Business and The Dictator

22 09 2018

PPT has said some things about academics, who should know better, having international conferences in Thailand.

Business, of course, is different. For all the talk of stuff like “sustainability,” “corporate social responsibility” and “human rights,” most business people really couldn’t give a fig and just look to the bottom line.

Dealing with dictators is not difficult for them, so long as a profit can be turned. Naturally enough, in Thailand, domestic business has been supportive of individual generals, coups and military juntas over the decades, and support for the current regime has been enthusiastic, not least from those who funded the PAD and then the PDRC.

Even so, The Dictator must be ecstatic to see the Forbes announcement that, and we use its words: “His Excellency General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister of Thailand, and some 40 prominent global business leaders and entrepreneurs are confirmed to speak at the 18th annual Forbes Global CEO Conference, which will take place in Bangkok from October 30-31, 2018.”

The general “deliver a keynote address in front of an audience of global business luminaries and thought leaders” about:

the theme of ‘The World Reboots’, this year’s conference will focus on how CEOs, companies and countries are confronting challenges and seizing opportunities arising from accelerating disruption. Some liken this era to the fourth global revolution, after mechanization, mass production and digitalization. The world in 4.0 mode will affect how companies are built and led, where money is made or lost, the role of governments, and how all of us live, work and play.

That a dullard like Prayuth even consider such a topic is testing the limits of credulity, but we guess someone else will write the stuff he says.

But then again, the list of “luminaries” is hardly stellar. It includes many of the junta-loving Thai elite:

Today, Forbes announced new speakers including, Chartsiri Sophonpanich, President of Bangkok Bank; Suthiphand Chirathivat, Executive Director, ASEAN Studies Center, Chulalongkorn University and Executive Director, Central Group; William E. Heinecke, Chairman and Group CEO of Minor International; Ho Kwon Ping, Executive Chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings; Peter Moore, Chief Executive Officer of Liverpool FC; JP Gan, Managing Partner at Qiming Venture Partners; Harald Link, Chairman of B. Grimm; Goh Choon Phong, Chief Executive Officer of Singapore Airlines; Carrie Jones-Barber, Chief Executive Officer of Dawn Foods; Tan Min-Liang, Chairman and CEO of Razer; Peter Sands, Executive Director at The Global Fund; Shobana Kamineni, Executive Vice Chairperson of Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Ltd; Gary White, Chief Executive Officer of Water.org and WaterEquity; Jim Walker, Chief Economist at Asianomics Group and Parag Khanna, Managing Partner at FutureMap.

So perhaps the idea is that the Chirathivats, Heineckes, Links, Sophanpanichs are just getting their business buddies along and are paying for The Dictator’s propaganda and helping him with his election campaigning:





Corrected: The tycoons and the junta

3 06 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Two years of military dictatorship

22 05 2016

There has been quite a torrent of articles assessing the two years that have passed since the illegal seizure of power by the military junta that continues to rule Thailand. So much so, that PPT doesn’t feel the need to add to the tragic and dark story. Rather, we’ll link to a number of the recent stories that have appeared.

The Bangkok Post has had a series of lengthy articles assessing the junta and the past two years. One of them is about the treatment of political dissidents, where the Post refers to “hundreds” of arrests and cases “that reflect the …[junta’s] efforts to suppress freedom of expression.” There’s plenty more that readers can track back through recent issues.

Khaosod has an assessment of what it says were eight promises made by The Dictator when he “unveiled his policy objectives to his rubber stamp parliament shortly after it named him prime minister, his speech took nearly two hours.” It’s a mixed bag, but we regret that elections are not mentioned. That’s a big promise that was in a supposed “road map” that gets altered as often as the junta feels necessary. A second Khaosod article, this one by Pravit Rojanaphruk, advises that no one should believe the junta.

The Asia Foundation has found its voice. Back in 2006, it was supportive of the coup. This time it seems to take a different view. Here’s a snippet from the conclusion:

While speculation points to a variety of plausible scenarios, the deepest worry is that little will change whatever the referendum result. If the constitution passes, the NCPO may be in no rush to enact the extensive body of election and other “organic laws” that must be in place before an election is held. Alternative scenarios include public rejection of the charter, setting the country on an uncharted course of continued military rule, or cancellation of the referendum by the NCPO if the military leaders sense growing public unrest in the lead-up to August 7. Sadly, none of these prospective outcomes ensures Thailand’s release from the stubborn grip of authoritarianism and guided democracy – a prospect that seemingly weighs in a climate of creeping malaise and dwindling hope that observers sense among Thais across all strata of society – a mood that some observers suggest may portend unrest.

Global Risk Insights is a publication that looks at political risk news and analysis. It has turned its eye to Thailand and lists three near term risks: Yingluck Shinawatra’s show trial, the death of the king and succession and the referendum on the military’s charter.

The Southeast Asia Globe talks to some academics who are often also commentators. No one could really argue with the final statement from one of them: “Thailand is going backwards.” In a similar vein, Australia’s New Matilda looks at Thailand and Cambodia, apparently in lock-step on the authoritarian road.

AP has a useful account of “Why Junta Rules Thailand, With No End in Sight.” It observes that the “coup really was traditional ruling elite’s latest and most decisive intervention in what is now a decadelong war for political power with billionaire telecommunications tycoon-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra.” It concludes: “Thailand’s ruling generals have made clear they are not planning to yield control anytime soon. Initial plans to hold an election in 2015 were deferred until 2016, and are now deferred again until 2017.” And, as we know, this deferral may be extended even further.

AP has another story where they get opinions from various persons seems as somehow representative of particular interests. The one we found most revealing was from palace-connected coup supporter and wealthy businessman William Heinecke. It reflects that fact that most royalists and pretty much all of big business remain firmly behind the junta:

There certainly has been change. Bangkok if we remember correctly was almost at a standstill. No one could vote, an election couldn’t take place, traffic was blocked, protests were ongoing. So we’ve seen a return to stability. And that’s always good for business…. When you see instability on the streets, and in the mass media worldwide, it affects our business in every possible way. There’s a lack of confidence, there’s a lack of tourists, the economy was being strangled.

I think we’ve seen a return to normalized business. I think there has been significant improvement. To me, I know of no one that’s concerned about the protection of their rights — in terms of living peacefully, going about their business. Yes, if you say, ‘Do I have the right to rally in the streets?’ you may not, but to me that’s less critical than it is to make sure we can all continue with business and to make sure we can provide education for our kids…. Is it perfect? I’m sure it’s not. Is it better than it was? I think it is.

In contrast to this exceptionally wealthy capitalist and anti-democrat, Prachatai has a series of interviews with others who were outspoken in the anti-democrat movement of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee. Environmentalist Prasitchai Noonual joined the PDRC and opposed projects that “favoured investors but would be harmful to the local environment.” Back then on the PDRC stage he declared:  “Today, we are carrying out a significant mission to uproot the Thaksin regime…”. Now he says “he has realized that he was wrong, since the junta has favoured foreign investors to an even greater extent … allowing investors to build anywhere and ignore the surrounding communities.” Recognizing that he was a political ninny, he says: “the junta is much worse [than Thaksin-dominated governments] because people were able to stop some government projects during Thaksin’s time, but never under the junta.” Supat Hasuwannakit is a medical doctor and activist who worked with the PDRC. He says:

Two years later … people are now fed up with the junta but they don’t dare to express their anger due to the intensive suppression of free speech. This anger, however, will manifest itself in the August referendum, meaning that people show their approval or disapproval of the junta through the ballot box.  …[P]ublic assembly is how the people bargain with the state, but that is hardly possible under the junta…. Let’s hold an election now. We’re sick of the junta. At least under an elected government, we can criticize, express ideas, and negotiate. Doing such things is very difficult under the junta…. This is a big lesson for all Thai people, that we might despair of representative democracy but a coup d’état is absolutely not an option in any way.

From this, we presume Supat must never have read a book about military authoritarianism or studied the role of the military in Thailand. That’s also true of student anti-democrat Thatchapong Kaedam who seems to remain a ninny:

After observing the junta administration for two years, Thatchapong told Prachatai that he was disappointed because it has failed to deliver what it promised to the public – that it would reform the country before an election. According the draft charter, it is obvious that reform will happen after the election. Moreover, the reforms will be carried out by an unelected government and junta-appointed political bodies, not by the people or civil society.

“Back then, I always believed that a coup d’état would never happen again in this country. One had just happened in 2006 so I thought the military would not do it again. But of course, I was disappointed…”. Thatchapong added that the junta’s intimidation of ordinary people will heat up political conflict. It is, however, not a conflict between the red shirts and the yellow shirts, but rather between the people and the dictatorial regime.

Boonyuen Siritham is a former senator and appeared on the PDRC stage. Her networks have suffered under the junta, so she has an altered view: “We use to call the former PM ‘the dumb girl’ but I’m not sure whether we now have a dumber PM or not, since our lives have more suffering than during the dumb girl’s government…”. We can’t help but observe that many “activists” simply personalize politics. Big pictures and grand ideas seem to rank lower in politics for them.

In all of this it is noticeable that it is Channel NewsAsia that reminds its readers that this military junta has blood on its hands. The report is of the failure of justice for the victims of the 2010 crackdown on red shirt protesters and reminds us that the “military’s leaders also stated they would bring about reconciliation while in power.” We doubt any red shirts ever believed this. Indeed, the junta has gone out of its way to deepen the political divide by targeting red shirts and the Puea Thai Party.

And, we should not forget the academic “media.” As we noted a couple of weeks ago, the Journal of Contemporary Asia has a special issue on Thailand’s authoritarian turn. Two of the articles are for free download.





On being in the network

9 07 2014

Some years ago, academic Duncan McCargo came up with the descriptive notion of a “network monarchy.” By this he meant a “form of governance operating in Thailand” that considered the “political order is characterized by network-based politics. From 1973 to 2001, Thailand’s leading political network was that of the reigning monarch, King Bhumibol.” He adds that this approach means the:

monarch will be presented as the central component of a rather novel mode of governance, best understood in terms of political networks. Thailand’s ‘network monarchy’ is centred on Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanond. Network monarchy is a form of semi-monarchical rule: the Thai King and his allies have forged a modern form of monarchy as a para-political institution.

 McCargo says the:

main features of Thailand’s network monarchy from 1980 to 2001 were as follows: the monarch was the ultimate arbiter of political decisions in times of crisis; the  monarchy was the primary source of national legitimacy; the King acted as a didactic commentator on national issues, helping to set the national agenda, especially through his annual birthday speeches; the monarch intervened actively in political developments, largely by working through proxies such as privy councillors and trusted military figures; and the lead proxy, former army commander and prime minister Prem Tinsulanond, helped determine the nature of coalition governments, and monitored the process of military and other promotions. At heart, network governance of this kind relied on placing the right people (mainly, the right men) in the right jobs.

Academic Serhat Ünaldi took a slightly different tack, talking of “working towards the monarchy” which he says,

refers to actions by individuals or groups who aim at expanding and/or protecting the sacred charisma of the monarchy. In turn, the monarchy’s sacred charisma serves as the most potent source of symbolic capital in Thailand. It legitimises the accumulation of other forms of capital, most notably economic capital, for the benefit of the person or group performing the actions.

So how does the network who deal on the monarchy work? Almost no one, apart from insiders knows, but a small window has just been opened. Bloomberg has a great story by former Sondhi Limthongkul employee William Mellor that sheds some light on the network and the benefits it provides. I t concerns William Heinecke, a billionaire American-turned-Thai businessman who is said to have spent a “lifetime betting on turbulent Thailand” and doing very nicely.William Heinecke

But has it been a bet? Or were there significant supports in place that allowed him to “work towards the monarchy” or even allowed him entry to the fabled network? The very first line in the article sets a reader thinking that this man has the protection he needs, for in his penthouse with “spa, a wine cellar, a marble staircase” he also has “memorabilia that includes a costume worn by Yul Brynner in the Broadway musical The King and I.” The King and I is banned in Thailand. Think of the woman being threatened with lese majeste because she used “long live” the wrong way! Bill’s either got big balls or plenty of support and protection.

It is the latter, for he has repeatedly spoken out in support of royalist Thailand and did so again following the coup. He says the coup and military dictatorship is “like a rebooting of the system,” which is the anti-democrat line from 2006 and 2014. He adds: “The government had come to a standstill. There would have been continued political conflict if the military hadn’t stepped in. Democracy will eventually be returned to the people, as has always happened in the past.” But what kind of “democracy.” As a wealthy businessman, working towards the network, he wants a democracy that preserves his political and economic power and that of the network.

Yes, he’s protecting his business interests which are all services and rely heavily on tourism and consumption, but he’s speaking for and to the network.

Heinecke “surrendered his U.S. passport for Thai citizenship in 1991” and created “a multinational hotel, restaurant and retail empire that has survived five previous military takeovers, the 1997-to-1998 Asian financial crisis, a deadly 2004 tsunami that swept away one of his resorts and bruising corporate skirmishes with foes as powerful as Goldman Sachs Group Inc.”

How did he get started? Here’s the key:

Perhaps no foreign-born investor has made a bigger personal bet on Thailand than Heinecke. As a U.S. diplomat’s son studying at the International School Bangkok in 1967, he resisted parental pressure to return home to enroll at Washington’s Georgetown University.

Instead, at age 17, he borrowed $1,200 and set up an office-cleaning company. By the time he became a Thai citizen, Heinecke had forged business ties with the royal family’s asset managers by leasing crown land on which he built hotels.

“Bill struck me as a go-getter but also as an honest person,” says Usni Pramoj, who heads the office that manages the king’s private property and who signed the first such deal in 1976.

“It was the start of a long and trusting relationship,” Heinecke wrote….

The Crown Property Bureau claims to have supported a 27-year-old American get started. They must have seen remarkable potential. He’s paid them back in bucket loads, and not just with political capital. The story points out:

Since bottoming during the Asian financial crisis in January 1998, Minor stock has soared 50-fold — more than 10 times the return of the SET Index, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. This year as of July 8, it has risen 49 percent compared with a 16 percent gain in the benchmark gauge.

A prime beneficiary of Minor’s surge is Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who owns 2 percent of the company in his own name. Another 4 percent is held by other royal family members and the Crown Property Bureau, the monarchy’s money manager — putting the value of the royal holdings at $227 million.

Remarkably, the story states that a man who “speaks barely 100 words of their language,” managed to pass the Thai-language test to get residence and citizenship. Or maybe he just had a powerful reference. He’s certainly trusted by the CPB:

Just how trusting became clear in 1999, when another of the monarchy’s money managers, the Crown Property Bureau, helped Heinecke thwart Goldman Sachs’s $46 million hostile takeover of Rajadamri Hotel Pcl, owner of the Bangkok property then known as the Regent and since renamed the Four Seasons.

The hotel stands on land owned by the royal family, and Heinecke, who controlled 25 percent of Rajadamri’s shares, rallied the property bureau and other stockholders to his side. Goldman finally ended up with only a 41 percent stake and, in 2003, sold out to Heinecke for $19 million.

“Goldman’s offer was higher than Bill’s, but Bill’s PR machine was better,” Thadani says. “He persuaded other shareholders the hotel was a sacred Thai asset that mustn’t fall into foreign hands.” Edward Naylor, Goldman’s Hong Kong–based spokesman, declined to comment.

Being inside the magic circle in Thailand, be it network or something else, can be very lucrative and rewarding, for both sides.