The Economist on King Vajiralongkorn

16 10 2020

The Economist has a timely briefing on the king. With humble apologies to the publisher for taking it in full, but it is very good and deserves to be read by all. Here it is:

Battle royal
Thailand’s king seeks to bring back absolute monarchy
Maha Vajiralongkorn has provoked something new in Thailand: open criticism of a king

THE MONUMENTS disappear in the dark. In April 2017 it was a small bronze plaque from Bangkok’s Royal Plaza. It marked the spot where, in 1932, revolutionaries proclaimed the end of Thailand’s absolute monarchy. In December 2018 a statue was hauled away. It commemorated the defeat of rebels who attempted a coup against those same revolutionaries. Last month activists installed a plaque in the heart of Bangkok’s royal district to protest against the missing monuments. “The people have expressed the intention that this country belongs to the people, and not the king”, it stated. Within a day it was gone.

The world knows Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn as a playboy who has churned through four wives, lives among lots of women in a German hotel and relishes skimpy crop tops that reveal elaborate temporary tattoos. For Thais, his four-year-old reign has been more sinister.

The king makes elderly advisers crawl before him, shaves the heads of courtiers who displease him and has disowned several of his children. Worse, he has steadily amassed power, taking personal control of “crown property”, assuming direct command of troops and ordering changes to the constitution. He makes no secret of his hankering for the days of absolute monarchy (hence the disappearing monuments). But Thais began to protest in July. Can they prevent the removal not just of plaques, but of constitutional constraints?

On October 14th thousands of protesters marched through central Bangkok to camp outside Government House, where ministers’ offices are located. They also formed human chains to carry away potted plants that blocked the way to the country’s Democracy Monument. Not far away King Vajiralongkorn himself, in the country on a fleeting visit, passed by in a motorcade. Clusters of royalists gathered wearing yellow shirts to show their loyalty to him.

That night a spooked government issued an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people and prohibiting reporting on topics that could “harm national security” or “cause panic”. The government warned that protesters who insulted the monarchy would be prosecuted. Several prominent leaders of the protest were arrested the following morning. Yet tensions increased as protests continued in defiance of the decree.

Thailand defines itself as a democracy with the king as head of state. The monarchy is revered. Photographs of royals adorn public buildings and private homes. Father’s Day is celebrated on the previous king’s birthday. Thais hear a royal anthem before films start at the cinema.

Technically King Vajiralongkorn rules as a constitutional monarch. But ancient structures have never entirely disappeared. The king used to sit at the apex of society in a semi-divine role. Defenders of the vestiges of this order have long clashed with those claiming to represent an alternative source of authority: the Thai people.

The conflict helps explain why Thailand has endured 12 coups and 20 constitutions since 1932. Since the 1950s a symbiotic relationship between the army and the palace has bolstered the legitimacy of military regimes. For the past two decades the greatest foe of such elites has been Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist prime minister ousted by the army in 2006. His supporters, known as red shirts, battled their yellow-shirted foes in the streets on several occasions in the years after he lost power.

The generals engineered a coup in 2014. The commander who led it, Prayuth Chan-ocha, remains prime minister. An army-friendly constitution disadvantaged large parties, such as Mr Thaksin’s flagship one, Pheu Thai, in an election last year.

One supposed reason why the army seized power six years ago was to ensure a steady succession between the ninth and tenth monarchs of the Chakri dynasty. King Vajiralongkorn’s path to the throne was not simple. Thailand’s elites took against him while his popular father still lived. King Bhumibol Adulyadej was considered the richest monarch in the world, his wealth outstripping that of oil-endowed Middle Eastern rulers and Europe’s royals with their castles and palaces.

Aristocratic types fretted because the crown prince, as Vajiralongkorn was previously known, caused so many scandals. Even his mother likened him to Don Juan. After leaving his first wife, a princess in her own right, he disowned four of his five children with his second wife, an actress, who eventually fled Thailand. When the relationship ended with his third wife—once filmed almost naked and crouching before her husband with birthday cake—several of her family members went to prison. The prince spent lavishly and indulged in eccentricity, elevating his beloved poodle, Foo Foo, to the rank of “air chief marshal”.

Still, King Vajiralongkorn took over unimpeded after his father’s death. Whereas the father was publicly loved, the son is privately loathed. His coronation last year attracted tiny crowds compared with those at the late king’s funeral rites. Despite his co-operation with army regimes, millions of Thais felt King Bhumibol displayed the virtues expected of a Buddhist monarch.

King Vajiralongkorn does not even live in Thailand. He rules a country of 70m people from more than 5,000 miles away in Germany. One insider bluntly appraises his activities there: “Bike, fuck, eat. He does only those three things.” The German government finds his presence awkward. “We have made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil,” the foreign minister, Heiko Maas, told the Bundestag on October 7th.

Money, money, money

The king’s militaristic harem inspires embarrassing headlines around the world. Just months after his fourth marriage to a former air stewardess last year, he elevated one concubine, a former nurse, to the status of “royal noble consort”. She is the first woman to hold this title since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy.

Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi fell from grace soon after her elevation. She disappeared from view. Then, in September, she was reinstated and declared “untainted”. Chinese netizens have likened Ms Sineenat to a crafty concubine from a popular television series, “Empresses in the Palace”.

In March 2012 permission from the Justice Department was published in the Royal Gazette for a temporary prison. A spartan map appears to show its location as possibly within the grounds of a palace owned by Vajiralongkorn. His bad books are a miserable place to be. Pictures allegedly of Srirasmi Suwadee, once his third wife, appeared in a German newspaper last year. Head shaved and tearful, she was reported as being under house arrest.

Airing such dirty linen in public in Thailand, however, is perilous. The country’s lèse-majesté law allows between three and 15 years in prison for insulting “the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”. King Vajiralongkorn has instructed the government not to use the law. But this hardly reflects newfound tolerance. Critics instead risk charges for sedition or computer crime, among others. In July one man was sent to a psychiatric hospital for wearing a T-shirt that stated: “I have lost all faith in the institution of monarchy”.

Playboy antics distract from the more sinister feats of the monarch since he came to power. In political, financial and military matters King Vajiralongkorn has gained powers never possessed by his father. His interventions appear part of a larger strategy to push Thailand closer to absolute monarchy once more.

Take his finances. In 2017 he gained full control of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), which manages royal investments (it was previously run by the ministry of finance). Its holdings are estimated to be worth $40bn. In 2018 the CPB declared that its assets would be considered the king’s personal property. As a result the monarch has stakes in some of Thailand’s corporate titans. He is the largest shareholder in Siam Cement Group, a conglomerate with revenues of almost $14bn in 2019, with a third of its shares. The head of the CPB, long a stalwart in the king’s circles, is a director of Siam Cement Group and of the 113-year-old Siam Commercial Bank, one of Thailand’s biggest, in which the king also has a stake.

In addition to the king’s private means, the Thai state showers the royal family with funds. For the 2021 fiscal year government agencies have drawn up budgets which allocate more than 37bn baht—over $1.1bn—to the monarchy. The Royal Office will receive 9bn baht of that directly. Much of the rest goes to government agencies, the police and the defence ministry for security and for development projects. By comparison, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth cost her taxpayers the equivalent of $87m last year. Precise details on where the money goes are elusive. Huge sums go to pay for royal transport alone (there are many planes and helicopters to maintain).

King Vajiralongkorn’s political interventions are another demonstration of his growing authority. In theory the monarch sits above parties, parliament and politics. But after a referendum in 2016, in which campaigners were banned from opposing the constitution put forward for approval, the monarch demanded changes to the charter. He altered it specifically to make ruling from afar easier.

He meddled even more audaciously ahead of last year’s parliamentary election. Mr Thaksin persuaded the king’s older sister to run as a putative prime ministerial candidate for a party with links to him. But the crown in effect came to the rescue of Mr Thaksin’s military foes. The monarch declared his sister’s ambitions “unconstitutional”. He also stated that royals should stay out of politics—yet the night before the election, he urged Thais to vote for “good people”, which was taken as an endorsement of Mr Prayuth and his allies.

Tomorrow belongs to me

This is just one example of how the palace and the barracks have continued to support each other since King Vajiralongkorn came to the throne. The king has a deep interest in military matters. Trained in an Australian academy, he holds the titles of admiral, field-marshal and air-marshal. The queen is a general and Ms Sineenat a major-general. The king has drawn military forces to his direct command. The Royal Command Guard has been created with some 5,000 soldiers. They are stationed in Bangkok, while other important army units, including an infantry regiment and a cavalry battalion which have facilitated past coups, have been moved out of the city. Overthrowing any government without advance co-ordination with royal troops would prove extremely difficult.

Why has the army permitted such manoeuvres? Defence of the monarchy is one of its central reasons for existing. Both the powerful army commander who retired in September, and his replacement, are deeply loyal to the king. They also rose through the ranks of the King’s Guard, in which Vajiralongkorn himself once served. Mr Prayuth and his closest allies, by contrast, emerged from the Queen’s Guard within the Second Infantry Division.

The prime minister can hardly counter the monarch’s power grabs. He depends on the king’s support for a semblance of legitimacy. Whereas the middle and upper classes of many countries contain democratic champions, those of Thailand “have never needed mass support to advance or protect their interests”, explains James Wise, a former Australian ambassador to Thailand, in his book “Thailand: History, Politics and the Rule of Law”. These conservatives would not stand for an army-linked prime minister rebuffing the royal institution.

Mr Prayuth is also weak: he wrestles even with his allies in the ruling coalition and lacks personal popularity. That hinders his ability to tackle the difficulties Thailand faces. Growth was slowing even before the coronavirus pandemic struck (see chart). Now the central bank expects the economy to contract by more than 8% this year—worse than the crash in the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Why should I wake up?

A very few opposition politicians have resisted King Vajiralongkorn’s growing control. In October most MPs from the liberal Future Forward Party, founded in 2018, opposed an executive decree in the lower house of parliament. The decree, which passed anyway, facilitated the partial transfer of army units and related budgetary allocations to the Royal Command Guard. Even so, it was the first time that lawmakers had ever opposed a legal procedure linked to the monarchy.

Future Forward no longer exists. Its platform in favour of democratic freedoms and army reform, as well as the popularity of its charismatic leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, made it a threat to the establishment. The outfit grew from nothing to become the country’s third-largest party in parliament in little more than a year. Legal cases against the institution and its leadership started to mount. In November Mr Thanathorn was stripped of his status as an MP. In February the party was dissolved by the constitutional court and its executives banned from politics for a decade. The judges decided that a loan Mr Thanathorn gave the party was an illegal breach of individual-donation limits.

Flash mobs mounted protests, though social-distancing measures soon put an end to them. The lull was temporary. Social media have provided an outlet for audacious criticisms. So widespread was moaning over the traffic jams caused by royal motorcades, for example, that in January the king instructed police not to close entire roads for travelling royals.

Other grumbles could not so easily be sorted. In August, after legal threats from the Thai government, Facebook blocked access from Thailand to a 1m-member group criticising the monarchy. “Requests like this are severe, contravene international-human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves,” the firm stated. It is preparing to mount a legal challenge.

Popular anger has moved from screens to streets. Since July protesters have gathered to call for the dissolution of the government, reform of the constitution and an end to the harassment of opposition activists. Students’ demonstrations inspired a wider swathe of Thais to march, too. Their efforts mark an evolution from the feud between red shirts and yellow shirts. New battle lines are over democratic freedoms.

Maybe this time

The boldest protesters have called openly for reform of the monarchy. They object to the king’s financial set-up and his consolidation of military power. Mr Thanathorn has also called for transparency about how state funds are spent on the monarchy.

The situation grew more serious as the protests swelled in size. The great fear is that the bloody treatment of student protesters in the 1970s will be repeated. In 1976 police, army and vigilante groups attacked students after they staged a mock hanging in protest against the killing of two pro-democracy activists. A story spread among royalists that the figure hanged resembled Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. According to official figures, 46 students died and more than 3,000 were arrested.

So far the authorities have arrested a few dozen protest leaders. The government had claimed it wanted to talk to students about their grievances. “Having a peaceful and civil dialogue where we exchange our views is the best approach for moving forward,” said the education minister. However, this week the establishment ran out of patience. If the prime minister cannot bring calm he may be replaced. Any drastic intervention is unlikely, however, without the monarch’s foreknowledge.

But King Vajiralongkorn’s clout has come at a price: open criticism of the monarchy. “The ghost is out of the bottle and you won’t get it back again,” reckons one diplomat in Bangkok. The more brazen the king’s moves towards a more absolute form of rule, the more forceful the criticism. “We are trying to bring the king and monarchy under the constitution,” explains one teenage protester. “We aren’t trying to bring them down.” King Vajiralongkorn’s actions could determine whether Thailand continues to revere royalty, or starts to revile it.





Knuckleheads, other royalists and threats

14 10 2020

Ultra-royalists are organizing and being organized to oppose pro-democracy protesters. They consider the protesters to be the tools of “politicians.” This time, the “politicians” are not Thaksin Shinawatra and his lot.

Khaosod reports that “[h]ardline royalists” have rallied “to accuse opposition politician  Thanathorn … of engineering the movement to call for reforms of the monarchy.”

The royalist group, propbably organized with support from the Army and ISOC, called “itself the Center for People Protecting the Monarchy,” and rallied “in front of the headquarters of Thai Summit, a company owned by Thanathorn’s family.”

They called for Thanathorn “to leave Thailand for allegedly having hostile attitudes towards the [r]oyal [f]amily.”

Protest organizer Chakrapong Klinkaew declared: “If you think there’s nothing good about Thailand, we shall unite to force you out of Thailand.” He also stated that his group would face off against pro-democracy protesters today.

Speeches by ultra-royalists demeaned Thanathorn as Chinese: “You people had never sacrificed your flesh and blood for the sovereignty of Thailand.” He was said to be “ungrateful to the king’s benevolence.” (Many ultra-royalists are Sino-Thai, so they are making a distinction between good Chinese and bad Chinese.)

Chakrapong focused on Thanathorn’s support for reform of the monarchy, seeing this as “disloyalty,” and akin to sedition. And, as yellow shirts have long proclaimed, monarchy is preferred to democracy, with Chakrapong declaring: “If you like western-style democracy, go and live there.”

Later, the protesters claimed their call for Thanathorn to be expelled was “figurative.”

About a month ago, Chakrapong had led a group to Thai Summit and then to a rally at the US Embassy, accusing it of being behind a conspiracy for a “revolution” in Thailand.

Meanwhile, emphasizing the good “foreigner”/bad “foreigner” dichotomy, the Bangkok Post reports that:

Indian-born businessman Satish Sehgal, who motivated the crowd with his speeches about his love for Thailand during the anti-Yingluck government protests, believes the young protesters demanding reform of the monarchy do not represent the country’s entire younger generation.

Sehgal, who was threatened with deportation during the anti-Yingluck protests, and who called on the monarch for support, reckons the demonstrators “are not properly educated about the country’s history and misled by false information.”

He, too, lambasted “political groups for allegedly trying to manipulate the young for their own personal gains…”.

Good foreigner Satish, emphasizes his diligence, hard work and loyalty. Predictably, his superior knowledge turns out to be nothing more than palace propaganda. Like other yellow shirts, he rejects democracy in favor of something like 19th Century royal absolutism.

He reaffirmed his support for military interventions in politics and defended the regime led by Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Finally, he declared that “groups loyal to the institution of monarchy would not sit idly by” while protesters criticized the king. He claimed that their positions would be represented “the army chief.” Sounds like a threat and incitement to us, and it is:

Mr Sehgal is confident that groups loyal to the institution will come out in force when necessary but noted that tomorrow’s protest was not enough to warrant them taking action yet.

… “People who love and respect the institution are not the kind that will mobilise first but when the time comes they will be ready to demonstrate that they do not want any other system…”.

The war on the monarchy is underway.





Sharp right turn

28 09 2020

About a week ago, PPT posted on an op-ed by rabid anti-Thaksinista and supporter of everything yellow, Veera Prateepchaikul where he seemed to have reached a political crossroads as he praised the behavior of activists and even boosted their causes and demands as reasonable.

But something changed. At the crossroads he turned sharp right. Veera’s latest op-ed is suddenly anti-student activist, declaring the 19-20 September rally “anything but a success.” Where he previously praised the protesters for compromising when handing over the petition, he now damns them as failures.

Conservative commentators are getting back into yellow formation to attack the students.

Veera now thinks that the rally was a measure of the regime’s power. It can ignore the protests: “The sudden twist in parliament … when government MPs joined senators to stall the vote on six proposed charter amendments … is a clear indication these legislators are not treating the protesters as seriously as they were before the rally.”

The rightist mantra now says the rally “was not as big as was predicted.” But, here’s the main point that is driving the rightist response and lie: “More important … most of the protesters were not students, but red-shirt followers — many of whom were said to have been mobilised by a political party.”

Red shirts did not make up the majority of protesters and there was no secret that the student leaders had called on red shirts to join the rally. For Veera and others, this raises the Thaksin Shinawatra threat. And away they go into rabid attacks.

This comes as the junta/regime is working hard to bribe and coax more Puea Thai Party MPs to its side or perhaps even the whole party.





Punishment and pleasure

27 09 2020

Ever since the 2006 military coup, various rightist regimes have sought to lock up Thai Rak Thai/Puea Thai politician Watana Muangsook. Several failed attempts have accompanied numerous charges and several short stints in prison, a police cell or a re-education camp.

A couple of days ago the Bangkok Post reported that the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions has now “found him guilty over his role in irregularities in a low-cost housing project.” He was found guilty on “11 counts of corruption, which carry up to 99 years in prison.” In Thailand, that means 50 years as it is the legally maximum jail time.

Watana and Yingluck

The article is pretty opaque on exactly what he did that the court considered illegal, but “abusing power and demanding kickbacks” are mentioned for the time Watana was minister. “Abusing power” seems to mean anything the court wants it to mean. Demanding kickbacks is clearer, but no details are provided.

Several others considered close to Thaksin Shinawatra were also sentenced to jail time and fines. Anti-Thaksinism would seem to be a motivating factor as the original investigation after the 2006 coup, “initiated by the now-defunct Assets Scrutiny Committee…”. That seems to have gone nowhere for some time. It was later taken up by the post-2014 coup “National Anti-Corruption Commission which forwarded its findings to the Office of the Attorney-General in Nov 2016 after deciding to implicate [prosecute?] Watana for alleged violations of the Criminal Code.”

Watana made bail and he can appeal.

At about the same time, the Bangkok Post editorialized that the junta’s Election Commission (EC) decision “to clear 31 political parties of illegal borrowings could cause further confusion regarding the organic law on political parties.” It pointed out the double standards involved when compared to the Constitutional Court’s dissolution of the Future Forward Party on similar charges.

The editorial says the “logic for this [decision] appears fuzzy when looked into in detail.” But “fuzzy” is the EC’s usual mode of operation and any notion of law and logic goes out the window.  The Post reckons the whole deal smells of rotting fish. The editorial has more, and the EC has responded, also reported by the Bangkok Post but it doesn’t satisfy the logic test.

As far as we can see, the vendetta continues, even if the Thaksin clan seems to be engaging in considerable royal posterior polishing as it seeks more control over Puea Thai.





The king and his antics II

11 09 2020

Thailand’s king and his antics in Europe have attracted plenty of unfavorable comment, The most recent is from The Statesman. While we think that most of PPT’s readers will know all of the facts and antics recounted, we consider the article by Francis Pike, with our added illustrations, worth reproducing in full:

The depraved rule of Thailand’s Caligula king
Protestors are risking it all to take on the monarchy

Fu Fu

The Roman emperor Caligula was renowned for his extravagance, capricious cruelty, sexual deviancy and temper bordering on insanity. Most famously, before he was assassinated, he planned to appoint his favourite horse as a consul. This is probably a legend. But King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the Thai throne in 2016, adopted Caligula’s playbook for real. In 2009 the then crown prince promoted his pet miniature poodle Foo Foo to the post of air chief marshal, in which capacity he served until his death in 2015, aged 17. Foo Foo’s cremation was preceded by four days of formal Buddhist mourning.

The poodle first came to the attention of the general public when a video was released showing him eating cake from the hand of Vajiralongkorn’s third wife, Princess Srirasmi, while she cavorted in a G-string at the dog’s lavish birthday party. At a 2009 gala dinner in honour of Vajiralongkorn, Foo Foo was kitted out head to paw in black-tie dress and, according to a WikiLeaks-revealed account by US ambassador, Ralph Boyce, ‘jumped onto the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses, including my own’.

When on parade the new king wears crisp, snowy-white, gold-braided, Ruritanian military uniforms or elaborate Thai regalia that make him look like a Buddhist temple in human form. In downtime his dress code can at best be described as kinky: trainers and low-hung jeans paired with the skimpiest of crop tops. His back and arms are festooned with possibly fake tattoos.

Vajiralongkorn is famously lecherous. Indeed, in his youth, Thai aristocrats would pack off their daughters to Europe to get them out of his clutches. Happily for Bangkok’s elite, the crown prince’s tastes, after his divorce from his first wife, an aristocratic relative of his mother, were consistently low-rent. His second wife was an aspiring actress, albeit of the soft-porn variety.

Prince, and kids in earlier times

The marriage did not last. After Vajiralongkorn put posters all over the palace accusing her of adultery, she fled to London and later to the US with her children — apart from a daughter who was kidnapped and brought back to Bangkok. The daughter was elevated to the rank of princess, but her mother and brothers had their diplomatic passports and royal titles revoked by the crown prince. The Thai public was left horrified by his treatment of his family.

Another marriage followed in 2001, to the aforementioned Srirasmi, though it was not publicly announced until 2005 when the crown prince, by then in his early fifties, declared it was time to settle down. How-ever, in 2014 he stripped his wife of her royal titles because of her relatives’ corruption. Srirasmi’s parents were jailed for two and a half years each for lèse-majesté.

Sineenat

Five years later, on 1 May last year, and just three days before his official coronation, Vajiralongkorn married for the fourth time, to Suthida Tidjai, a former Thai Airways hostess, giving her the title of Queen Consort. The Thai people were dumbfounded when just two months later, the new king named his mistress, Major General Sineenat Wongvajira-pakdi, as his Royal Noble Consort; it was the first time this form of address had been used for more than 100 years. The new relationship lasted three months. On 21 October, Sineenat was stripped of all her titles and disappeared from public view, supposedly for being disrespectful to the queen.

The king’s extravagance is no less remarkable than his private life. A monarchy that was impoverished in the postwar period had, by some estimates, increased its wealth to between $40 billion and $60 billion by last year. Most of the wealth resides in land; ownership of some four square miles of central Bangkok makes the Thai monarchy the world’s wealthiest by a large margin. Overseas holdings include a major stake in the Kempinski hotel group.* Indeed, for years Vajiralongkorn has spent months on end at the Munich Kempinski with his harem and servants. In addition, he owns a mansion on Lake Starnberg to the southwest of Munich. In spite of his huge allowances as crown prince, affording him ownership of two Boeing 737s, it is thought that he had to resort to begging funds from the then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to cover his gambling debts.

Why do King Vajiralongkorn’s private shenanigans matter? Royal families throughout Europe have long weathered sexual and financial scandals. Juan Carlos may have had to step down as king and go into exile, but the Spanish monarchy has survived. So too has the Belgian monarchy after the former King Albert II admitted to a love child. There is no suggestion that Prince Andrew, cherubic by comparison with King Vajiralongkorn, will bring down the British royals because of the Epstein imbroglio. But the key difference is that, unlike Thailand, all those are constitutional monarchies.

Bhumibol and Ananda

In Thailand the monarchy is integral to the country’s real power structures. This was a 70-year legacy of Vajiralongkorn’s father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Bhumibol’s reign started under a cloud following the killing of his 20-year-old predecessor, King Ananda Mahidol, by a single shot to the head with a Colt .45 pistol. After a questionable trial two servants were executed for the murder, though it is widely suspected that the king was accidently shot by Bhumibol, his brother. For the first decade of his rule King Bhumibol was entirely powerless and lived under the rule of the quasi-dictator Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram, who, during the second world war, had allied Thailand with the Axis powers.

Bhumibol, Sirikit, Prem

But gradually, as Thailand inched towards a democracy, Bhumibol won the adoration of the Thai people thanks to his moderating influence and good works, such as paying for medical facilities for the poor. His political power increased. In 1952 he bravely refused to preside over ceremonies for Phibunsongkhram’s new militaristic constitution.** However, Bhumibol’s finest moment came in 1981 when he faced down the ‘April Fools’ Day’ coup d’état by fleeing Bangkok and raising the Thai royal standard at the military base at Khorat, where General Prem emerged as the new military strongman. There followed what is now known as the ‘Network Monarchy’ era, a coalition of military interests and those of the financial and industrial elite based in Bangkok. As a former American deputy-president at Thailand’s Bank of Asia noted: ‘Thai politics has been about dividing up the pie among the elite.’ At the centre of the web stood the Thai monarchy. Elected democratic institutions remained largely an adornment to this oligarchic structure.

In 2001 a business chancer and mobile phone billionaire, Thaksin Shinawatra, later the owner of Manchester City FC, swept to power with his Thai Rak Thai party promising a populist agenda including reform of health and education. Much to the chagrin of the ‘Network Monarchy’, Thaksin won a sweeping electoral victory again in 2005. Bhumibol, who loathed Thaksin, gave tacit support to the coup that first removed him and then sent him into exile two years later. Until his death in 2016, Bhumibol thwarted, either by military or judicial coup, the democratic will of the Thai people, who since 2001 have consistently voted into power Thaksin-backed parties and their proxy leaders. Bhumibol’s historic reputation, albeit tarnished by his thwarting of the democratic will, became an important pillar of resistance to Thaksin’s outsiders. After Bhumibol’s death in 2016, the critical power of the monarchy was left in the hands of his dissolute playboy son.

Will King Vajiralongkorn redeem his dire youthful reputation and do a ‘Prince Hal’, moving to the path of royal righteousness? The signs so far are not good. Just over a week ago, the Royal Noble Consort Sineenat suddenly re-emerged with no information other than an inventive Royal Gazette announcement that ‘It will be regarded that she was never stripped of the royal consort title, military ranks and royal decorations’.

More important than this saga of extra-judicial fiat, the king intervened in the drafting of a new constitution by the military junta in 2017 to grant himself new powers over the appointment of regents. In addition, the new constitution asserted the king’s rights to ‘manage’ during any constitutional crisis. Given that Thailand has had 17 military coups since 1932, this is not trivial. Two crack regiments have also been put under his direct control. As the political exile and professor at Kyoto University Pavin Chachavalpongpun has noted, the king ‘is basically running the country now, though he’s not doing that like his father did through moral authority. He’s using fear to solidify his position and to take command.’

It is therefore interesting that in the past month, demonstrations of up to 10,000 people have called for the powers of the king to be curtailed. Protestors have defied Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws — which can incur up to 15 years’ imprisonment — to chant ‘Down with feudalism’. It remains to be seen whether the protests are a straw in the wind of future political instability. The new king’s attempt to transition from a monarch with influence within the ‘Network Monarchy’ to a monarch who rules is fraught with danger. But at least Vajiralongkorn is unlikely to come to Caligula’s sticky end; the king has a ready-made home for an exile in his beloved Bavaria.

*For discussions that reflect changes in ownership, see here and here.

**The refusal to attend was a fit of pique and self-interest.





With several updates: Royalists, recycling and ratbag rightists

31 08 2020

Watching the ultra-royalist Thai Pakdee group “rally” on Sunday was reminiscent of some of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee events. There was some yellow, some whistles, old head and arm bands, and the white, flag-themed t-shirts all seemed recycled from Suthep Thaugsuban’s efforts to overthrow an elected government and/or provide the political space for a military coup.

Thai PBS reports that mostly aged royalists rallied in support of the absent monarch and the junta’s constitution and to demand strong legal measures against student and pro-democracy activists. It was a full bag of rightist demands, recycled from earlier movements going back to the People’s Alliance for Democracy and the military-backed rightists of earlier decades.

Former Democrat Party member, former Action Coalition for Thailand member, and long-term yellow shirt Warong Dechgitvigrom led the rally, and denied he planned and “confrontation” with rallying students and other pro-democracy groups. He did not say that his assigned task is to rally support from the right and royalists and to provide a potential base for further military-backed intervention, should that be deemed necessary by the powers that watch over him and his ilk.

Like his predecessors, Warong blamed all of Thailand’s “troubles” on “politicians,” accusing them of “plunging Thailand into deeper political divide, separating the old and new generations.”

His claim was that his ragtag ratbags had:

come together to protect the [m]onarchy, to retain the Thai identity, to do away with all forms of monopoly, to attain career equality for all Thai people, through the application of technology, and to enhance national prosperity via a sufficiency economy.

He also called for the “Education Minister and all university rectors” repress the student-based activism by not allowing space for rallies and to stop “lecturers, who may harbor anti-[m]onarchy leanings, from ‘brainwashing’ their students.” In this, he is recycling rightism from the 1970s.

In addition, Thai Pakdee planned to recycle rightist demands on the Japanese Embassy to stop Pavin Chachavalpongpun criticizing the monarchy.

The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship’s Jatuporn Promphan, who has sounded rather royalist of late, said Thai Pakdee had “an extreme right-wing agenda, similar to a combination of the former Nawaphol, Red Guard and Village Scout groups.” We are not sure how Red Guards get into the mix, but his reference to Thai rightist heritage is apt.

The recycling of rightists and their rhetoric is dangerous, often leading to the unexplained/uninvestigated bashing of regime critics, probably by rightists working with the authorities.

It is dangerous also for regime and monarchy critics who live in exile. Rightist rhetoric gives cover and justification for the several enforced disappearances in Laos and Cambodia. These are very likely black ops by the Thai military operating on orders from the regime and the palace.

These acts of violence have been meant as “warnings” to anti-regime and anti-monarchists, to instill fear and to silence them.

Getting away with abduction, torture and murder in “brother authoritarian” regimes is relatively easily arranged, often a quid pro quo for similar operations by those regimes in Thailand.

Clipped from Thai Alliance for Human Rights website

But it seems that this is not enough. The regime’s panic about anti-monarchy exiles in Japan, the USA and Europe is heightened, probably provoked by recent activism targeting the king in Germany.

The Nation reports on recent efforts to threaten those overseas based critics. Jom Petpradap, a “journalist living in exile in the United States has accused the Thai government of making veiled threats to his life and safety.” He has received a “package sent to him from Thailand [that] contained threatening materials” that made it clear that he is under surveillance and being followed.

Other exiles and outspoken monarchy critic Andrew MacGregor Marshall have reported similar packages and/or stalking.

Rightists in Thailand are also recycling Alt-Right inspired propaganda.

Thisrupt has a limited report on this development, noting that these conspiracy-based “revelations” of “plots” against the right’s Thailand mirror efforts in the 1970s to link student movements to international communism and efforts to overthrow the monarchy.

Something called “Thailand Vision” has been claiming a “plot,” backed by the USA – claimed to be promoting a “color revolution” in Thailand – and funded by Thai and international billionaires and capitalists. Like racists and rightists elsewhere, George Soros is identified as one of the culprit. Soros is remembered by Thai rightists as a culprit in the 1997 economic crisis. But his real “crime” is support for liberal causes.

In an elaborate concoction, Thailand Vision actually recycles claims made in earlier years by a self-exiled American, yellow-shirted conspiracy theorist who has been writing for one of Russia’s propaganda outfit, the New Eastern Outlook, which provides links to a range of alternative media sites, some of them anti-Semitic, others climate change deniers and many libertarian. Some of the co-authors have links to the extreme right in the U.S., including Lyndon LeRouche. and with connections to Alex Jones and much of the anti-imperialist alt-right.

In earlier times, it was Thaksin Shinawatra who was the “culprit” in motivating the international liberal/globalist conspiracy to bring down the monarchy. Now it is Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and international capitalists “behind” NGOs and international “co-conspirators” like the German newspaper Bild (for its tabloid journalism n the king in Germany), Business Insider, PixelHELPER, Freedom House, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and even Netflix!

In Thailand, “co-conspirators” include almost all of the NGOs and other organizations that are not rightist and sufficiently royalist, including the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, Thai Volunteer Service, Asian Network for Free Elections Foundation (ANFREL), Union for Civil Liberty, Prachatai, 101.world and The Isaan Record.

This might all sound bizarre, but in the recent past, such conspiracy nonsense has gained traction among former leftist yellow shirts like the late Kraisak Choonhavan and the regime/junta.

Recycling propaganda is about promoting notions of “threat” and mobilizing rightist reaction.

Update 1: We missed a Khaosod story about the ultras on Sunday. As well as one rally speaker – the youngest – seeming to incite violence and, later, calling for military dictatorship, coupled with a “Down with Democracy” screech, “speakers dish[ed] out conspiracy theories that implicate the governments of the United States and other Western countries in the ongoing anti-government protests.” Celebrity Hatai Muangboonsri said onstage: “Western powers want us to be divided. They encouraged a mindset that hates the pillars of our country…”. The reaction from the US Embassy was predictable. There’s also a strain of pro-China agitation from the ultras, who have mostly opposed Hong Kong democracy protesters.

Update 2: Two stories at The Nation deserve some attention. The first is about a street sweeper attacked outside the Thai Pakdee rally at the Thai-Japanese Stadium in Din Daeng. He was allegedly beaten up “because he was wearing a red shirt.” The story states: “It is assumed that the guard of Thai Pakdee royalist group may have assumed that Sukhon [the man beaten] had worn red to show he was associated with the anti-coup red-shirt movement.” The second story is a most unconvincing “denial” by Warong. Yellow social media is denigrating the cleaner as a “red buffalo” who got what he deserved as a Thaksin supporter. Fascism is on the march.

Update 3: In another story at The Nation, Student Union of Thailand spokesperson Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul insisted that the only people “behind” the student protests were the students themselves. She was logical in pointing out that the use of social media to raise political awareness among students and the young generation means that the students have a lot of supporters: “It wakes up many people. There are a lot of people who think like us.” She added: “It is human nature that if we know that many people share our views, then we have the courage to speak out … our fear is lessened…”. She added that she doesn’t even know all of the groups who associate themselves with Free People. Unlike Russian-paid trolls and yellow-shirted dolts, she’s brave, smart and appears (rather too) innocent.

Update 4: We added a link to Update 1 and corrected a point there.

Update 5: The Nation reports that Warong has “denied that the 15-year-old who posted a message on Facebook Live encouraging dictatorship was a member of his group.” He declared:  “he is not our member. I don’t know. Go ask him. He’s just a kid”.

Clipped from Khaosod

As the above picture shows, Warong is dissembling. He’s shown pulling a Thai Pakdee shirt over the lad’s yellow shirt. He’s applauded and lauded. Warong is trying to mislead people because he doesn’t want Thai Pakdee portrayed as it really is: an undemocratic, pro-military, pro monarchy mob that promotes the dictatorship.





Amnesty? Why now? I

16 07 2020

Why an amnesty proposal now? And why from ardent yellow shirt Kamnoon Sidhisamarn?

He and those of his ilk vehemently opposed proposals for amnesty under the Yingluck Shinawatra regime and even before that, including one by Nitirat. They used it as “evidence” of Thaksin’s control of the Puea Thai government. The proposal put forward by Puea Thai was flawed, not least because it provided the military and yellow-shirts an opportunity to mobilize and eventually bring another elected government. Even some red shirts opposed it.

It smells fishy to us.

Kamnoon is now a junta-appointed senator and was speaking of the junta’s 20-year national strategy when he argued that “an amnesty law for crimes associated with protest would return harmony to the country following political rallies since 2005 that had split Thais into two political camps and caused a widening division in society.” He added: “It was high time that the government imposed a law absolving protesters who were not criminals by nature…”.

We assume that excludes Thaksin and political prisoners, but this remains unclear. Or is a grand bargain being struck? Maybe readers know more than us? Comments are open.





Demonstrating double standards

2 07 2020

Double standards have been a defining feature of the judiciary and the so-called independent agencies since the 2006 military coup. Confidence in the judiciary has declined and the “independent” agencies are a laughable.

Even so, they continue to coordinate on double standards. The reports of the last day or so shout DOUBLE STANDARDS!

The Constitutional Court ruled on 1 July that the ruling party’s Bangkok MP Sira Jenjaka had not abused his authority when in August 2019 he jetted off to Phuket to involve himself in case there and “attacked a police officer … for not providing him with an escort.” The loudmouthed Bangkok MP shouted at the hapless policeman, describing himself as a big shot who should have police escorts. The Palang Pracharath Party hack now plans to sue the 57 MPs who brought the complaint. It remains unclear why a Bangkok MP was involved in local affairs in Phuket.

Then there’s everyone’s favorite convicted criminal and deputy minister, Thammanat Prompao, also of the Palang Pracharath Party.  The Constitutional Court also rejected a petition against him. The Court had been asked “to rule on the eligibility of Thamanat … holding a seat in parliament due to his wife’s business dealings with The Port Authority of Thailand (PAT).” This wife, one of two, “holds shares in Klongtoey Market (2551) Co Ltd, and the company entered into a land lease contract with the … PAT.” He was claimed to be in breach of Article 184 of the constitution. While that article is straightforward and applies to spouses, “the court said it found the contract with PAT is not monopolistic. Therefore, there is no reason for Mr Thamanat to lose his status as an MP.” We have no idea why a monopoly matters in this case, except for the Court is slippery interpretation.

We suppose that ruling royalist party MPs getting off is par for the course these days and that the cases might sort of slip by as “normal” these days.

But then there is other news that makes it all reprehensible.

It is reported that:

Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) has found that former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra abused her power, in violation of Section 157 of the Criminal Code, for her illegal removal, nine years ago, of Thawil Pliensri, from his post as secretary-general of the National Security Council and subsequent reassignment to the PM’s Office as an advisor.

NACC deputy secretary-general, Niwatchai Kasemmongkol, said today (Wednesday) that the NACC’s investigative panel found that  Thawil’s abrupt transfer was carried out with undue haste, taking just four days for the entire process to be completed.

Readers will recall that Yingluck was unanimously found at fault by the Constitutional Court and dismissed from office for the transfer of a top security officer, Thawil Pliensri, as National Security Council secretary-general in 2011.

That, following the 2014 coup, the junta summarily transferred hundreds of officials counts for nothing. It’s okay when the royalist thugs do it under conditions where only their “law” matters via retrospective edicts and so on.

Now the NACC “wants to bring another case against former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions.” The NACC “will ask that Ying­luck be indicted for malfeasance and abuse of power.”

These royalist minions to the junta/post-junta are a nasty lot, but this action seems oddly vindictive. Why are they doing it? It is our guess that the regime’s bosses (again) see Thaksin Shinawatra as “stirring up trouble,” so they hit the family again.

 





Updated: More political prisoners

28 06 2020

Along with every other media outlet, Khaosod reports that, on Friday, the Supreme Court upheld rulings by lower courts against five leaders of a July 2007 protest that marched from Sanam Luang to the taxpayer-funded residence of the then president of the king’s Privy Council, Gen Prem Tinsulanonda. The rally accused Prem of fomenting the 2006 military coup.

Nattawut Saikua, Veerakarn (then Veera) Musikapong, Weng Tojirakarn, Nopparut Worachitwuthikul, and Wiputhalaeng Pattanaphumthai were sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for “illegal assembly and using violence to resist police orders.”

Fellow UDD leader Thida Tawornsate Tojirakarn observed that these men are political prisoners. The five were immediately taken from the court to prison.

While the reports refer to the five as red shirts, it needs to be noted that the wearing of the color hadn’t taken off at this time and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship-led rally and march had most people wearing yellow shirts, which was a display of “loyalty” following the 2006 60th anniversary of Bhumibol’s reign.

Another UDD leader, Jatuporn Promphan, reflected on the double standards in the judicial system: “I once said to them that on our way of fighting, it’s either death or imprisonment…. Over the past decade, we took turns getting in and out of the prison.” Jatuporn is “also due to stand trial on the same offense…”.

The double standards refer to the efforts by several royalist regimes supported by the pliant judiciary to lock up red shirts and UDD leaders while those from the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy and People’s Democratic Reform Committee who also occupied parts of Bangkok and several state properties for extended periods, with considerable violence, get off quite lightly.

Few of the reports said much about the rally at Gen Prem’s free lodgings, so PPT went back and looked at reports from the time.

Asia Sentinel had a perceptive report. It began by observing:

On Sunday night, UDD leaders caught police unaware by marching with thousands of supporters to the house of Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, a former army chief and prime minister who is held in high respect by much of the Thai public due to his proximity to the king.

King, queen, Prem and military coup leaders

The protesters accused Prem, who was in the compound at the time, of acting as the puppet master behind the coup last September that ousted Premier Thaksin Shinawatra. They called on Prem to resign.

The UDD set up a makeshift stage in front of Prem’s house on Sunday afternoon and made speeches for five hours or so, according to witnesses and news reports. But in the evening, after the protesters vowed to permanently camp outside the residence, riot police attempted to break up the gathering and arrest the leaders, prompting demonstrators to hail rocks, chairs, sticks, water bottles and pieces of broken flower pots at the police, who eventually retreated.

Most reports put the UDD crowd at 5,000 to 10,000, with some counting up to 20,000. The police eventually mobilized about 2,000 officers. The police:

made two more attempts to arrest the protest leaders, charging at  demonstrators with clubs, pepper spray and tear gas. Each time the demonstrators fought back with fists, rocks, sticks, bottles and anything else they could find.

Weng said the protesters withdrew when threatened with the army, saying, “We didn’t want anybody killed from this event.”

The police claimed that 200 of their officers and about 70 protesters were injured. Six protesters were arrested and charged with “causing chaos, obstructing the work of authorities, and damage to state property…. Police were also seeking arrest warrants for eight or so other UDD leaders…”.

The report wonders about the police action, saying:

It’s unclear why authorities attempted to break up the protest this time as many similar
protests had occurred earlier without incident. Some observers said the army may have been spooked by UDD statements that the group would camp out in front of Prem’s house — an unacceptable scenario for generals who swear allegiance to the royal advisor.

It also notes Prem’s coup role:

Although Prem is supposed to be non-political as a privy councilor, coup opponents blast the 86-year-old for a series of speeches he gave a year ago in which he donned full military garb and said soldiers should be loyal to the king instead of the government. Many observers said the speeches set the stage for the coup.

The Irrawaddy (July 23, 2007) carried a report that royalists declared Thaksin behind the UDD. The then president of the Constitution Drafting Committee Prasong Soonsiri, cheered the arrests, saying: “He [Thaksin] is probably responsible for supporting the clash, and he won’t stop there…”. This was a widely held view among the military-installed regime led by former Privy Councillor Gen Surayud Chulanont.

Shortly after the event, the Union for Civil Liberty issued a statement:

Declaration concerning the avoidance of violence during a conflict of opinion

During a protest by the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DADD) at the home of Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda in the Thewes district of Bangkok, there occurred violent clashes between police and demonstrators. Alleging the part played by General Prem in organizing the military coup of 19th September 2006, protestors called for his resignation. As a result of the clashes which took place in the late evening of Sunday 22nd July, according to news media, 106 persons were injured.

The Union for Civil Liberty (UCL) maintains that the holding of non-violent protest to make known a political viewpoint is a civil right and a fundamental component of the democratic system. It is the duty of government to assure that the right of citizens to exercise this right is respected at all times, whether their action is against or in support of government, or to express other political opinion.

It is a matter of great regret that the protest on 22nd July last could not enjoy such a right to free expression due to the action of the police in blocking the protest march to the residence of General Prem in the Thewes district. The action angered some participants in the protest leading to the use of force and many casualties both among the protestors and the police.

To avoid the recurrence of such violence, perhaps on an even larger scale, the Union for Civil Liberty submits the following proposals:

1. Appoint a committee of persons acceptable to the public to investigate the events which occurred on the evening of the 22nd July for presentation to the Government and to the public.

2. Take court action against those who have acted illegally, whether the police or the protestors, in order that justice be done and human rights be protected.

Statement issued on 23rd July 2007
Union for Civil Liberty

So, for seeking to exercise their freedom of expression, these men are jailed. The regime that went after them was a junta-appointed administration that was vehemently royalist and anti-Thaksin. The double standards are as clear as they ever were.

Update: For another take on double standards, especially in comparing red shirts and yellow shirts, read this op-ed.





Wealth haven

14 05 2020

The Bangkok Post reports that tone-deaf multi-billionaire Dhanin Chearavanont “urging the government to relax lockdown measures and welcome foreign travellers as soon as possible, and turn the country into a ‘safe haven’ for wealthy visitors.”

Now a member of Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha’s billionaire advisory group known as Team Thailand, and previously a shadowy figure of influence behind several royalist regimes (and, once, of Thaksin Shinawatra’s government), Dhanin is speaking up on the economy, fearing that the extended lockdown is killing the economy. He’s right, but his perspective is that of huge wealth and massive privilege.

He is reported to have stated:

“We can’t wait until a vaccine is developed and produced in sufficient quantity to roll out to the entire population,” Mr Dhanin said. “The economy won’t survive that long.”

He said the tourism sector accounted for 16-17% percent of GDP and should be revived due to improvements in the virus situation.

Mr Dhanin proposed the government attract high-spending tourists from across the world by highlighting Thailand’s success in containing the spread of Covid-19.

So his proposal is to wind up tourism but for the wealthy, like him. Presumably he would also be one of the first to get any vaccine if it is safe and when available.

His perspective is that the poor majority in Thailand are there to be exploited by him, his companies and his tycoon buddies. We can imagine a “haven” for wealthy tourists, built on a service sector of low wages, low skills and great profits for companies like his.

Dhanin, clipped from Forbes

In fact, Thailand is already a wealth haven for Dhanin and all the other billionaires and multi-millionaires. Their wealth is built on their capacity to exploit the wealth created by Thai workers, enforced by a (military) state that works in their interests. The bags of money his companies drag into to fling at royals is part of their insurance policy on maintaining a wealth haven.”

A tourism “safe haven” for the wealthy includes “five-star hotels and resorts; we also have five-star hospitals and the best doctors…”, most of them owned by fellow billionaires. He wants a safe haven to make even more money.” Dhanin adds: “If we can make rich people feel confident that staying in Thailand is safer than their own countries then they will come.”

Dhanin and his billionaire buddies will also feel safe, so long as they maintain the protective shell of the military, prevent the king from too self-inflicted backlashes and keep the military-backed regime dawdling along. Dhanin’s pitch seems designed to nudge the regime along. We are waiting for the response. Will Gen Prayuth want to be publicly seen as a billionaire’s puppet?