Does the Thai King’s immense wealth give him political power?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

For many people it seems to be intuitive that because King Pumipon owns a huge capitalist conglomerate, in the shape of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), and the fact that he is also the richest person in Thailand, gives him immense political power. The CPB owns a large number of shares in the Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement. It also owns huge amounts of land, often in prime real-estate sites. Royalists claim that the king does not actually “own” the CPB but that it belongs to the monarchy. This is a mere detail. Simon Montlake, in a 2012 Forbes article, calls the CPB a “family enterprise, gifted to the next generation”. It is neither a government agency nor a private firm. The monarch is formally in charge of its investments. The King also has a separate private fortune.

It is unlikely that Pumipon has any business ability. Just like any large Pension Fund the CPB has a committee who run its investments for the King. His speeches on the Sufficiency Economy are devoid of any real economic or business analysis and are really about letting the poor remain poor without government support. Of course he is a conservative; all monarchs are.

CPB investments were reinvigorated after the 1996 economic crisis by Taksin’s government policies. This would hardly make Pumipon an enemy of Taksin.

But does immense wealth and being nominally in charge of a huge conglomerate automatically confer political power? If so, then Bill Gates and Warren Buffett would be running the U.S.A. That is not how the capitalist state operates. There is a division of labour in both democracies and authoritarian states. Governments and political parties run the state on behalf of the business class, even when the government in led by a labour or social democratic party, as in Europe.

For big business all they want are government policies which allow them to carry on making profits. They may use their influence, via the funding of political party campaigns or ownership of the media, to influence politics, but they are keen not to take a “hands on” approach. The most important reason for this is that politicians and governments come and go. They become popular and then lose popularity. They get blamed by the electorate for mistakes. Corporations and their bosses can rise above all this and continue to do business. That is why Dhanin Chearavanont, head of the CP Corporation, Thailand’s largest multinational company, always donated money to all Thai political parties.

Pumipon is one among many of Thailand’s top capitalists, even if he is the richest. He cannot be seen to be intervening in politics because of the fact that he is Head of State. But not only is Pumipon not in the business of directing governments any more than Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, but we have to look at who put him in his position of wealth in the first place. It was the conservative military faction of the elites who reinstated the monarch’s formal control over the CPB after the 1947 coup. Pumipon is beholden to the military for his wealth. They could take it away like they did after the 1932 revolution.

The fact that Pumipon has always been beholden to the military for his status means that he also has no control over the armed forces, as some wrongly claim. It is the military and other elites who control Pumipon.

One other supposed factor which people might put forward for Pumipon’s  so-called political power might be the idea that “all Thais revere the King”. This is a myth promoted by the Thai ruling class and repeated by many foreign journalists. If this was true, why does Thailand have to have the lèse majesté law which enforces such reverence? The popularity of the monarchy has risen and fallen throughout Pumipon’s reign. It was at a low level in the mid-1970s when the Communist Party was waging a war against the military dictatorship. It rose after that only to plummet after the King refused to condemn the 2006 military coup and after he remained silent about the killings of un-armed red shirt protesters.

Even if many Thais were to “revere” the King. It would not automatically confer political power. The Thai population are not stupid. They weigh up issues and make up their own minds as to what attitude to take to politicians based on their achievements. If Pumipon were to directly interfere in politics he would soon be put to scrutiny. Pumipon avoids scrutiny at all costs. He is also extremely cowardly and has always gone with the flow.

Pumipon cannot be separated from political power, but not because he or the institution of the monarchy are powerful. It is because those who have real political power use him as a tool. Nor can he be separated from his role in perpetuating Thailand’s gross economic inequality. That is why the monarchy should be abolished and its vast wealth nationalised for the benefit of ordinary people.