Tag Archives: King

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.

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Book Review: “A Kingdom in Crisis” by Andrew MacGregor Marshall

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s book “A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century” is misnamed because it has nothing to do with Thailand’s struggle for democracy. The reason for this is that Marshall is of the “elite-gazing school” and mass movements from below do not feature in his book.

The book is a tabloid account of gossip about the dysfunctional and parasitic Thai royal family, with the aim of trying to prove that the political crisis is all about the “succession question” after King Pumipon dies.  It will be a book which offers much entertainment to those who enjoy reading “Hello!” magazine.

Even in terms of analysing the Thai monarchy, Marshall fails to grasp the fluidity of support for the king throughout his reign. Popular support for any national leaders, anywhere in the world, rises and falls with circumstances. Support for the Thai king is no exception to this phenomenon, unless one believes that the majority of Thais are too brainwashed and stupid to think for themselves. Marshall is often in danger of sounding patronising towards ordinary people due to his tone throughout the book.

Marshall’s concentration on the “secrets” and cosmology of the royal family means that he also fails to grasp the changes to the monarchy throughout history and the Bourgeois Revolution against feudalism staged by King Chulalongkorn. He merely quotes Duncan McCargo who mistakenly believes that Chulalongkorn’s “reforms” were designed to “prevent change”.

By claiming that the anti-monarchy sentiment observed on the streets of Bangkok in September 2010 was a novel and momentous event, Marshall sweeps away the fighting history of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) in the 1960s  and 1970s and ignores the fact that in that era millions of Thais opposed the monarchy. The only academic references to the CPT that he quotes come from out of date right-wing academics.

Marshall ignores progressive Thai writers, failing to engage in any argument with them. He fails to quote a single reference by Somsak Jeamteerasakul, Niti Eauwsiwong or the team from Fa Diaw Kan. Yet Lady Gaga gets a place in his bibliography!! He does not have the courage to admit that the king’s power is a matter for debate. He relies almost entirely on mainstream writers, writing in English. So for him the 1932 revolution is merely a coup by a small group of bureaucrats and soldiers. This has been the conservative line for decades. Marshall has clearly not read Nakarin Mektrairat’s research into this period of history.

Readers hoping for a better understanding of Thai politics will gain nothing from this book. Marshall totally ignores what I regard as the real cause of the crisis; Taksin’s unbeatable electoral alliance with the majority of the electorate through his concrete pro-poor policies, introduced immediately after the 1996 economic crisis. Universal health care is obviously not one of Marshall’s interests.

Marshall’s tabloid account of royal gossip is one thing. But the worst part of the book is when he absolves Abhisit and Prayut of any wrong-doing in killing 90 redshirt protesters. He allows himself to get carried away with the myth about “Taksin’s armed Men in Black”, but fails to offer a single shred of evidence, including photographs or reliable eye-witness accounts. Yet we know that no soldiers were killed or wounded by these Ghosts in Black throughout May 2010. This is an important issue today since the junta leader Prayut, who was in charge of the soldiers at that time, denies that soldiers killed anyone. Marshall is myopic in looking at the big picture of a military coup eventually installing an unelected Abhisit government, which then proceeded to use heavily armed soldiers and “free fire zones” against un-armed pro-democracy protesters.

Marshall seems to show little interest in the struggle for democracy and the necessary strategies and tactics we need to use. He seems to be only interested in selling royal gossip and Z Books seems to go along with this commercial enterprise. Marshall’s easy success in getting Z Books to publish his work speaks volumes about his publishing connections and the deteriorating standards of this so-called “radical” publishing house.

See this review by Lee Jones: 

http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Jones-on-Marshall-FINAL-9-November-2014.pdf

Recommended further reading on Thai politics: 

(1) Thailand’s Crisis and the Struggle for Democracy…

(2) There is no crisis of succession….

The “tradition” of Thai Kingship

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

It should come as no surprise that Thai Kingship is an “invented tradition”, just as Eric Hobsbawm described the British monarchy as an invented tradition. In fact “Thai” as something to do with “Thailand” is also an invented concept, corresponding to the state centralisation and nation-building that took place in South-East Asia in the late nineteenth century.

The idea that the Thai king is “revered” by Thais is a doubtful and invented “fact”. Firstly, such reverence is enforced by the lèse-majesté law and the Communist suppression law in the past. Secondly, there is severe peer pressure on people to say that they revere the king. But most importantly, the degree to which people support the monarchy has fallen and risen at different times in recent history. During the height of the Communist Party’s struggle, many Thais hated the monarchy. Today the monarchy is also hated by many red shirts. This is why the military junta are so manic about fitting people up with lèse-majesté charges.

The idea of a king as a deity or absolute ruler is a very recent phenomena in Thai history. Before the 1870s the kings of Bangkok or Ayuttaya had limited power. Under the Sakdina feudal system they had to share power with the rulers of other towns and with the recruiters of corvée labour. Corvée labour was a system where local villagers were forced to work for a local boss, ruler, temple authority or king. Villagers were also forced to become soldiers during war time and the main aim of warfare in the region during this time was to seize war slaves and loot rival cities.

Given that forced labour of one kind or another was the base of much wealth production in the Sakdina system, the local rulers and recruiters of forced labour had political power to match that of the king. Trade and taxation were also important sources of wealth, but both trade and taxation were subcontracted to private merchants who also held power.

As far as the local ordinary folk were concerned, kings and local rulers were “bad news”. When they arrived with their armed tugs they dragged off the men to work or fight and dragged off young women for their pleasure. The general response of ordinary folk was to try to live as far away from kings and local rulers as possible and if they turned up on your door step, the sensible things was to run away and hide in the forest. Some villagers even used to smear shit on their daughters to make them less attractive. So people in those days feared kings but certainly did not revere them at all.

All this devolved power made the Sakdina kings weak. This is why King Chulalongkorn waged war on the Sakdina system, eventually abolishing forced labour and the power of local rulers and bosses. His establishment of the Absolute Monarchy was a necessary step towards building a centralised Thai state in the new capitalist world order.

The Absolute Monarchy only lasted 60 years. It was overthrown by the 1932 revolution and the king lost all power. Today’s king still has no power, but the military and the capitalists have invented the myth of “traditional Thai kingship”, where the king is both an absolute monarch and a constitutional monarch at the same time. The left-wing British historian Christopher Hill once wrote that after the English revolution in the 1640s, the English capitalist class restored the monarchy following Cromwell’s death, by claiming that the king was anointed by God, when in fact he was appointed and used by the capitalists. There are strong similarities with Thailand.

Finally, if the power and nature of Thai kingship can change so much in recent history, it is not beyond imagination that we shall soon get rid of the monarchy all together.

Gen Prayut’s “Virtual Monarchy”

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The power of the Thai monarch has always been a myth created by the military and the conservative elites in order to discipline the population into submission. Through violence and repression they have persuaded millions into believing the exact opposite of the truth. According to the elite myth, the King runs the country behind the scenes and gives secret orders to the military, top officials and politicians. Yet at the same time he is said to be “above politics”. The truth is that the military and the elites have used the weak-willed monarch to rubber stamp all that they do, including the staging of military coups and the destruction of democracy. Part of the process has been the creation of the King into an “untouchable” deity, hence all the grovelling on the floor and the use of special royal language. An unintentional side-effect of this is that idiotic royalists weep with respect and awe when they see the King tying his own shoe-laces.

It is a bit like a group of master craftsmen making a Buddha image from plaster and then covering it with gold. Soon the statue takes on strong magical powers of its own and people conveniently forget that it is merely a human made lump of inanimate plaster; just a symbol of a religion, not something with power.

Marxists refer to this process of building false beliefs by those in power as part of the process of “alienation”. It serves the interests of the elites. So we unconsciously believe that money is real wealth, not just a symbol of exchanging the products of human labour.

However, since this latest coup, junta leader Generalissimo Prayut has taken the crafting and moulding of the Thai monarchy to previously unimagined heights.

Initially, unlike in previous coups, Prayut made no pretence at “consulting with and receiving orders” from the King.  Then he managed to be photographed in front of the King while the latter touched a piece of paper representing the military constitution. It is questionable whether the King could read and understand anything about the constitution or even lift the document and place it on the ceremonial golden bowl by this stage. His health is very poor. So that was all just play-acting.

Now, the latest invention by Prayut is the “Virtual Monarchy”. No living and breathing mortal has to be present. You just use the picture of the King instead. A few days ago the junta staged a swearing in ceremony in front of this picture and that was deemed to prove that royal endorsement had occurred. No need for the monarchy to say anything or even write anything with his own hand.

The concept of the “Virtual Monarchy” opens up a number of possibilities. Firstly, even when the King dies you can go on using the picture as though nothing had happened. Secondly, and I like this option, you could just do away with all the royal family and its budget for servants, palaces and shopping trips and spend a few thousand baht on a single “holy picture” to be placed at Government House. A cheaper alternative would be just to have a digital photo on the internet which could be projected on to a wall at various ceremonies.

The Thai Monarchy is a tool of the military. There is no “crisis of succession” in Thailand.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The hypothesis that the present long-running unrest in Thailand is primarily caused by a “crisis of succession”, assumes that the Thai monarch has real power and that he has been constantly intervening in politics. That is just not the case and the real cause of the crisis lies elsewhere.

Thailand does not have an absolute monarch or North Korean-style despot in his twilight years, with factions fighting over who will be the next ruler. The Thai absolute monarchy was overthrown in the 1932 revolution, and since then, power has been shared and disputed among the military and civilian elites and the top businessmen. For much of the time between 1932 and the mid-1980s, the elites ruled by dictatorship. But this has become harder and harder to do ever since the mass uprising against the military in 1973. The reason for this is that the structure of Thai society has changed. There are more and more workers, both blue collar and white collar and the new generation of workers and farmers are more confident and educated. That is why the monarchy has become more important to the ruling class as a symbol of “natural hierarchy”, necessary to give legitimacy to those who abuse democracy and preside over a grossly un-equal society. The lèse majesté law is designed to protect the “holy relic” that serves such a useful purpose for the ruling class.

The monarch has always been weak and cowardly, a creature of the military and the elites who surround him and use him for their own ends. He was ill-prepared to become king when his older brother died in a gun accident. He was introduced to the Throne during a time when the most powerful military and police faction was led by anti-royalists who had participated in the 1932 revolution. But rivals of this faction sought to use and promote the King. They came to power during the Sarit coup in the late 1950s and the monarch was promoted as part of the anti-communist struggle during the Cold War. King Pumipon was used by the Thai military and conservative elites, together with the U.S. government, as an anti-communist symbol. He was also required to appear on TV to stop the 1973 uprising from toppling the whole old order.

Throughout his reign, Pumipon has swayed like a leaf, bending in the wind and serving as a willing tool of those who happened to be in power. He failed to prevent or solve any serious crisis. He supported the extreme right-wing leader Tanin Kraiwichien in 1976, only to see Tanin swept aside by the military a year later. He supported the 1991 military coup leader Sujinda, only to see the junta destroyed by a popular uprising. His “sufficiency Economy” ideology was taken to heart by neo-liberal conservatives because it supported the idea that the state should not help the poor. But no one took it seriously enough to think it could really be an economic strategy which could be practically applied for economic development.

The fixation by political commentators on the monarch and the royal family may be understandable, given the way the elites make the king into a deity, but we should expect a better quality of analysis.

The first question that should be asked is: why do the elites make the king into a deity and constantly reproduce this myth?

The more Thai society develops into a modern capitalist one, the more difficult it has become for the elites to rule over the population using crude authoritarian means. The Thai military can only justify its anti-democratic political meddling by promoting the monarch into a deity and then claiming to follow his “orders”. Similarly, politicians and businessmen, Taksin included, used the monarchy to increase their own “untouchable” legitimacy. Taksin’s government kicked-off the semi-compulsory wearing of yellow shirts on one day each week.

The interesting point to bear in mind is that the frenzied promotion of the King actually accelerated from the mid-1980s onwards, as the elites were forced to make more and more concessions to parliamentary democracy. It was an attempt to slow down progress and insulate elite privileges from change.

Before former Prime Minister Taksin had a falling out with the military and the conservatives, the King was also a willing supporter of his government, for example, praising his “war on drugs” where thousands were executed in an extra-judiciary manner.

For those who believe that the King is a powerful figure even today, one just has to look at reality. How can a man who has spent years in hospital or in a wheel chair and who can hardly speak, order the army to do anything?

During the recent coup, General Prayut did not even make any pretence at seeking advice and permission from the King. The old man was required to be seen “touching” the junta’s so-called constitution, but he had no other input. The junta has since upgraded the navy’s submarine capability, something which the King had opposed only recently.

So there is no absolute monarch in his final years causing a potential power vacuum.

But what about the idea that the various elite factions are really fighting about who will control the Crown Prince when he becomes king? Make no mistake; all sides have agreed that the scandal-prone and despicable prince will be the next king. To place the Princess, who has no male partner, on the throne instead, would immediately destroy all the “reinvented tradition” about the monarchy.

Controlling the Crown Prince will be very easy. He is even more cowardly, selfish and disinterested than his father. But controlling the prince doesn’t result in ownership of power. Power does not reside with the monarchy.

If the King were to die soon, and there is no guarantee that he will, nothing will change. The Crown Prince is even less capable of supporting democratic reforms than his father. But many Red Shirts seem to have ridiculous hopes pinned on this nasty idiot.

The theory of a crisis of succession is merely an elite top-down myth, which ignores the real economic and social fractures in Thai society which became clearer and clearer after the 1996 economic crisis. It writes the majority of citizens out of the picture, blinding people about the role of the Red Shirts. It is just a re-hash of the old discredited “Bureaucratic Polity” theory. It should be confined to circles that love to excite themselves with conspiracy theories.