The crown and the crop top

28 11 2020
The Economist’s Michael Peel has a really quite good article in one of the newspaper’s magazines. It’s behind a paywall but deserves to be more widely available, not least for the fabulous graphics. We hope the newspaper can put up with our reproduction of its excellent work:

The crown and the crop top: the king of Thailand in six objects

Decoding the mysterious monarchy that has provoked massive protests

The monarchy has long been treated with deference in Thailand. Until recently, people rarely mentioned the royal family in public except to proclaim their loyalty to it. Thailand is unusual among constitutional monarchies in having a potent lèse majesté law – a prohibition on insulting the royal family. Taking the king’s name in vain can lead to a prison sentence of 15 years.

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the current king’s father, commanded genuine respect, though it wasn’t always clear where devotion ended and fear of transgressing the law began. When Bhumibol (pronounced Poom-ee-pon) died in 2016, he was succeeded by his son and heir – a very different public figure.

To many Thais the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn (pronounced Wa-cheera-long-kon) is less worthy of veneration: he is on his fourth marriage, spends most of his time in Germany and has sought to accumulate personal wealth and power, most recently by taking direct command of two army units in Bangkok. Even his mother once described Vajiralongkorn as a “bit of a Don Juan” and suggested he might have to change his ways or quit the royal family.

Over the past few months thousands of young Thais have been staging demonstrations in the streets. In an unprecedented show of defiance, they are not only talking about the monarchy but openly criticising the way it operates. Protesters have many reasons to be frustrated – the army’s influence in politics, choking restrictions on freedom of speech and a wider sense that the gerontocratic Thai elite is closed to new ideas amid a lingering economic malaise. One personality looms over these diffuse grievances: the king.

In theory the Thai monarchy acts as a unifying force and, like its British counterpart, stays out of politics. But a long history of coups by the palace’s allies in the army (most recently in 2014) suggests otherwise. The aura of a quaint, benignly ruled country that Thailand used to project to outsiders is fading. The deliberate opacity of the monarchy doesn’t help. The king rarely gives interviews and the mainstream press is not allowed to probe his role (in a rare interview Vajiralongkorn gave as crown prince in the 1980s, he complained at being the subject of false rumours). When scraps of information about the royal family or images of the king do make it into the public domain, people pore over them, parsing the regal stage props: old fashioned Kremlinology for the media age.

King Vajiralongkorn was formally crowned in 2019 with a two-foot cone of diamond-encrusted gold enamel dating back to the start of the Chakri dynasty in 1782. The Great Crown of Victory is an expression of the mystique with which the Thai royal family has surrounded itself.

For most of history, the Chakris were just another absolutist dynasty. Then, in 1932, an uprising by military officers and bureaucrats forced the monarchy to accept some democratic changes, like a parliament. When Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946 he was only 18, and at first depended heavily on generals, business and bureaucratic elites and foreign diplomats. Within this informal alliance everyone worked to promote their mutual interests, a form of monarchical governance so unusual that a new term was coined to describe it: the “network monarchy”.

Over time Bhumibol added to his personal power with ritual and prestige. He pursued archaic practices such as an annual ploughing ceremony, held to mark the start of the rice-growing season, and reinstated a custom that individuals prostrate themselves before the monarch (a predecessor had stopped this in the 19th century, regarding it as demeaning).

The economy boomed under Bhumibol, thanks more to foreign investment and tourism than the agricultural initiatives he championed, like cloud-seeding. One of Bhumibol’s lasting agrarian interventions was to set up a department of royal rainmaking.

The coronation jewels are a potent emblem of a powerful monarchy to which some older Thais feel an almost religious devotion. The crown’s height is supposed to evoke the summit of Mount Meru, the heart of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies. Yet the crown also acts as a real-world symbol of an institution reliant on spectacle: at 7kg, it is one of the heaviest coronation crowns still in use today (the St Edward Crown, placed on the head of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, came in at a paltry 2kg). That’s a weighty legacy to bear.

Friends with benefits Beware expensive gifts

Western powers have long played a role in boosting the status of the Thai monarchy. The 1960s and 1970s were not an easy time to be a king in South-East Asia and Bhumibol’s position was greatly strengthened by his close relationship with America. But it’s a friendship with strings attached: there’s a murkier side to the bountiful displays of support and affection.

In 2018 the American embassy in Bangkok held an eye-opening exhibition to celebrate the relationship, entitled “Great and Good Friends”, a reference to a salutation American presidents used in addressing the “kings of Siam”. On display were the extravagant gifts Thai monarchs have bestowed on occupants of the White House.

Come for the gold niello turtle presented to Lyndon Johnson’s baby grandson, and stay for the diamond-embellished vine-woven bags given to Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush when each was First Lady. King Bhumibol and his wife Queen Sirikit toured America twice in the 1960s, appearing on a TV chat show and hanging out with Elvis Presley. The young Thai monarch also met the then-president, Dwight Eisenhower, and gave him a recipe for Thai noodles.

The bonhomie masked a grittier relationship. Thailand agreed to host the American B-52 bombers that pummelled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam war. The king also proved to be a valuable propaganda asset: as a Western-friendly monarch, he stood in contrast to the communists who were sweeping to power in other parts of the region. As Time magazine wrote in 1966, “(The) men who run Thailand are well aware that their youthful king is their – and the nation’s – greatest living asset.” The long line of the Chakri dynasty belies a frailty at its heart: the friends, and compromises, it has been forced to make to survive.

In dogs we trust A fuss over Foo Foo, the prince’s poodle

Dogs have featured heavily in the life of Thai monarchs. King Bhumibol, a man who projected seriousness and dignity, even wrote a book about his pet mongrel Tondaeng, extolling the virtues of canine obedience. It was widely seen as a prescription for the Thai people. Tondaeng had been a street dog and the message was clear for all: loyalty is not about pedigree, and everyone should know their place.

King Vajiralongkorn’s relationship with his pet poodle Foo Foo was quite different. When he was crown prince he reportedly appointed Foo Foo as an air chief marshal. At a gala dinner for a jazz band from New Orleans, the dog attended wearing “formal evening attire complete with paw mitts”, according to an account relayed in a diplomatic cable later published by WikiLeaks. “At one point during the band’s second number, he jumped up onto the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses.” When Foo Foo died in 2015, four days of mourning were held for him, complete with Buddhist prayers, before he was cremated.

Foo Foo also became a symbol for the playboy prince’s lifestyle. His fame began with a bizarre video which began circulating on the internet in 2009 showing Vajiralongkorn sat at a table with his third wife, Princess Srirasmi, who was wearing only a G-string. The prince clutched Foo Foo as the couple sang “Happy Birthday” (it’s not clear to whom), and then the princess crouched before the prince and his dog, offering up birthday cake from a silver dish. It’s the kind of surreal behaviour that has only added to the air of menace and unpredictability surrounding Vajiralongkorn.

His Sunday best Demonstrators mock the king’s crop tops

In Thailand King Vajiralongkorn is most often seen parading in his royal regalia, complete with a colourful array of medals. Unusually for a Thai king, however, Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time in Bavaria, where he has been snapped wearing skimpy crop tops, sometimes with elaborate temporary tattoos splayed across his back and arms.

Despite attempts by the generals in Bangkok to scrub these images from Facebook, it’s a look that has been noticed back home. Protesters have started turning up to demonstrations in similar attire, a satirical comment not just on the king’s surprising sartorial choice but what they see as his wider rejection of Thailand and the standards of propriety demanded by his office.

The king’s unorthodox lifestyle is a growing headache for the government in Germany, too. He apparently holed up in a hotel in Bavaria at the start of the coronavirus pandemic (at a time when all such establishments were ordered to close). Members of Bavaria’s state parliament have asked whether the king is liable to pay tax locally. The foreign ministry recently warned Vajiralongkorn not to conduct affairs of state from German soil.

Cementing his power The list of royal assets is long and growing

Protesters often focus their anger on the vast fortune of the royal family. With a total estimated wealth of more than $40bn, Vajiralongkorn is among the richest monarchs in the world. His many assets include a large shareholding in the Siam Cement Group: the lorries and mixers of this industrial giant are ubiquitous, a daily reminder of the king’s economic clout.

The wealth of the Thai monarchy has grown under Vajiralongkorn. Previously, royal investments had been held by the secretive Crown Property Bureau. Information about the bureau’s activities is limited, but it is known to control large amounts of property in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand, some of it highly prized (the bureau was reported to have demanded only peppercorn rent for a sprawling plot it leased to the American government for the ambassador’s residence).

Some people already suspected that the bureau was effectively the monarch’s personal piggy bank, but officially at least, it was holding the wealth “in trust for the nation”. In July 2017 Vajiralongkorn personally took over managing the bureau. The following year the bureau announced it had transferred all its holdings to Vajiralongkorn himself, removing the last element of ambiguity about whose money it was.

What a handful “The Hunger Games” defiant salute finds new followers

For years demonstrators in Thailand have staged intermittent protests against the coup-happy army (which is allied to the royal family) and its hold over the political realm. The dynamics of these demonstrations often reflected struggles among the political and business elite, as different sides mobilised their supporters.

Things are different this time. Those who started the current protests in Bangkok are remarkable for their youth – some are still at school. They don’t have an official leader. And they have a radical new agenda: wide-ranging reform of the monarchy itself. Their demands include the right to criticise the royal family, a reduction in its spending and removal from the school curriculum of material glorifying the monarchy.

This new cohort of protesters identifies with the group of rebels fighting despotic oppression in “The Hunger Games”, a series of books and films for young adults. The three-fingered salute of Katniss Everdeen and her fellow freedom-fighters had been used by protesters before in Thailand, but it has become the iconic image of the current demonstrations.

The potential dangers of opposing the Thai royal family are real. In 2018 the bodies of two Thai campaigners against the monarchy were found in the Mekong river in Laos, close to the border with Thailand. The murderers have never been identified. In Bangkok the authorities have arrested many protesters and charged some with sedition. So far the royal response to recent demonstrations has been merely to ask the younger generation to “love the country and love the monarchy”. King Vajiralongkorn has said that Thailand is a ”land of compromise”, but many reckon the biggest scenes in this drama are still to come. The house of Chakri – and those who benefit from it – do not take challenges lightly. ■

ILLUSTRATIONS: JAKE READ

Additional images: Getty, Backgrid, John Burwell, Splash News, AP, Alamy

In addition, The Economist has a very useful little podcast on recent events, which seems to be free to access at: https://embed.acast.com/theintelligencepodcast/athismajesty-displeasure-thailand-santi-monarchypush beginning on Thailand at about 0:50 and running for about 5 minutes.





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.





Dogs of internal war

11 05 2020

The Economist has recently reflected on the military’s problems and the way it seems that average Thais are rejecting it.

Most of the article is behind a paywall, so we quote from it extensively in this post.

The article begins with a quote from Gen Apirat Kongsompong, Army commander, who spat out the complaint that “[e]ven military dogs are grateful to the army…” as he complained that the Thai people “should be overflowing with gratitude” to the Army, one of the country’s “sacred” institutions.

He seems to believe that Thais should be grateful for conscription, corruption and coups. Oh, yes, and those tens of thousands killed by the military in “protecting” the country’s ruling class over several decades.

Tongue in cheek, The Economist detects that “ordinary Thais do not seem to realise how lucky they are. Indeed, they have been showing signs of sacrilege.”

The report goes on to discuss conscription, observing that there is widespread unhappiness with this throwback enlistment and its associated modern-day slavery and its sadistic violence. It is noted that just 13% of “42,000 conscripts scheduled for discharge at the end of April have volunteered to stay on, despite the wilting economy,” adding: “So unpopular is conscription that a new party which promised to end it and seek other military reforms won the third most seats in last year’s [rigged] election.”

That would be Future Forward and the military’s regime got rid of it through their allies in the judiciary.

Rotten to the core

The report also discusses the “fuss about military spending is another sign of Thais’ diminishing regard for men in uniform.” Responding to rising protest, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha’s regime quickly moved to cut “military spending by 8%.” It had little choice, as the economy is in even deeper trouble now than it was at the beginning of the year.

Then there was the “biggest blow to the army’s standing came in February, when a soldier went on a shooting rampage in the city of Nakhon Ratchasima, killing 29 people.” It judges that the incident:

revealed the army’s incompetence (the killer obtained guns and ammunition by raiding a poorly guarded armoury), corruption (he seems to have been enraged after being cheated in a property deal involving relatives of a superior officer) and arrogance (it was criticism of the army’s response to the killings that prompted General Apirat to complain about ingratitude).

Soon after the massacre General Apirat pledged to reform military housing and root out corruption. … [Gen] Prayuth weighed in, too, promising to halve the number of generals—there are about 1,700 of them—and to trim the army overall. Thailand has some 560,000 soldiers and reservists. Britain, with a similar population and pretensions as a global power, has about 230,000.

Of course, nothing has happened and nothing much is likely to happen.

The report has some gaps. More could have been made of the virus hotspot at the Army’s boxing stadium, presided over by Gen Apirat, but the main item that should have been discussed is the military’s relationship with the king. It is this relationship that has sustained both military and monarchy. It is a relationship that is rotten to the core, has damaged the country and has made many generals and the king very wealthy.





AI on human rights abuses

30 01 2020

A few days ago we criticized The Economist Intelligence Unit and its 2019 Democracy Index. We thought it ridiculously positive in its assessment of Thailand as a “flawed democracy.”

Writing of a Thailand that is nothing like The EIU’s Thailand, Amnesty International has issued its Human Rights in Asia-Pacific: Review of 2019 and begins its Thailand section:

Activists, academics, opposition politicians, and human rights defenders were arrested, detained and prosecuted for peacefully expressing their views on the government and monarchy. The government maintained systematic and arbitrary restrictions on human rights, including by passing a new cybersecurity law. Refugees and asylum-seekers were vulnerable to arrest, detention, deportation, and rendition.

That sounds far more realistic approach to Thailand than that by the EIU. And, in reading the AI report, the matter-of-fact expression of political repression and abuse of human rights makes the EIU ranking seem entirely nonsensical.

AI’s Thailand report is just three pages, so worth reading in full.





Buffalo manure “democracy”

27 01 2020

A few days ago the Bangkok Post included a report that “Thailand was the biggest mover in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 Democracy Index, rising 38 places in the global rankings…”. That was a surprise. More astounding though, The Economist Intelligence Unit considered that the military junta’s “conversion” of itself into a military-backed regime with a government manufactured out of what should have been an electoral defeat makes Thailand a “flawed democracy” rather than what was previously a “hybrid regime.”

PPT has been a collective fan of The Economist’s coverage of Thailand’s politics in recent years. However, this “ranking” suggests that its Intelligence Unit has lost its IQ.

How on earth does The Economist Intelligence Unit decide that: “The biggest score change in Asia occurred in Thailand, which finally held an election in March 2019, the first since the military coup in May 2014. Voters had a wide array of parties and candidates from which to choose, and this helped to restore some public confidence in the electoral process and the political system…”. It seems that the “election led to improvements in the scores across all five categories of the Democracy Index, but the sharpest increase was recorded for electoral process and pluralism.”

How on earth does The Economist Intelligence Unit decide that Thailand is a “flawed democracy”? It defines these in this manner:

These countries … have free and fair elections and, even if there are problems (such as infringements on media freedom), basic civil liberties are respected. However, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.

This puts Thailand in the same category as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Italy and Indonesia. This is nonsensical, but that’s what the “numbers” say to The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Thailand is a country where political repression is widespread, an election was rigged over several years, opposition parties were dissolved, the courts have been made political bodies, “independent agencies” made tools of the military-backed regime, activists are beaten, arrested, threatened, disappeared and murdered, the military has a parallel administration and operates outside the law and with impunity, the Senate was selected and appointed by the junta and operates for it…. Do we need to go on? And need we say that for four months of 2019, the country was a military dictatorship.

Thailand is no longer a “hybrid regime,”which The Economist Intelligence Unit defines as:

Elections have substantial irregularities that often prevent them from being both free and fair. Government pressure on opposition parties and candidates may be common. Serious
weaknesses are more prevalent than in flawed democracies—in political culture, functioning of government and political participation. Corruption tends to be widespread and the rule of law is weak. Civil society is weak. Typically, there is harassment of and pressure on journalists, and the judiciary is not independent.

That sounds like Thailand. More academically-based definitions seem to fit Thailand too, as summarized at Wikipedia:

A hybrid regime is a mixed type of political regime that arises on the basis of an authoritarian as a result of an incomplete democratic transition. Hybrid regimes combine autocratic features with democratic ones, they can simultaneously hold political repressions and regular elections. The term “hybrid regime” arises from a polymorphic view of political regimes that opposes the dichotomy of autocracy or democracy…

So we ask again, how on earth does The Economist Intelligence Unit come up with this stuff?

According to one account:

How did the EIU come up with a scoring system that is supposedly accurate to two decimal places? What it did has the semblance of rigor. It asked various experts to answer 60 questions and assigned each reply a numerical value, with the weighted average deciding the ranking. Who are these experts? Nobody knows.

The Economist Intelligence Unit has responded to such criticisms, but, in fact, still gives the unnamed experts 60 questions with a 3-point scoring system: 0, 0.5, 1. It also claims to use other measures:

A crucial, differentiating aspect of our measure is that, in addition to experts’ assessments, we use, where available, public-opinion surveys—mainly the World Values Survey. Indicators based on the surveys predominate heavily in the political participation and political culture categories, and a few are used in the civil liberties and functioning of government categories…. In addition to the World Values Survey, other sources that can be leveraged include the Eurobarometer surveys, Gallup polls, Asian Barometer, Latin American Barometer, Afrobarometer and national surveys. In the case of countries for which survey results are missing, survey results for similar countries and expert assessment are used to fill in gaps.

With all of this (pseudo-)science – such as the Asian Barometer – The Economist Intelligence Unit gave Thailand a score of 6.32.

PPT did the 60 questions (see the appendix to the report) and came up with a score of 4.50, which would have Thailand ranked closer to Pakistan, a so-called hybrid regime.

We’d suggest that The Economist Intelligence Unit might spend a little more time reading The Economist on Thailand’s democratic failure and efforts at re-feudalization.





On king and military

5 09 2019

The Economist has an article this week on King Vajiralongkorn’s political rise. We at PPT don’t agree with all of it, but we reproduce it in full as it will likely be banned in hard copy in Thailand and finding it online may be difficult.

For the record, we disagree on the significance of factionalism in the military. Military watchers over emphasize this. Nor do we think the relationship between King Bhumibol and the military was in any way “ambiguous.”

RIGID AND austere, King Chulalongkorn, the fifth monarch of Thailand’s Chakri dynasty, gazes across Bangkok’s Royal Plaza from a gleaming steed. The bronze statue is just one immovable legacy of the Thai monarchy. The mindset of the country’s armed forces is another. The king overhauled them late in the 19th century, founding a military and naval academy, creating a ministry of defence and indelibly associating them with the crown.

Thailand’s generals have seized power 12 times since a revolution brought an end to absolute monarchy in 1932. The most recent coup was in 2014. The general who led it, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has remained prime minister ever since. But his authority over the army he once commanded is fading. Instead it is King Maha Vajiralongkorn who is fast becoming the biggest influence over Thailand’s men and women in uniform.

The armed forces have never really proved themselves in war. Instead they have focused on battling their country’s politicians. Their most fearsome foe was Thaksin Shinawatra, whom they ousted as prime minister in 2006. The feud between his supporters and opponents has tortured Thai politics ever since. But the army appears finally to have bested its enemy, presiding over a rigged election in March that relegated the Thaksinites to a parliamentary minority for the first time since 2001. Politicians backing the army have formed a coalition government led by Mr Prayuth. But the coalition is a rickety one, composed of 18 different parties. That leaves Mr Prayuth ever more dependent on the veneer of legitimacy provided by the king.

The army’s penchant for politics has always been tied to the prestige of the monarchy. “The consent of the governed is less important than the imprimatur of the monarch,” explains Gregory Raymond of the Australian National University. Military regimes bolster their legitimacy by slavish devotion to the crown. A symbiotic relationship between the barracks and the palace has endured since the 1950s, each defending the other’s standing.

Close ties to the royals help the armed forces avoid change. The last coup voided a constitution which had established legislative scrutiny over defence policy. Modest reforms occurred after soldiers killed dozens of democratic protesters in 1992 and again after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Mr Thaksin managed to reduce the army’s budget and placed allies in senior military posts, but achieved little lasting change. Governments which make serious attempts to clip the army’s wings tend to get ousted, as Mr Thaksin’s was. Even so, a popular new party, Future Forward, wants to reduce the number of generals, end conscription and cut military budgets.

The main impetus for change is coming from the palace itself, however. King Vajiralongkorn, who attended an Australian military academy, served in the army and holds the ranks of field marshal, admiral and air marshal, is obsessed with military titles, training and hierarchy. He expects others to share his passion. The queen, a former flight attendant, has risen through the ranks of his personal guard. Her ascent was not purely a show of grace and favour: she had to complete gruelling training with her men. She now holds the rank of general. His official concubine, a former nurse, was promoted to major-general this year. While crown prince, the king made his pet poodle, since deceased, an air marshal.

Since he came to the throne almost three years ago, the king has increased the clout of the monarchy in various ways, dispensing with a regent when he is abroad and taking direct control over the administration of all crown property. He has also inserted himself into the administration of the army. A new unit, the Royal Command Guard, has been created at his behest. It includes many of his former bodyguards. Its 5,000-odd soldiers will be under the direct command of the monarch and will be stationed in the heart of Bangkok. At the same time, an infantry regiment and a cavalry battalion that were instrumental in past coups have been ordered out of the capital. This will make it much harder for the army to launch coups without securing the support of the king in advance.

King Vajiralongkorn has stoked factionalism, too, weakening the bond between the army and the government that it installed. Mr Prayuth and his deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, are both former army chiefs. They rose up through the Queen’s Guard, elite troops from a regiment within the army’s Second Infantry Division. The current army chief, Apirat Kongsompong, belongs to the King’s Guard, a faction nestled instead within the First Infantry Division. The king himself once served in it. General Apirat must retire next year and his most likely successor is also from the King’s Guard.

During the reign of the king’s father, Bhumibol, the relationship between the armed forces and the monarchy was ambiguous. The king’s advisers had a role in the appointment of senior generals, but then again, most of them were former generals themselves. The king never visibly opposed the many coups that took place during his reign, but he did once give a dressing down to a coup leader who had violently suppressed public protests, causing the offending general to resign.

Under King Vajiralongkorn, the ambiguity has diminished. Mr Prayuth has meekly complied with even the most awkward of the king’s demands, agreeing, for instance, to change the text of the new constitution even after Thai voters had signed off on it. The king left the generals squirming by declining to accept the crown for almost two months after his father’s death, in an unexpected show of modesty. “Prayuth’s days are numbered,” predicts Paul Chambers of Naresuan University. And when the inevitable happens and the army next mounts a coup, the king will be in a commanding position.





On stealing the election VIII

12 04 2019

Again, with apologies to the publisher, we need to reproduce, in full, The Economist on stealing the “election”:

HE TURNED TO the crowd outside the police station, lifted his eyes to the heavens and raised three fingers. This salute, a sign of resistance to tyranny in “The Hunger Games”, a dystopian series of novels and films, is the kind of gesture that has made Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of Future Forward, a political party he founded last year, wildly popular with young Thai voters. Inside the station, Mr Thanathorn was charged with sedition, assisting criminals and taking part in an illegal assembly.

The rap sheet relates to a protest in 2015 against the military junta which, in theory, is now on the verge of returning Thailand to civilian rule. The authorities say Mr Thanathorn helped to arrange the protest, which was illegal only under the extremely restrictive rules the junta placed on all political activity. If convicted he could face seven years in prison and a ban from politics. It is his second criminal case. Last year he was charged with computer crimes for critical comments about the junta he made in videos streamed on Facebook. He denies wrongdoing. Future Forward came third in last month’s election; the junta says the charges are “entirely unrelated to current political events”.

Thus continues the generals’ blundering campaign to keep control of the country. Since seizing power in a coup almost five years ago, they have schemed to keep allies of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister ousted in a prior coup, out of power. They pushed through a new constitution which skewed the electoral system and gave them the power to appoint a third of the members of parliament. Intimidating and imprisoning critics like Mr Thanathorn was supposed to help smooth their allies’ path to power.

Since the vote on March 24th, however, things have not been going smoothly for the junta. Although the party set up to back it got more votes than any other, a coalition of seven parties opposed to the generals, including Future Forward, claimed to have won a majority in the lower house of parliament. That is not enough to prevent Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta leader and prime minister, from keeping his job, since he can rely on the votes of the appointed upper house. But it is an embarrassment, and will make it hard for him to govern.

Hence a series of measures intended to undermine the democratic coalition. Even before polling day the Election Commission had helped the junta by excluding a party linked to Mr Thaksin. On the day itself inconsistent vote tallies and unexpected delays did little to inspire confidence. The commission’s latest act of meddling concerns the 150 seats in the lower house that are awarded under an obscure system of proportional representation. It seems, in effect, to be setting a lower threshold for tiny parties to win seats than bigger ones, fracturing parliament and imperilling the democratic front’s majority.

Little is clear, since the commission has not yet announced how it is distributing the seats. It has until May 9th to issue the final results. Those will change further if it disqualifies any winners of the 350 seats awarded to the candidate with the most votes in each constituency. Its rules on campaigning appeared designed to trip up politicians by, among other things, forbidding candidates from mentioning the royal family, severely limiting the use of social media and specifying how big certain placards could be. The commission has announced that it will investigate 66 victorious candidates, without specifying which ones. The junta, meanwhile, is trying to quell criticism of the commission, charging activists who have documented its bias with libel.

The continuing manipulation of the election could drag Thailand into turmoil. Political deadlock might even give the army an excuse to call off the restoration of democracy. Apirat Kongsompong, the army chief (Mr Prayuth surrendered the post a few months after the coup) is non-committal. Earlier this month he told journalists, “Staging a coup isn’t easy. It depends on the situation. Right now, it looks like things are going well.”





The Economist on the election

25 03 2019

The Economist’s early view on the junta’s “election” is worth reading. Because it is sometimes blocked in Thailand, we include it all:

Thailand’s military junta gets its way in a rigged vote
Its supporters do well enough to keep it in power

Mar 24th 2019 | BANGKOK

“WE MUST let good people rule and ensure that bad people have no power to cause trouble and turmoil,” stated King Maha Vajiralongkorn, quoting his late father, on the eve of Thailand’s election on March 24th. Yet turmoil there was. Late on polling day the Election Commission announced without explanation that it would not, after all, release preliminary results from the vote until the day after. It does not have to release final results for 60 days. But unofficial returns suggest the generals who seized power in a coup almost five years ago have stacked the deck enough to retain power.

Around two-thirds of Thailand’s 51m voters turned out to cast ballots, a smaller share than in the previous election eight years ago. The decline will have disappointed those who depicted the poll as a battle to save democracy, including Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister ousted in a prior coup, in 2006. Parties linked to Mr Thaksin have won every election since 2001. But his main vehicle, Pheu Thai, stumbled this time—admittedly on an uneven playing field. With more than nine in ten votes counted, Pheu Thai stood exactly tied, in terms of seats, with Palang Pracharat, a party founded last year to support the military regime, according to figures from Thai PBS, a state broadcaster. Leaders from both sides said they would wait to hear preliminary results from the Election Commission before commenting further.

The Democrat Party, hitherto Pheu Thai’s fiercest rival, performed abysmally, gaining less than half as many seats as it hoped for. Most painfully it lost its prized stronghold of Bangkok. The Democrat leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, another former prime minister, resigned at the results. Future Forward, a new party whose charismatic boss appeals particularly to younger voters, did almost as well as the Democrats. “Older parties are dying away,” reckons Andrew MacGregor Marshall of Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland. “There’s a clearer conflict now between democracy and authoritarianism.”

The generals will be delighted. “We are pleased with the results so far,” declared Uttama Savanayana, the leader of Palang Pracharat and a former minister for the junta. Years of manipulation paved the way for its strong performance. Members of the junta have been touring the country, touting the supposed virtues of their regime, but they did not let other politicians so much as meet with one another, much less campaign, until January. A second pro-Thaksin party was banned. A constitution passed in a stage-managed referendum in 2016 gave the generals the right to appoint the entire upper house of parliament. A new electoral system made life harder for big parties like Pheu Thai. For good measure, the regime has hounded critics, locked up activists and introduced harsh laws policing social media.

The new constitution also says the prime minister does not have to be a member of parliament. That paves the way for Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader, to remain prime minister. To do so he must be chosen by a joint sitting of the two houses of parliament. With the 250 votes of the senate in the bag, he needs only 126 of the 500 members of the lower house to pick him to secure a majority. Palang Pracharat now looks able to deliver those and more.

But to get anything done, the generals need a majority in the lower house, which has the poer to block legislation. The Democrats could join with Palang Pracharat more comfortably now that Mr Abhisit has gone. He declared he would not support Mr Prayuth’s bid to retain power. Other parties without too many hang-ups about democracy and fairness are likely to jump on the bandwagon. The sweeping powers the junta awarded itself in the wake of the coup will endure until a new cabinet is formed. That makes it easy to cajole politicians into their camp. Future Forward and Pheu Thai will remain implacably opposed, however. Whatever the wrangling over the next few weeks, the generals can claim a clumsy victory. But democracy is suffering a lasting defeat.





With a major update: Junta cheating deepens

20 03 2019

As the “election” approaches a frustrated and desperate junta is engaging in pretty much open cheating. It is being aided by its allies including the military.

The military is threatening and repressing political campaigners. Rightist television presenters are showing concocted “recordings” to sabotage anti-junta parties. Palang Pracharath is photoshopping images to make it appear they are holding huge rallies. The military is ordering units out to support Palang Pracharath.

All of this is illegal. Where’s the police, the Election Commission and the courts? In the junta’s pocket.

Clearly, election rigging has become outright cheating for the junta and for The Dictator.

It is a disaster for the Thai people.

Update: Given the blatant electoral cheating by Gen Prayuth and his allies, it seems appropriate to go back to a leader in The Economist from about five days ago and reproduce parts of it here, as a record of the rigging and cheating undertaken over the five years of the junta’s (mis)rule:

… On March 24th Thai voters will elect a new parliament, putting an end to five years of direct military rule…. But the MPs they pick will have nowhere to meet. King Vajiralongkorn has appropriated the old parliament building, which stands on royal property, for some unspecified purpose that, under the country’s harsh lèse-majesté laws, no one dares question. The military junta has yet to finish building a new parliament house.

That the newly chosen representatives of the Thai people will be homeless stands as a symbol for how hollow the election will be, and how contemptuous the generals are of democracy, even as they claim to be restoring it. They have spent the past five years methodically rigging the system to ensure that the will of voters is thwarted, or at least fiercely circumscribed. In particular, they want to foil Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister, now in exile, whose supporters have won every election since 2001. The result will be a travesty of democracy in a country that was once an inspiration for South-East Asia. It is bad news not only for the 69m Thais but also for the entire region.

Since ousting a government loyal to Mr Thaksin in a coup in 2014, the generals have imposed an interim constitution that grants them broad powers to quash “any act which undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or administration of state affairs”. They have carted off critical journalists and awkward politicians to re-education camps. Simply sharing or “liking” commentary that the regime deems subversive has landed hapless netizens in prison. Even the most veiled criticism of the monarchy—posting a BBC profile of the king, say, or making a snide remark about a mythical medieval princess—is considered a crime. And until December, all political gatherings involving more than five people were banned.

The junta’s main weapon, however, is the new constitution, which it pushed through in a referendum in 2016 after banning critics from campaigning against it. Even so, the generals could persuade only a third of eligible voters to endorse the document (barely half of them turned out to cast their ballot). The constitution gives the junta the power to appoint all 250 members of the upper house. And it strengthens the proportional element of the voting system for the lower house, at the expense of Mr Thaksin’s main political vehicle, the Pheu Thai party. It also says the prime minister does not have to be an MP, paving the way for Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta leader who does not belong to any party, to remain in power. And it allows the general to impose a “20-year plan” to which all future governments will have to stick.

The manipulation has continued throughout the campaign. Politicians and parties at odds with the junta have found themselves in trouble with the courts or the Election Commission. Another party loyal to Mr Thaksin, Thai Raksa Chart, was banned outright. The army chief has issued a writ for libel against the head of another party who, after being followed by soldiers wherever he went, complained of the shameful waste of taxpayers’ money. Campaigning on social media is restricted to anodyne posts about the parties’ policies and candidates’ biographies. Politicians fear that minor infringements of such rules will be used as an excuse for further disqualifications.

But all these strictures do not seem to bind Mr Prayuth and his allies. Before political gatherings were allowed again, he paraded around the country addressing huge crowds in sports stadiums. (These were not political gatherings—perish the thought—but “mobile cabinet meetings”.) The Election Commission has ruled that he can campaign for a pro-military party, which has named him as its candidate for prime minister, even though government officials like him are supposed to be neutral in the election.

All this is intended to ensure that Mr Prayuth remains prime minister, despite his inertia and ineptitude. Under him, economic growth has slowed. Household debt has risen. According to Credit Suisse, a bank, Thailand has become the world’s most unequal country. The richest 1% of its people own more than two-thirds of the country’s wealth. Corruption thrives. The deputy prime minister explained away a big collection of luxury watches last year, saying they were on loan from a conveniently deceased friend.

Worse is to come….

Thailand’s civilian politicians have lots of ideas about how to tackle these problems…. It is Mr Prayuth who, despite wielding almost unfettered power, seems lost for inspiration. The junta has promised to revive the economy by improving infrastructure, but few of its plans have come to fruition. The only thing the generals have to show for five years in office is a heavy-handed scheme to retain power….

… Thais deserve much better—starting with a genuine election.





The Economist on the king

4 01 2019

The Economist’s story on Thailand this week will be banned in Thailand. It deserves to be widely read, so we reproduce it in full:

A royal pain

As the army and politicians bicker, Thailand’s king amasses more power
He appoints generals, patriarchs and executives, and disposes of crown property as he pleases

3 Jan 2019

IT HAPPENED IN the dead of night, without warning. In late December security forces showed up with a crane at a crossroads in Bangkok and whisked away the monument that stood there. No one admitted to knowing who had ordered the removal, or why. Police stopped an activist from filming it. The memorial itself, which marked the defeat in 1933 of putschists hoping to turn Thailand back into a royal dictatorship, has vanished. It is the second monument to constitutional monarchy to disappear under the military junta that has run Thailand since 2014: in 2017 a plaque celebrating the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932 was mysteriously replaced with one extolling loyalty to the king.

Making hard men humble

The current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has been on the throne for two years. He has unnerved his 69m subjects from the start. When his father, King Bhumibol, died in 2016, he refused to take the throne for nine weeks—despite having waited for it for decades. The delay was intended as a mark of respect, but it was also a way of signalling to the military junta that runs the country that he was determined to make his own decisions. It was only this week that a date was set for his coronation: May 4th. King Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time abroad, in a sumptuous residence near Munich. He even insisted on tweaking the new constitution, after it had already been approved in a referendum, to make it easier to reign from a distance.

King Bhumibol was on the throne for 70 years. Partly because of his clear devotion to the job, and partly because military regimes inculcated respect for the monarchy as a way of bolstering their own legitimacy, he was widely revered. Official adulation for the monarchy endures, but in private King Vajiralongkorn is widely reviled. His personal life is messy: he has churned through a series of consorts, disowning children and even imprisoning relatives of one jilted partner. He has firm ideas about the decorum he should be shown—the picture above shows the prime minister prostrating himself before him—but little sense of the respect he might owe anyone else: his cosseted poodle, elevated to the rank of Air Chief Marshal, used to jump up onto tables to drink from the glasses of visiting dignitaries. The tedious tasks expected of Thai monarchs, such as cutting ribbons and doling out university degrees, he palms off on his more popular sister.

Writing about such things in Thailand is dangerous. The country’s fierce lèse-majesté law promises between three and 15 years in prison for insulting “the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”. In practice, it has been used to suppress anything that could be construed as damaging to the monarchy, whether true or not, including novels that feature venal princes and academic research that casts doubt on the glorious deeds of the kings of yore.

As his critics are cowed, the king has focused on accumulating personal power. In 2017 the government gave him full control of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), an agency that has managed royal land and investments for decades and whose holdings are thought to be worth more than $40bn. In 2018 the CPB announced that all its assets would henceforth be considered the king’s personal property (he did, however, agree to pay taxes on them). That makes the king the biggest shareholder in Thailand’s third-biggest bank and one of its biggest industrial conglomerates, among other firms.

With the help of the CPB the king is reshaping an area of central Bangkok adjacent to the main royal palace. The bureau declined to renew the lease of the city’s oldest horse-racing track, the Royal Turf Club, leading to its closure in September after 102 years. An 80-year-old zoo next door closed the same month. The fate of two nearby universities that are also royal tenants remains uncertain. The CPB has not revealed the purpose of the upheaval; Thais assume the king just wants an even bigger palace.

King Vajiralongkorn has also put his stamp on the privy council, a body which has a role in naming the heir to the throne, among other things. It once contained individuals who opposed his becoming king at all. Now it is stuffed with loyal military men. The royal court is ruled with “iron discipline”, according to one local businessman. Leaks about the king’s disturbing conduct have dried up. Some former favourites have found themselves in prison. Hangers-on who traded on their royal connections have been shown the door.

The king’s authority over religious orders has also grown. In 2016 the government granted him the power to appoint members of the Sangha Supreme Council—in effect, Thai Buddhism’s governing body—and to choose the next chief monk, known as the Supreme Patriarch. He did so in 2017, elevating a respected monk from the smaller and more conservative of Thailand’s two main Buddhist orders.

The army, too, is receiving a royal makeover. The commander-in-chief appointed in September, Apirat Kongsompong, is the king’s man. Over the next two years he will supervise the relocation of a regiment and a battalion out of Bangkok, ostensibly to relieve crowding. Security in the city will fall instead to the elite Royal Guard Command, which is directly under the king’s control.

Many contend that it is the king who has pushed the army to hold the oft-delayed election that has at last been called for February 24th. This is not to suggest that the king is a democrat (his actions suggest anything but). Rather, the contest is likely to lead to a weak, chaotic government, which probably suits him well. The constitution the army designed makes it hard for elected politicians to achieve a parliamentary majority. But even if the army retains power behind the scenes, it will have surrendered absolute authority. Either pro-army types or democrats would probably seek royal support to govern, strengthening the king’s position however the vote turns out.