New queen, new positions

16 06 2019

The royal couple may never be in Thailand all that much, preferring Munich, Tutzing and Zurich, but that doesn’t stop the royal tank grinding on.

The Bangkok Post reports that the king has “commanded” – oh, so feudal! – that six royal agencies be placed under new queen Suthida:

Suthida in the uniform, earrings and makeup of a General

The six agencies are Her Majesty Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother’s Private Secretary Division; Her Majesty Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother’s Royal Household Division; Supplementary Occupation Programme Division; Sirikit Institute; The Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Technique of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand; and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother’s ladies-in-waiting.

With Sirikit incapacitated for several years, this is generational change but it also represents the rise and rise of Vajiralongkorn.

Suthida also carries an multi-syllable name, Bajrasudhabimalalakshana. Quite a change from the family name Tidjai or even from the previous Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhya.

Showered with “honors” and having moved up from second lieutenant to full general in just six years of military “service,” she holds military command positions with the Royal Thai Aide-de-camp Department and the large force that “protect” the king and royal family.





Wikileaks, Thaksin, queen and lese majeste

8 08 2011

In a Wikileaks cable citing U.S. Ambassador Eric John and dated 22 October 2008, Thaksin Shinawatra is cited, having called John from exile. The reporting is revealing of Thaksin’s then position on several matters. At that point, Thaksin was confident of his political party/ies winning any election. He was worried about a coup:

“9. (C) Thaksin said he had sent a message to Army Commander Anupong Paojinda that the Army should not seize power. Thaksin said he could guarantee that a coup in current circumstances would not resemble General Sonthi Boonyaratglin’s 2006 coup — it would not be peaceful, and Anupong would regret it, Thaksin said.”

Thaksin is then reported to have commented on where the pressure for a coup was coming from: “10. (C) Thaksin told the Ambassador that Anupong did not want to launch a coup, but Queen Sirikit was pressing him to do so. Thaksin also asserted that Anupong knew that King Bhumibol did not favor a coup. Thaksin highlighted that, at the same time when the Queen presided over the funeral of a PAD protestor, the King granted an audience to PM Somchai, sending a more positive public message than the Queen’s. Thaksin added that he had been on the verge of releasing a letter in response to his conviction, but his staff had discouraged him from doing so, saying his tone would have been too angry and negative toward the monarchy.”

Thaksin goes on to comment on lese majeste: “Thaksin said one item on his agenda (and presumably in his draft letter) was the need to remove lese majeste provisions from the criminal code; Thailand could not rightfully claim to be democratic so long as there remained a threat of prosecution for lese majeste.”

PPT wonders if Yingluck Shinawatra will slowly move on this essential area of reform?





Sympathy for the royalists

27 07 2011

In one of those generally useless throwaway inserts that the Bangkok Post seems to have plenty of, there is one item of royal interest that caught the eye.

In Sunday 24 July’s Brunch “magazine,” which is apparently aimed at the elite, the last page is “In the Limelight.” This page is full of photos regarding an event at the “Thailand Cultural Centre [which] saw a full house in attendance last week when Her Majesty the Queen, accompanied by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, graced the premiere of the khon masked dance performance, Episode of Suek Maiyarap.” It can be found electronically here.

What struck PPT about the event is that, going by the photos, it was a kind of show of support for the good lads of the outgoing Abhisit Vejjajiva government. Maybe it was an event where royals and royalists were able to share thoughts and commiserations regarding their thumping defeat at the hands of the Puea Thai Party (or as the elite prefers, the red buffalos).

The story tells us that “The event was organised by the Support Foundation to celebrate HM the King’s 84th birthday anniversary in December this year.” There are a million of these events, but this one was obviously special. Do go and look at the photos.

The alleged “high profile personalities” who showed up to support royals and royalists were “Thanpuying Charungjit Teekara, ML Piyapas and Jutinan Bhirombhakdi, Thanpuying Supornpen Luangthepnimit, Prince Chatri Chalerm and Mom Kamala Yukol, MR Chatumongol and Khunying Boonvipa Sonakul, Prime Minister Abhisit and Dr Pimpen Vejjajiva, Dr Panitan Wattanayagorn, Vinai and Gunnigar Virojanavat, Pol Lt Gen Prakard and Khunying Pa-obthip Satamarn, Vapee and Thanpuying Muanchit Bhirombhakdi.”

For some reason, the southern godfather Suthep Thaugsuban isn’t mentioned. He was there, but doesn’t really fit the model of Bangkok-based, Sino-Thai royalists in this black-tie and diamonds affair. Also there were 2006 coup co-conspirator General Anupong Paojinda, responsible for the bloody crackdowns on red shirts in 2009 and 2010 and Abhisit’s chief of the corrupt police force, Wichien Potposri, and Crown Property Bureau boss Chirayu Isarangkun.

If readers are wondering why academic-for-sale Panitan gets a mention – he’s from the south too – it is probably his Privy Council connection.

We wonder if the queen was rallying this lot for the fight ahead?





Commentary on the king’s birthday

5 12 2010

We have one critical post already, but here’s a rundown on some of the news on the king’s birthday, where PPT tries to highlight some aspects of the reporting:

MCOT News has pretty much what you’d expect from them. “Millions of Thai throughout the country offered alms to Buddhist monks early Sunday to celebrate their revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 83rd birthday.” Of course, these “millions” are always led in “celebrations” by the higher-ups: “People from all walks of life, led by Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, offered alms to 284 Buddhist monks in the plaza at Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), Bangkok’s City Hall.” State agencies and the security agencies have been hard at work organizing “celebrations.” The NPR report below refers to “massive” celebrations organized by these agencies. All are funded by the taxpayer.

One innovation is that MCOT tells readers that despite being in hospital since 19 September 2009, his “condition has improved significantly.” Again, PPT can only ask why is he still there? What don’t we know from the opaque royal agencies that manage news.

NPR in the U.S. has a longish story that is arguably the most complete (actually, it seems to be by AP’s Grant Peck: “Thailand on Sunday marked the 83rd birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, but elaborate celebrations could not mask concern over his health and the future of the royal institution.” The report says “[t]housands of flag-waving citizens cheered his car’s journey to the ceremonial Grand Palace from Siriraj Hospital…”, not the tens of thousands claimed in local reports.

NPR notes that the birthday speech expressed “what has become a routine, general call for unity and hard work to keep the country happy and prosperous in the face of the sometimes violent political conflict it has endured in recent years.”

While having some of the usual blather about a “unifying figure,” at least NPR states the king “is regarded as a unifying figure in times of national crisis.” That regard is now mostly seen in yellow-shirted academics and the royalist regime. The king is said to have spoken only “briefly in a slow and rasping voice to dignitaries at the Grand Palace…”.

Taking up the leaders leading the masses in “celebration, NPR notes that “a candle-lighting show of devotion [will be] led by the prime minister…”.

The report then makes a claim also seen in a rather bland and uncritical video report by Al Jazeera (http://www.youtube.com/v/Uemt7IjkOYo?version=3): “Bhumibol’s near-disappearance from public life has coincided with a period of political instability after a 2006 military coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra polarized the country. The king has been unable or unwilling to play his traditional mediating role to ease the conflict.” It also adds that, “Traditionally, the palace managed to stay aloof from the parry and thrust of politics, its influence exercised behind the scenes or only in extreme cases where a crisis posed an immediate threat to the kingdom’s peace and stability.”

For PPT, this is a remarkably naive position. As a primer, the journalists should study Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. For the recent period, they need to put their spectacles on for clearer vision: the king has made several speeches to judges at critical times – and it has been judges making many of the big political decisions for the establishment – and he has met with Abhisit at strategic moments, most recently just after the Democrat Party escaped from the scrutiny of the Constitutional Court. More critically, such naivety ignores a point made long ago by political scientists and political sociologists  regarding “non-decision-making.”

Maybe these journalists can try this academic article from 1963…. Of course, one could also surmise that if the royalist government is doing just fine in the palace’s view, then there is no need for public intervention (especially when the intervention to get the 2006 coup in place got so much publicity).

NPR is right to observe that “Defenders of the status quo, including the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, say the monarchy is under attack by radicals who wish to undermine its authority and prestige, or even abolish it. While serious opponents of the royal institution are a tiny minority — and liable to long jail terms if they speak publicly — the past few years have seen unprecedented questioning of the monarchy.”

And, the observation that political polarization rests in large measure with royal actions is valid: “The polarization became greater as gestures made by the king’s top aides and even Queen Sirikit seemed to give a nod of approval to Thaksin’s opponents, including ‘Yellow Shirt’ protesters who in 2008 occupied the prime minister’s office for three months and took over Bangkok’s two airports for a week. Their protests were aimed at ousting two successive pro-Thaksin prime ministers.”

The little note on the prince’s role is also apposite. He is reported to have declared: “On this occasion, I would like to promise that I will carry out my tasks appropriately according to my status and my duties, based on reason and rationality in order to maintain the Chakri Dynasty’s honor and the prosperity and security of the country…”.

AFP refers to “elaborate celebrations” and has the required line about the king being “widely revered as a demi-god by many Thais…”. The note that “[a]ny discussion of the royal family is an extremely sensitive topic in politically turbulent Thailand, where the palace has also been silent over the organisation of the king’s succession,” requires a correction: yes, “sensitive,” and enforced as such by lese majeste laws. The report notes: “Under strict lese majeste rules, anyone can make an accusation that another person insulted the monarchy — punishable by up to 15 years in prison — and police are duty-bound to investigate.” And, while foreign journalists like to speculate – prompted by wishful thinking royalists – the palace has been pretty clear on succession (and see above).

For a deeper understanding of the role of the monarchy and politics that avoids some of the syrup required of journalists, PPT suggests not only Handley (noted above) but also the range of papers at our commentary pages, here, here and here. And, of course, the two new books posted on here and here.





King, country, chaos? – Part II

20 03 2010

The Economist’s longer story on Thailand (18 March 2010) seeks to look behind the scenes of the present political unrest to examine “deeper fears about the royal succession.” We examine this story in some detail as it raises matters seldom openly debated in Thailand.

The newspaper claims that by last Sunday the “people’s war against the elite” saw a crowd “brimming with elation, [that] had passed 100,000.” That’s on the lower end of estimates, leaving aside the government’s propaganda. The story then says that by “mid-week the red shirts seemed no closer to their goal of forcing out the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and forcing new elections.” Well, yes, but 3-4 days is not even close to the People’s Alliance for Democracy’s non-stop rally of 2008, which approached 200 days. One wonders why the Economist (and much of Thailand’s mainstream media) expected the red shirt’s to achieve its stated aims in such a short time?

The Economist is right to point out that the “army stands squarely behind Mr Abhisit”. It might have said that the army put Abhisit where he is now and that they are not just behind him, but they made him. Interestingly, it was only yesterday that Abhisit seemed to get the message that appearing on television surrounded by men in uniform was just too strong a political message, and now he is seen with men in suits. At least that portrays the image of a government of the elite rather than the puppet government of the military and palace.

It is also true, as the Economist points out, that “Ruling-party politicians complain that the lowly red shirts are paid proxies and do not represent mainstream opinion. They bat away the idea that an election may be the only way to prove their point, arguing that an orderly vote is impossible amid the tumult. Most of all, they blame [former premier] Mr Thaksin [Shinawatra] for the uproar.” This is an endless rant that began with PAD and has close affinities with the allegations of paid voters. Even when the rich and powerful see their servants, gardeners, guards, waiters, masseuses, and other low-paid minions support the red shirts, they choose to believe this has nothing to do with deeply-held resentment of the “nai.”

Moving to the king, the article observes that: “To Thailand’s royalist movement the monarch is the nation’s father, and the “fighting children” on the streets are a source of distress to him. Some fear that Thailand’s troubles may be thwarting King Bhumibol’s full recovery from the respiratory illness that has kept him in hospital since September.” Then the author adds: “But it is precisely because ‘father’ is on his way out that his ‘children’ are fighting.”

That might at least be an interpretation that breaks from the line of it all being of Thaksin’s making, but it is a flawed argument. Like blaming Thaksin, it is a position that is seeking explanations in personalities rather than in political and social realities. In PPT’s view, the king and Thaksin are players in a drama that is located in the vast inequalities that have become increasingly sharp as Thailand has rapidly integrated into global patterns of production and consumption. This is why red shirt attacks on amart, double standards, elite privilege and, now, “class war” draw so much support from the poor and exploited. But these shibboleths also have resonance for a struggling group of workers and those hoping to be upwardly mobile.

But let’s take the important points the article makes about the monarchy seriously, for the monarchy is the richest of the rich, at the pinnacle of the establishment, at the core of the amart, and its ideology is the keystone of the royalist ideology that attempts to keep people in their place. In the Economist’s view, the monarchy is critical because “power in Thailand flows along patronage networks that start with the king.”

On succession, the newspaper thinks that the “crown itself should pass smoothly. The designated male heir is Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, aged 57, and there is not much scope for doubt about his claim. A long mourning period, perhaps six months or more, will allow a pause in the political dogfight. Some protagonists may come to their senses and seek a compromise. The death of King Bhumibol would also signal a generational shift in Thailand: younger voices could start to be heard.” PPT wonders why the author thinks the king is about to drop off the perch? He could hang on for years.

Like so many other commentators, this one believes the current “king will be a most difficult act to follow,” adding that “Vajiralongkorn is already widely loathed and feared.” For the prince, becoming king means that he “must fill the shoes of a beatified icon whose achievements have been swathed in a personality cult.” We might add that the task of beatifying the prince, while difficult, has begun in earnest, and it relies as much on his current wife and adult daughters as on his own achievements. They are being pumped up as stars by the media. Sirikit played a similar role for a time in the early years of this reign.

Can it work again? Probably not, although the article cites “Sulak Sivaraksa, a veteran royal observer and social activist, says that the prince has matured during his third marriage and is more respectful of others than in the past.” In any case, apparently the “prince knows he is unpopular” and a political acquaintance says “he doesn’t care.”

The article then joins in the myth-making about the monarchy and asserts: “… King Bhumibol’s virtues … include monogamy, Buddhist piety and old-fashioned thrift…”. PPT is not at all sure what this is about. Acknowledged as one of the world’s richest monarchs, with a stable of hugely expensive cars and taking huge lumps of public funding, the thrift seems an odd angle. The other claims we leave to the gossip mill.

The point seems to be to say that “the crown prince is a poor substitute” in terms of the alleged virtues of his dad. The article then repeats some of the well-known stories: “Salacious stories of his private life are daily gossip. A video circulated widely in 2007 showed his third wife, known as the ‘royal consort’, at a formal [birthday] dinner [several years ago] with the prince in a titillating state of undress. Diplomats say Prince Vajiralongkorn is unpredictable to the point of eccentricity: lavishing attention on his pet poodle Fu Fu, for example, who has military rank and, on occasion, sits among [and at the table of] guests at gala dinners. In the 1980s his rumoured ties to the criminal underworld, which he denied in a newspaper interview, inspired the gangster nickname of ‘Sia O’.” Obviously much more could be added, but the story seems clear.

The article then considers some alternatives for the throne and again runs through some of the gossip. Some hope for the increasingly pudgy Sirindhorn and others raise the potential for “a jump to Prince Vajiralongkorn’s children, such as his youngest, Prince Tipangkara, with a regent, perhaps Princess Sirindhorn.” As a footnote, the author describes Sirindhorn as having a “saintly image as a patron of charity.” Well, yes, that’s the image, but of late it has been changed somewhat as she seems to have become the collector of donations to the monarchy. Just before she jetted out to meet the Burmese generals, she was shown on television day after day receiving funds hand over fist.

Apart from the dislike of the prince, why do these hopes for Sirindhorn spring eternal? None of the other siblings are mentioned for they are all obviously totally hopeless. According to the article, “Prince Vajiralongkorn is distrusted in military circles [because of] his past association with Mr Thaksin, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Mr Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire turned populist politician, was said to have lavished money on the prince. That may have been the real reason for the coup, which appeared to have the blessing of Prem Tinsulanonda, the chairman of the Privy Council and thus the king’s chief adviser. The fact that Mr Thaksin, who is living in exile in Dubai, is still in contact with the prince is deeply troubling for those same royalists. In a recent interview with a British newspaper, the former prime minister lavishly praised the heir to the throne.” PPT thinks there were many more pressing reasons for the coup in 2006, but this perspective is one frequently aired, especially by those who claim insider military connections.

One of the big public unknowns relates to the privy council. Presumably the prince has his own people he’d like to have advising him when he’s king. The council serves at the will of the monarch, so the prince can boot out the current crop of aged men dominated by military and judicial appointments. The article cites an unnamed “foreign scholar” as saying that the prince’s men “will definitely not have the calibre” of the current council. That’s a big claim for the current lot seem to have created the very situation that the Economist frets about.

Usefully, the Economist also cites the long-running saga of the failed appointment of a police chief. It says that this impasse is reflective of the prince’s poor judgment as Abhisit’s “choice for police chief was blocked by members of his own team, including Nipon Prompan, an aide to Prince Vajiralongkorn, who lobbied for another candidate. A ‘powerful and mighty’ backer was reported to be pushing the second man, a former head of national intelligence under Mr Thaksin. Mr Nipon later resigned from the cabinet. Mr Abhisit was unable to confirm his man, who is currently acting chief. The row exposed Prince Vajiralongkorn’s clumsy meddling. It also provoked apoplexy among King Bhumibol’s courtiers, says a palace source. Prince Vajiralongkorn was told that ‘we don’t do things like this,’ the source says.”

But as the article points out, this is something of a fib as “the palace has long patronised loyalists in the army and bureaucracy.” Indeed, the palace always makes known who it wants in important position. Thaksin has plenty of time to regret the palace-pushed appointment of 2006 coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin as army chief. The article states that “Vajiralongkorn is itching to meddle in the annual autumnal shuffle of senior jobs in the armed forces and extend his support base, says a senior Asian diplomat. How far he succeeds may determine how long he lasts.” And, it raises the “possibility [of] … a royal pardon for Mr Thaksin so that he can return to manage state affairs for the new king.”

The Economist then turns to the question of what to do about the monarchy and succession, suggesting that a “way out of this predicament would be to shrink the Thai monarchy back to its previous size. Top-down reform of the institution is more palatable than a push from below with republican overtones. Under King Bhumibol its stock has fallen already from its zenith…”. PPT is not sure why republicanism is to be feared. After all, there are plenty of stable republics around. We would have thought that a shrinking of the monarchy would only be useful if it is combined with an enhancement of democratic governance.

The Economist seems to write of PPT when is observes that: “Some might argue that King Bhumibol shares the blame for the failure of democratic institutions to take root in Thailand.” That’s undoubtedly true, and was a point made many years ago by the Australian academic Kevin Hewison when he noted the king’s personal disdain for political principles associated with democracy. In part because of this disdain and the fear of the masses, Thailand has become “a cautionary tale of a botched democracy.”

Of course none of this debate about the monarchy and succession is the stuff of national debate and consideration in Thailand. This is due to the threat of “arrest under the lèse-majesté laws or a new, equally nasty computer-crimes law.” It is claimed that under the present king “the silencing of opponents has been controversial, but many tolerate it out of respect. Prince Vajiralongkorn can expect no such leeway.”

Then a really neat piece of gossip is added, from Sulak. He claims that the king has sent out “three trusted emissaries to present ideas for reforming the institution…”. Interesting, but with the article, PPT agrees that a “radical rethink seems unlikely.” In any case, the article then cogitates for a few paragraphs on potential reforms and worries about the monarchy’s total lack of transparency, most especially on the public funds that it takes by the truckload. It also worries about the grand patronage system means that “elected ministers who care about their careers are continually looking over their shoulders for signals from the palace. Mr Abhisit attends so many royal ribbon-cuttings that it is hard to imagine how he finds time to govern…”.

The article finishes by noting that this debate should be held in Thailand, but that “Royal censorship has kept much of this debate under wraps. That is a pity.”