Military and monarchy

25 09 2022

For those who haven’t seen it yet, avid military watcher Paul Chambers has a piece on the recent military reshuffle and what it might mean. Our earlier post on this reshuffle included important links.

Chambers reckons: “Decisions regarding reshuffles represent crucial demonstrations of power…”.He adds: “With a general election due no later than May 2023, guaranteeing palace-led political stability in Thailand’s military and police is essential to the interests of the state and of the elites. ”

From Ugly Thailand

On the role of the monarchy, Chambers includes tables that indicate palace links, and observes:

Thailand’s current king has sought to take an active role in military reshuffles, unlike his father and predecessor who opted for a more indirect role. Initiatives in this area on the part of the palace have translated into the king’s direct selection of Wongthewan faction members to serve as Army commanders, as in the cases of General Apirat Kongsompong (2018-2022) and General Narongphan Jitkaewthae (2020-2022). In 2018, King Vajiralongkorn established the Kho Daeng or Red Rim clique, whose members attend special short-term military training under royal sponsorship. Only Red Rim officers can now rise to top Army, Air Force, or Supreme Command postings.

We think Chambers direct/indirect dichotomy is misleading. The dead king certainly intervened, using his chief privy councilor Gen Prem Tinsulanonda as his hands-on military specialist. This is probably what he means by “indirect,” but this is hardly removed from direct influence, as everyone understood that Prem did the king’s work. In any case, Bhumibol was very hand-on when he supported Prem as prime minister, including against two military attempts to be rid of Prem.

Chambers sees the latest reshuffle as showing some changes to influence/power:

The data … indicate that the palace and Burapha Phayak [military faction]—the latter as dominated by [Gen] Prawit [Wongsuwan]—are engaged in a tug-of-war for control over postings at this highest level of authority. The Navy and Air Force commanders are king’s men first and foremost. Incoming Navy chief Admiral Cherngchai Chomcherngpat and Air Force commander Air Chief Marshal Alongkorn Wannarot join their classmate Army chief General Narongphan [Jitkaewtae] in acting as the bulwark of monarchical interests. Admiral Cherngchai’s royalist ties are owed to his being part of a Navy faction connected to former Navy Chief Admiral Luechai Ruddit, brother of Privy Council member General Kampnat Ruddit. For his part, Armed Forces chief General Chalermpol Srisawat must walk a tightrope, as he is close both to the palace and to Burapha Phayak, the military faction to which he belongs. Like Narongphan, Chalermpol is also a member of the king’s Red Rim faction.

The article concludes:

The 2022 military and police reshuffles reflect an attempt on the part of the monarch to enhance palace proactivity in a year that has seen differences between Prawit and Prayut grow…. [T]he palace appears to be backing new potential Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul of the military-allied Bhumjaithai Party…. [T]he king seems to have intervened in military and police reshuffles, ensuring that arch-royalists whom he trusts assume the top leadership positions…. One aspect of Thailand’s military and police reshuffles remains certain. Since 2008 … these reshuffles have remained under the control of the palace and senior security officials…”.

Further updated: Missing royals

19 09 2022

Social media is buzzing about Thailand’s royals. This time, the buzz is about the fact that no Thai royal has shown up for the funeral of Britain’s dead queen.

The Nation reports : “Leaders and royalty from all over the world have gathered in London to mourn Queen Elizabeth while millions will watch on television…”.

Siblings: Vajiralongkorn and Sirindhorn

The Bangkok Post reports that “Britain, world leaders and royalty from across the globe will on Monday bid a final farewell to Queen Elizabeth…”.

That no Thai royal has attended is not mentioned. But social media noticed. After all, representatives had participated in previous royal events in Britain.

Royalists trumpeted that no invitation was issued. This would seem nonsense as the Thai ambassador took part, representing Thailand. Anti-royalists wonder if Vajiralongkorn’s antics ruled him out. But this seems unlikely as he’s participated previously.

So it seems that the Thai royals chose not to attend. Odd indeed.

Update 1: The state funeral for Elizabeth took place on Monday morning at Westminster Abbey, attended by Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and around 500 other foreign dignitaries.

Update 2: It is now confirmed that Vajiralongkorn and his missus were invited:

Monarchies and blood succession

18 09 2022

The Economist’s Banyan reflects on the monarchies of southeast Asia, but mostly about Vajiralongkorn. Unfortunatey, the story is behind a paywall. Here it is in full:

With the death of Queen Elizabeth, the title of longest-serving, still-breathing monarch passes to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei. He has been on the throne for 55 years. Long reigns are not unusual in South-East Asia. It is home to a flush of potentates, from the kings of Cambodia and Thailand to the sultans of Malaysia, Brunei and Yogyakarta, a province of Indonesia. Most have sat on their thrones for decades. All are in their 60s and 70s. Some are whispered to be in ill health.

The issue of hereditary succession looms over their realms. Unlike the British monarchy, which has survived by ceding power to democratic institutions, some kings in South-East Asia have preserved their prerogatives. Some have even amassed power that exceeds that of their forebears. The Thai king is notionally hemmed in by a constitution, but is actually the most powerful person in the country. Indonesia is a republic, but the sultan of Yogyakarta will rule for life, and pass his power to his heir. The sultan of Brunei, an absolute monarch, considers himself to be “the shadow of Allah on earth”, and expects his subjects to agree.

Plenty of South-East Asians are happy with their monarchs. In times of change they provide a link with the past. If you believe they are divinely appointed, as they often claim, they make ideal defenders of religion and national identity. They remind the people of their sanctity through good works. King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who reigned for seven decades (88 days fewer than Queen Elizabeth) until his death in 2016, spent half his time touring the poorest parts of Thailand. He presided over Buddhist ceremonies and dispensed university diplomas, handing out so many that doctors worried he might injure his arm. By tapping his kingdom’s oil wealth, Brunei’s sultan offers goodies such as free education and health care. Some style themselves as champions of democracy. Malaysia’s sultans have recently earned goodwill by chiding the country’s corrupt, self-serving politicians.

Yet discontent often simmers at moments of transition. The mood in Thailand was sour in 2016, when King Maha Vajiralongkorn took the throne. His father, King Bhumibol, was, whisper it, no angel. (He would often throw his weight behind the army as it launched yet another coup.) But the public did revere him as the embodiment of a good Buddhist. His son spends much of his time in Germany, cycling through the forests of Bavaria in skimpy shorts, accompanied by members of his harem. He rules by fear, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai dissident, and is trying to claw back the absolute power enjoyed by his ancestors.

King Vajiralongkorn uses the courts to hound his critics. Hundreds of people have been charged with insulting the Thai royal family in recent years. The late Sultan Mahmood Iskandar of Johor, a Malaysian state, had a violent streak. In the 1970s, as crown prince, he was twice charged with manslaughter (and pardoned by his father both times). He was just as bad as sultan. In 1987 he allegedly clubbed a caddie to death for laughing at him when he missed a putt.

Heredity is not an infallible way of picking a good ruler. Some monarchies have found ways to avoid crowning the worst candidates. Malaysian sultanates are not bound by primogeniture and so can select the best son for the job. There are usually a reasonable number of sons to choose from, since sultans typically have multiple wives. (Daughters are not yet eligible.) When the ex-wife of the apparent heir to the sultanate of Kelantan alleged that the heir had kept her as a sex slave, the sultan anointed a different son (the prince denied the charge, sued his ex-wife and won). In Cambodia, a council of politicians elects a king for life, plucking a favoured man from one of two royal households.

Finding good heirs is essential if monarchies are to endure. The consequences of rotten royal behaviour can be deleterious. In the 1990s Sultan Iskandar’s misadventures prompted the Malaysian government to revoke sultans’ immunity from prosecution and remove their veto over legislation.

Thailand’s monarchy faces similar risks. The king is protected by his supporters in the army and the courts, but public anger is building. Tens of thousands of young Thais took to the streets in 2020 to demand royal reform. Their movement was crushed, but the taboo against lèse-majesté was broken. If King Vajiralongkorn and his peers want to keep hold of the reins of power, they would do well to soften their grip.

Who controls the armed forces

13 09 2022

It has been widely rumored that the king has taken a particular interest in military affairs. The Bangkok Post provides a hint that he may well now be in charge. The report is by longtime military watcher and favorite Wassana Nanuam. It begins:

The result of the latest annual military reshuffle shows that the power of the “three brothers in arms” has diminished as they had little say in key army appointments, according to a source….

A royal command appointing 765 officers in the annual reshuffle was published in the Royal Gazette yesterday. Of them, 300 are new major generals, 17 of whom are women. The appointments will take effect from Oct 1.

Three army generals in 2019. Clipped from the Bangkok Post

So if the top three, the coup makers, the suppressors of anti-monarchy dissent, and royalists are not influential, who is? Wassana’s source “said army chief Gen Narongphan Jitkaewthae had more authority in the appointment of personnel to key army positions…”. The report states:

The promotion of Maj Gen Phana Klaewplodthuk, 1st Army deputy commander, to commander is a case in point.

The 1st Army is known to be a key unit, controlling troops in 26 provinces in the Central Plains Region, East and West, with its HQ in Bangkok.

The promotion of Maj Gen Phana is unexpected, given that Lt Gen Tharapong Malakham, the army’s 1st Corps commander, was most favoured for the job, but shunted to the post of an army special adviser, the source said.

Lt Gen Tharapong came from the Burapha Phayak (Tigers of the East) group — a nickname given to a military clique attached to the 2nd Infantry Division, the Queen’s Guard. Gen Prayut, Gen Prawit and Gen Anupong are members of this clique.

Despite this, Lt Gen Tharapong was still passed over for a promotion, showing the power of the trio has diminished, the source said.

Now the interesting bit:

The 1st Army commander must concurrently serve as the chief of staff at a special task force under Royal Guard 904, of which army chief Gen Narongphan is commander.

Before his promotion, Maj Gen Phana finished special training to become a royal guard last month.

Moreover, he and the army chief once served in the 31st Infantry Regiment, the King’s Guard, in Lop Buri.

We are guessing that the top decision maker is now the king. That is not good, even if the army top brass, past and present are thugs.

Rich royals

11 09 2022

The world’s remaining monarchies are mostly very wealthy.

We all know that King Vajiralongkorn is fabulously wealthy and that his reign has been marked by his moves to make that fortune undeniably his own. Under the dead king, the palace and the state preferred to fudge the issue of royal wealth.

It is interesting to see a Financial Times article that assesses the fortune and management of the dead British queen’s wealth. That article also refers to the new king there facing some of the management issues that motivated Thailand’s new king.

This is not to say that the wealth of the British monarch is in any way as personalized as Vajiralongkorn has made his fortune. And, Vajiralongkorn seems uninterested in the demands of constitutional monarchy:

Elizabeth II was one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, with property holdings ranging from central London prime real estate to farmland across the country, but her ability to profit from, let alone sell, many of the assets over which she presided was limited….

The Queen’s managerial style was unavoidably guided by the specific demands of constitutional monarchy and shaped by a gradualist approach to change that ruled out radical innovation.

King’s influence on parliament

8 09 2022

Prachatai has a very good article on the use of the “veto” on legislation that the king can use, for any legislation he doesn’t like. It is comprehensive, so not much for PPT to add.

The story seems innocuous: a “joint session of parliament has withdrawn its previous approval of a draft amendment of a law on royal decorations after the King vetoed it by not giving his signature within 90 days…”. It is well known that the king likes to control all things royal, so for some reason, this bill did not satisfy him.

In fact, for the parliament, the amendment was cut-and-dried: “The bill was approved by the lower house on 22 December 2021 and passed by the upper house on 17 January 2022. The three readings in both houses were done in one day, signifying a smooth legislative process.”

The fact that the king has now dumped the amendment is unusual, for the regime has usually given the king all that he wants, going so far as to hold secret legislative sessions to amend the 2017 draft constitution to satisfy the king’s whims and desires. So maybe the erratic king was just changing his mind? Who knows. No reason is provided.

But here’s the interesting bit for us:

According to Section 146 of the 2017 Constitution, a bill without the King’s signature can still be enacted if two-thirds of both houses insisted on passing the law.

In the Tuesday session, however, the vote turned out otherwise as 431 MPs decided to drop the bill, 28 MPs abstained, and one MP voted for approval (he later said he pushed the wrong button).

In other words, despite the parliament doing its job, no member was prepared to swim against the king tide. A parliament like this is a king’s house. The royalists would be right to ask: What’s the point of elections?

Royalists courts play royalist politics II

2 09 2022

Arnon Nampa, facing up to a dozen lese majeste charges, and himself a lawyer with long experience of defending political prisoners, has asked the Judicial Commission, an in-house board meant to keep the judiciary in order, and the Chief Justice of the Criminal Court “to investigate Attakarn Foocharoen, Deputy Chief Justice of the Criminal Court, whom he accuses of meddling in his [lese majeste and computer crimes] court case without having any authority to do so.”

The case goes back to a protest on 8 November 2020 calling for monarchy reform. Anon received a letter on 4 August 2022,” calling an additional [previously unscheduled] hearing, and stating that the witnesses examined in the previous hearing were not related to the event at issue.” That letter was “signed by Attakarn and dated 21 July.” Attakarn is not a member of the committee considering the case, and “[b]y law, it is the responsibility of the judge who oversees the case to plan the trial process and approve what witnesses shall be heard.”

Arnon reckons “Attakarn’s intervention would infringe the judge’s independence.”

Legal niceties and the law itself seldom impinge on lese majeste cases.

Arnon (L). Clipped from The Nation

Arnon “insisted that the trial must be free from interference by Court administrators.” It was revealed that Attakarn had used his position to intervene in “many other political cases…”.

The justice system, always worrisome for its corruption, has been blatantly politicized and instrumentalized since the dead king’s intervention in 2006. The judges now at the top of the judiciary have been eager to serve king and regime.

More royal loot

27 08 2022

Siam Bioscience, owned by King Vajiralongkorn, reportedly received at least 600 million baht from the military-monarchy regime to subside its development of production capacity for an AstraZeneca contract to manufacture COVID-19 vaccine.

It has now reported a profit of 1.69 billion baht.

Readers will recall that this manufacture of vaccines would be “under a ‘no profit, no loss’ policy, meaning it would sell the vaccines at cost.”

Clipped from The Rand Blog

This profit is a “near 50-fold increase in annual profit…”. Founded in 2009 by the dead king’s Crown Property Bureau, and now owned by Vajrialongkorn, Siam Bioscience “had since been loss-making and reported its first profit only in 2020 of 35.7 million baht ($995,000).”

Reuters reports that “[p]rofit soared a whopping 4,650% to 1.69 billion baht and revenues increased by 1,500% to a record 4.9 billion baht, aided by its contract to manufacture 200 million doses of the Anglo-Swedish firm’s COVID-19 vaccine.”

As far as PPT can discern, it is still not known how much vaccine the company has actually made or their distribution.

Of course, as the report makes clear, the regime’s “deal came under fire from a prominent Thai opposition politician [Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit] who questioned why the contract went to a company that was owned by the king and had never made vaccines before.” He now faces a lese majeste charge.

Watching absolutism

25 08 2022

A Blog Post by Joshua Kurlantzick at the Council on Foreign Relations, “Debate about the Monarchy Continues to Roil Thailand,” is actually a link to an interview with him at 112 Watch.

Readers get the tenor of the interview in the first response to a question on King Vajiralongkorn:

This king clearly has taken Thailand farther from being a constitutional monarchy, which it never truly was under Rama IX…. Instead, King Vajiralongkorn, with the support of some of his advisors and some arch-royalists, has moved the monarchy back in the direction of the absolute monarchy that existed before the revolution of 1932. His moves to directly intervene in an election, to take personal control of assets under the Crown Property Bureau, worth probably at least US$30 billion if not more [PPT: in fact, a lot more]…, to demand changes to the constitution and also full prostration, all suggest a slide toward absolute monarchy.

There’s some gobbledygook about the dead king, then the assessment of Vajiralongkorn continues:

I do not think Rama X can take Thailand all the way back to absolute monarchy, but he has moved the royal institution in that direction. Lacking such popular support, though, it is hard to tell whether Rama X, despite all the power he has amassed, might actually undermine the monarchy in the long-term….

Kurlantzick seems oddly enamored of the dead king. For example, when he says “There had been an undercurrent of anger at the monarchy since the transition…”, we assume he means succession, but he’s wrong, ignoring a longer period of anger about the monarchy that had its most recent incarnation from 2006, when the palace’s role in the military coup was clear.

Military-monarchy alliance

21 08 2022

Two articles worth reading:

NikkeiAsia: “Thailand king’s elite ‘Red Rim’ officers enter the spotlight.” The story begins by noting the King’s control and influence over the upper ranks of the military:

Clipped from Khaosod

As Thailand’s military officers await their fate in annual promotions, the fortunes of the elite “Red Rim” corps within the armed forces, the country’s most powerful political institution, appear secure.

Military insiders expect prominent officers among this new corps, a 2017 innovation by King … Vajiralongkorn, will have influential slots in the top-heavy military, which has an estimated 1,750 generals, admirals and air marshals commanding 335,000 active military personnel. The U.S. military, by contrast, has just over 880 flag officers.

The Diplomat: “How Lese Majeste Laws Are Eroding Free Speech in Southeast Asia.” That story begins:

Across Southeast Asia, increasingly authoritarian governments are systematically corroding freedom of expression as their tolerance for dissent and criticism deteriorates. States continue to harass, sue, and imprison activists and human rights defenders at alarming rates, as documented by ARTICLE 19’s Global Expression Report 2022. Repressive governments in the region are weaponizing a range of laws to silence criticism and preserve their corrupt regimes. Of these, archaic lese majeste laws are arguably the most problematic of them all.


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