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(Reuters) – Anti-government demonstrators in Thailand said they will step up their protests in an attempt to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office and push through electoral reforms before a general election is held.

The number of protesters camped on the street in the capital has dwindled to about 2,000 over the past week but their leader, former deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban, called for marches in central Bangkok on Thursday and Friday, followed by a big rally on Sunday.

“We will chase Yingluck out this Sunday after she made it clear she will not step down as caretaker prime minister,” he said late on Tuesday.

Suthep massed 160,000 protesters around Yingluck’s office on December 9, when she called a snap election for February 2 to try to defuse the crisis. Yingluck remains caretaker prime minister.

Suthep has sought the backing of the influential military but has so far been rebuffed. Thailand’s military – a frequent actor in Thai politics – ousted Yingluck’s brother, the self-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, when he was premier in 2006.

“We will walk until the number of people who come out to join us outnumber those who elected Yingluck. We will march until the military and civil servants finally join us,” Suthep told reporters.

This month, a court issued an arrest warrant for Suthep on the charge of insurrection but police have done nothing to apprehend him, despite his appearance at a seminar with the military and other public events.

On Wednesday, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), Thailand’s equivalent of the U.S. FBI, said it would ask banks to freeze the accounts of 18 rally leaders, including Suthep, to investigate what it called “suspicious activity” – a sign the authorities might be taking a tougher stance.

“We will investigate whether they are funding the protest or if any suspicious transactions have taken place,” DSI chief Tarit Pengdith told reporters.

Thailand’s eight-year political conflict centers on Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon popular among the rural poor because of cheap healthcare and other policies brought in while he was in power.

Yingluck won a landslide victory in 2011 and her Puea Thai Party is well placed to win again because of Thaksin’s strong support in the populous, rural north and northeast.

Ranged against him are a royalist establishment, that feels threatened by Thaksin’s rise, and, in the past at least, the army. Some academics see him as a corrupt rights abuser, while the middle class resent what they see as their taxes being spent on wasteful populist policies that amount to vote-buying.

Thaksin chose to live in exile after fleeing in 2008 just before being sentenced to jail for abuse of power in a trial that he says was politically motivated.


Even if the election takes place on February 2, its legitimacy could be undermined if the main opposition Democrat Party does not take part.

At a two-day conference that ended on Tuesday, the party reappointed former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva as its leader. However, its members could not agree whether to run in the election or back the street protesters.

Democrat lawmakers resigned from parliament this month to march with Suthep, who was a deputy prime minister in Abhisit’s government until 2011.

Some agree with his call for reforms to be implemented before another election is held, but others believe their party, Thailand’s oldest, should respect the democratic process and run for office. A decision is expected on Saturday.

Suthep’s program remains vague and it is unclear how long it would take his proposed “people’s council” to implement any reforms.

He wants to wipe out vote-buying and electoral fraud and has also promised “forceful laws to eradicate corruption”, decentralization, the end of “superficial populist policies that enable corruption”, and the reform of “certain state agencies such as the police force”.

Suthep’s protest gained impetus in early November after Yingluck’s government tried to push through a political amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home a free man.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel)

In Thailand, A Rare Peek At His Majesty’s Balance Sheet

Posted by Rattana_S On December - 17 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

(Forbes) Thailand’s King Bhumibol, who turned 84 last December, is the world’s longest serving ruler. He is also the richest – by a comfortable margin. Last year Forbes estimated his net wealth in excess of $30 billion, beating oil-rich Brunei’s Sultan Bolkiah into second place. A gaggle of Gulf potentates and European royals round out our list. Bhumibol’s top ranking is controversial in Thailand, to say the least. Republicans grumble that the monarchy is wasteful and inefficient. Others are horrified that foreigners have the gall to turn a lens on their deified ruler. Royal courtiers insist that Forbes has it all wrong, that the billions on the balance sheet belong to the crown, not the man. They also contest the property valuations on which much of our estimate is based. Yes, they say, the monarchy is sitting on prime tracts of land in Bangkok and central Thailand. But it leases land and rent properties at subsidized rents that no commercial agency would tolerate. So the king isn’t loaded, just landed (and a value investor, as we’ll see).

A new, semi-official biography, entitled ‘King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work’, provides a peek into the royal money machine. A chapter in the book zeroes in on the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), which manages the crown’s property and investments. It confirms the vast land holdings that Forbes used as the basis of its estimate (drawing on a 2005 Thai academic study). In central Bangkok, the king owns 3,320 acres; town and country holdings stretch to 13,200. However, the book sticks to the CPB’s line that the combined value is less than a third of our estimate for the Bangkok land (which is much simpler to assess). “The value of the crown property is considerable, but putting an exact figure on it is difficult,” it concludes.

Moreover, only 7% of the royal land is leased on a fully commercial basis, with annual rents equivalent to as much as 4% of market value. Some downtown sites are occupied by government ministries and agencies, others by slum housing, markets and shophouses. In 2010, aggregate income from property came to 2.5 billion baht ($80 million at current rates). One prime site is CentralWorld, a shopping mall that was partly torched in 2010 red-shirt riots. Another is the nearby Four Seasons hotel. In total, the CPB says it has 40,000 rental contracts, of which 17,000 are in Bangkok.

Much easier to measure are the crown’s corporate jewels. The CPB holds a 23% stake in Siam Commercial Bank, one of Thailand’s largest with a market cap of $13 billion. It also owns 32% of Siam Cement Group, a $12.6 billion industrial conglomerate. Add those together and you have stock worth $7 billion. In 2010, these companies paid $184 million in dividends to the bureau. In fact, according to the book’s authors, the CPB’s total revenues have averaged 9-11 billion baht a year since 2008. So even when times were hard (Thailand’s economy stalled in 2009), the crown collected a cool $290 million. The book doesn’t mention that the CPB also has a majority holding in German hotel group Kempinski AG. Another unit is Bangkok-based Deves Insurance. In 2008, this and other holdings were valued at $600 million. Even without these unlisted assets, the CPB is the largest corporate group in Thailand.

By comparison, Thailand’s richest entrepreneur, Dhanin Chearavanont, founder of food powerhouse CP Group, is worth $7.4 billion. Bhumibol’s fortune is much larger. That’s why Forbes ranks him as the world’s richest monarch. Yet Bhumibol’s biographers are at pains to point out that the CPB isn’t his personal piggybank (a separate agency handles the royal family’s private assets) and so it’s incorrect to label him as ultra-rich. The assets belong to the crown, not the individual. For now, the fortune is in Bhumibol’s hands. His anointed successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, will inherit the keys to the safe. In other words, it’s a family enterprise in which the assets are gifted to the next generation.

So what exactly is the CPB? Ah, therein lies a mystery, as the book explains. “It is not part of the palace administration, nor is it a government agency, nor is it a private firm. It is a unique institution.” Got that? Crucially, the bureau pays no business tax, and nor does Thailand have a land tax. Its tax-exempt status is enshrined in law. Yet it’s not a charity or a public agency (or a sovereign wealth fund). It’s not obliged to issue an annual report. It answers only to the king, whose investment strategy isn’t up for public debate. Actually, there’s a lot about the monarchy that isn’t up for debate in Thailand, which is why dozens of people are either in prison or awaiting trial for royal defamation. In this vacuum, Bhumibol’s personality cult has assumed titanic, often absurd, proportions.

One justification for the CPB’s privileged status is that its annual, tax-free income defers the cost of maintaining the monarchy. “Core expenses are covered by the revenue of 9-11 billion baht from the portfolio of assets managed by the Crown Property Bureau,” the book claims. Yet taxpayers are still on the hook for their share of palace expenses. In the 2011 budget, the Bureau of the Royal Household received $84 million. Another department got $15 million. The book notes that once security costs are factored in, the government spends around $194 million a year on the royal family and its courtiers. This is in addition to the CPB’s income (minus its costs). This implies that in an average year, the Thai crown burns through half a billion dollars.

Compare this, if you will, to the profit and loss account of European heads of state. Spain’s constitutional monarchy costs the country $12 million a year; Britain’s much larger royal family gets nearly $50 million, but remits most of its crown property income to the treasury. Last year, it made $358 million from its holdings. British taxpayers can also find out easily where their money is spent (property upkeep, administration, overseas trips, etc). Thailand is another matter entirely, as the king’s biographers note. “The CPB has begun edging towards greater transparency but there remains some way to travel.”

(Time) The Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts are agreeing on something for once — and that is, that neither side wants to forgive the other

Thousands crowded onto the streets of Bangkok on Thursday to protest the passing of an amnesty bill that wipes away all charges relating to political violence since 2004.

Fervent demonstrators in V for Vendetta masks and sweat-drenched tees braved the muggy heat along with old ladies clutching hand fans. “There’s nothing to lose,” says Jintana, a 59-year-old employee of an export firm, who was in a crowd jammed into a long, narrow field by the city’s Samsen railway station. “We will be suppressed anyhow, so we fight until the last breath.”

Yellow Shirt sympathizers like Jintana are opposed to the legislation because it would quash the corruption conviction of exiled former Thai Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra — a divisive figure, whose ousting in a military coup in 2006 sparked years of street rallies, mass sieges and sporadic bloodletting. “We hate corrupt government and we hate Thaksin Shinawatra,” explains another 40-year-old protester called Amy.

However, those on the other side of Thailand’s color-coded political divide — the Red Shirts — are also vehemently opposed, but for very different reasons. They want justice for comrades killed in the 2010 crackdown. The prospect of general amnesty has them fearing that justice will never be served.

Despite this widespread opposition, at around 4 a.m. on Friday morning the amnesty bill was passed by the Thai legislature with 310 votes to zero with four abstentions.

Thai politics has long been characterized by shows of popular force; mass Yellow Shirt protests led to the 2006 coup, and a Red Shirt rally that swarmed over central Bangkok in 2010 was violently crushed with more than 80 civilians killed and around 2,000 injured. Tanks rolled into popular shopping districts of the Thai capital and snipers, widely assumed to be backed by the military, picked off victims from rooftops amid carnage a world away from the Land of Smiles portrayed on popular tourist brochures.

But now these grassroots political groups have formed an unholy alliance against the amnesty bill. The Yellow Shirts — generally urban royalists and nationalists joined under the banner of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) — fear the return of their nemesis Thaksin. The Red Shirts — rural poor known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) — want those responsible for the 2010 bloodshed to be held accountable.

In 2011, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected Prime Minister as head of the Pheu Thai Party largely on the back of huge Red Shirt support. Calls for restitution for the victims of 2010 — the military incursion was ostensibly ordered by then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the PAD-backed Democrat Party — reverberated throughout the UDD rank and file. “They want justice for the violence that claimed their loved ones,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

The amnesty bill seems to be the final nail in the coffin for these hopes. Abhisit and his then Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban have been charged with murder but will not face trial, and the UDD is incensed that Pheu Thai is “climbing over the bodies of the Red Shirts so Thaksin can come home,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

UDD leaders spat venom at their former Pheu Thai brothers in arms in parliament as the vote approached. Prasang Monkonsiri, a left-leaning Red Shirt and former editor of the Voice of Taksin magazine, labeled Pheu Thai lawmakers in favor of the amnesty bill as “traitors” and “whores” who will develop “the faces of leprous dogs” owing to the “hundred ghosts of people you led to their deaths.”

Even within Pheu Thai, four MPs suffered a crisis of conscience and abstained from the amnesty vote, including Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives Nattawut Saikua. “This is a turning point for the Red Shirts,” says Thitinan. After ousting the Democrat Party at the ballot box, an apparent chasm now divides the UDD and Pheu Thai. “Down the line, it will make it more difficult to reconcile Thailand.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Red Shirt political prisoners serving time on lése majestè grounds were conspicuously left out of the amnesty bill. Otherwise known as article 112, lése majestè is an antiquated law prohibiting any remarks deemed offensive to the Thai royal family, but critics argue its mandate has been widened to curb general dissent.

So while Pheu Thai widened the amnesty bill to include Thaksin and those soldiers who gunned down unarmed Red Shirts in the street, “it has not seen fit to include the victims alongside the perpetrators: those imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their political beliefs,” says Benjamin Zawacki, senior legal adviser for Southeast Asia at the International Commission of Jurists.

Pavin warns the amnesty bill “deepens the culture of impunity in Thailand.” Over the past century, the nation has witnessed several bloody coups and associated strife, but few individuals or groups have been held accountable. “It could set a new standard in Thai politics that the state can kill people and get away with it again in the future.”

Analysts say Pheu Thai probably placed wiping Thaksin’s criminal record above all else from the beginning. “I don’t think it’s a last-minute thing,” says Pavin, “I think everything has been well calculated.” Zawacki agrees: “An objective analysis shows that [Thaksin’s return] is the only real benefit the [Red Shirts] stand to gain.”

Despite the promise of amnesty, Thaksin is unlikely jump on a plane if popular support is dwindling. “Thaksin is very shrewd,” adds Thitinan. “He’s testing the water to see how much he can get away with.” Powerful forces including the influential Privy Council and royal family have long been a thorn in the media mogul’s side, but there are signs this may be waning. Nevertheless, “If he thinks it’s not the right time then he’ll stay away and it will be back to business as usual.”

There are still several stages before the amnesty bill becomes law. First it needs to be passed by Senate, and then ratified by the King. The Democrat Party — whose MPs walked out of Friday’s vote en masse — may even challenge it at the Constitutional Court.

While the long-term consequences might threaten Pheu Thai’s dominance at the ballot box, the short-term impact could be fresh unrest. “Political violence could come back to Bangkok any time soon,” says Pavin, adding an extra note of caution that “this time around anyone could be the enemy” because of the blurring of traditional allegiances.

Thitinan admits the “likelihood for confrontation has risen dramatically” as Thaksin’s opponents “will come out to create conditions of ungovernability — just chaos in the street.” But according to Zawacki, the government will likely invoke the Internal Security Act to ensure the protests are either contained or paid for with a heavy legal price.