapoom could have shot officers.

A slip of the tongue perhaps, but this is what happens when the authorities manufacture excuses for their own crimes.

From Ji Ungpakorn’s blog

Convinced that the lad was a drug dealer and claiming that the CCTV footage backs up the official story, the cops refuse to release the footage because … wait for it … “the controversial evidence does not ‘answer all problems’.” In addition, “[r]eleasing the footage might lead to a mess to the investigation process and arguments among the society.”

What next?

The law has never been particularly impartial and judges have never been much good in Thailand. However, under the influence of the monarchy and under this military dictatorship the law has been ransacked, killed and buried.





Corruption, nepotism and impunity

4 02 2017

In an op-ed at the Bangkok Post, Thitinan Pongsudhirak says this of corruption:

The reason corruption is not forcefully addressed in Thailand is because we don’t know where to start with the powerful few involved. Those at the top who are supposed to eliminate corruption must be clean and willing to confront and prosecute culprits in a networked society where the degrees of social separation are very small. Going after corruption means going after crooks you and your friends and family may know.

We could read this as suggesting there’s a cultural element to corruption, but we’d prefer to think of it as suggestive of nepotism.

PPT is sure that nepotism plays a role. Indeed, the royalist elite and Sino-Thai tycoons are a relatively small ruling class and there are plenty of kinship links. The military and royalist state has also spent a considerable time seeking to make and reinforce such links.

Tucked away in an academic book (Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, eds, Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, Singapore: NUS Press, 2016) is a chapter by Nualnoi Treerat and Parkpume Vanichaka on elite networking through “special executive courses.” As one reviewer explains:

The interviews with course attendees are of great value for understanding how it is that specific policies benefiting the oligarchy come to fruition. The inclusion of members of “billion families” into the courses brings to light some of the behind-the-scene mechanics of how an oligarch can connect with those in the parliament, military, bureaucracy, university sector, or the media.

Public-sector courses have been offered by the National Security Academy for Government and Private Sector (Po Ro Or), the Office of the Judiciary, the King Prajadhipok Institute, and the Election Commission. Two private-sector courses include the Capital Market Academy by the Stock Exchange of Thailand one by the Chamber of Commerce….

Throw in marriage, sucking up to the monarchy, elite schooling and all of the other things covered by Thailand Tatler and a coherent and connected ruling class is constructed and maintained.

All this lubricates and normalizes elite corruption as part of the process of entitlement. These people believe that they are Thailand.

At the same time, there’s a lot more than nepotism and entitlement at work. At least two other elements of corruption deserve attention. They are impunity and the nature of the “corruption system.”

Ruling class corruption and “unusual wealth” – in some cases, stupendous wealth – these people are also immensely powerful. This means they can literally get away with murder (the “connections” that display power are visible). The ruling class share impunity among themselves and their flunkies.

That’s why no one investigates the “unusual wealth” of those associated with the military junta. That’s why “both the chief of Bangkok police and the nation’s largest beverage company failed to respond to a state watchdog’s demand they clarify their financial relationship.” This refers to Police Lt Gen Sanit Mahathavorn and ThaiBev controlled by the Sirivadhanabhakdi family and the “adviser’s” allowance paid by the company to the cop.

(By the way, we think Khaosod is misreading the documents it links to on the General’s monthly salary; we think his annual salary is 1,425,600 baht, not his monthly salary.)

In addition to nepotism, entitlement and impunity, the mainstay of corruption is that it is a system. Business people, politicians, military and police and bureaucrats know what the system is, and they all benefit from it. The system channels corrupt funds from every level of the organizational hierarchies to the top.

That’s why, for example, cops and military brass are willing to literally pay for positions that see the greatest flows of funds. Think here of being permanent secretary at the Ministry of Transport and chairman of the State Railways of Thailand or police chief in Pattaya; the money flows like a giant river. Of course, shares taken at lower levels are the cement that holds the corruption system.





The Bangkok Post on corruption

29 01 2017

PPT has been posting quite a lot on corruption. Of course, we skim our posts from a limited set of Thailand sources and sometimes international reports. We are not doing anything more than highlighting stories already in the media and adding a bit of background and detail where we can.

With yet more stories of officials and corruption on the front page of the Bangkok Post today, it is worthwhile to highlight the op-eds on corruption in that paper as the enormity of the corruption and the obviousness of the cover-ups is revealed.

While some columnists who write for the Post sound more and more like sycophants for royalist military rule, others are writing appropriately critical accounts.

The most recent story is what might be called petty corruption. That said, it can amount to big bucks over time. Police and state officials in Phuket are exploiting legal loopholes to extort money from foreign employees and migrant workers. These groups are standard prey for officials and police.

It needs to be remembered that poaching from such vulnerable small fry is a part of a broader system of corruption that is based in impunity and funnels funds up to higher-level bosses. Its essentially a crime syndicate in state garb.

Now the op-eds. We will link to them and just quote a couple of bits and pieces:

Corruption and cover-ups lists many of the recent cases and cites Transparency International: “The lower-ranked countries in our index are plagued by untrustworthy and badly functioning public institutions like the police and judiciary.” Thailand. The article adds: “The Great Cover-ups are under way.”

Thailand must clean up its act is by the Post editor. He refers to secret deals with Sino-Thai tycoons, among others, but then asks: “where [are] the voices are that supported and cheered the military coup that ousted an elected government on the grounds it was [allegedly] corrupt…. I do not hear their voices coming out to voice their opposition against the rising corruption and lack of transparency in the [General] Prayut[h Chan-ocha military] regime.” PPT has pointed out the distinctions in the minds of anti-democrats, between Good people being  corrupt, and others they see as Bad and Evil people. The Great and the Good can do what they like.

his-masters-voiceGraft nosedive comes as no surprise at all is by Kong Rithdee. He gets the Good people nonsense of the anti-democrats, when he says of Sansern Poljeak of the politicized National Anti-Corruption Commission complaining about the use of “being a democratic country” in “one of the checklists used to calculate the [TI]  score.” Kong asks: “What did he expect? That being a non-democratic country is nobler and less corrupt, because it has righteous people holding top jobs?” Well, yes! Of course, Sansern listens to his masters and obeys.

Then there’s Surasak Glahan’s We can’t all be starry eyed in busting graft. He complains long and loud about the lack of transparency, not just under this military regime, but over a long period. That’s all fine and dandy, but PPT wonders why, even when there is some transparency – think of the huge and unexplained wealth of the officials who are part of the puppet assemblies – nothing is done. Their wealth is on display, but no one cares or investigates. Only when one falls foul of the powers that be does “corruption” become something that can be (politically) used.

There’s also an editorial in the Post. It’s tepid because it is critical of The Dictator.

Far better is Wasant Techawongtham, former News Editor at the Bangkok Post, who looks at police corruption and police reform. He gets it right when he says real police reform won’t happen under the military regime:

What would happen if, after police reforms, people started to demand reforms in the military?

And who can confidently say the military is any less corrupt? The military is probably the least transparent and accountable organisation in the entire bureaucracy. It is inscrutable and refuses to be scrutinised. Any shady activities are therefore kept under wraps away from the public’s eyes.

So shouldn’t genuine reform begin with the military?

Its a mess. But its a very lucrative mess for those who benefit, in the civil and military bureaucracies, in the upper echelons of the royalist elite, and among the Sino-Thai tycoons.