2019: Survey of the Thai Political Landscape in Transition

2019 is counted as the year when the arc of Thai politics was most striking since it was a time of transition from the ‘dark era’ under almost 5 years of the NCPO to the ‘hazy era’ after the election (which had been postponed 6 times) under the 2017 Constitution whose complicated design locked politics into a multilayered parliamentary system, and the Future Forward Party emerged to strongly challenge the old system.

At the same time, a new reign saw many incidents which changed the way the democratic system worked and raised new political questions that few would talk about.  Prachatai has tried to collect its year’s work of recording, analyzing and criticizing important political issues as signposts in studying or understanding the new political landscape in Thailand.

Put concisely, the most important theme of 2019 is how the power of the monarchy and military in Thai politics persists or changes, together with how to manage the ‘threat of new groups’ with old tools such as the independent organizations and the constitutional court.

NCPO Government Mark II

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha attends a group photo with his cabinet members at the government house in Bangkok Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (source: Government of Thailand)

In the election in March 2019, the Mixed Member Apportionment System (MMA) changed the constituencies, ballot papers and the calculation of votes for constituency MPs and party-list MPs. The Thai Raksa Chart Party was dissolved, wrecking the strategy of the Pheu Thai Party.  Palang Pracharath received the greatest number of votes (but in terms of the number of MPs came second) and became the core in the formation of the ‘Prayut 2’ government.  At the same time, a large number of votes fell to the Future Forward Party, which grew faster than expected and became the number 1 enemy of the government.

The search for a name for the government of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha after the election took some thought.  Many countries were relieved when “elections” happened in a country run by a military dictatorship, but in the details of the rules, from the drafting of the constitution, the content of the constitution, the referendum on the draft constitution up to the counting of the votes, there were so many problems that it was not possible to say that Thailand had become a democratic country.

Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist at Thammasat University, calls it the “Prayut system”, referring not specifically just to Gen Prayut alone but overall to components that co-operate.  Being in power for 5 years is long enough to completely change the Thai political structure.  Political scientists see that these people have just changed their clothes and continued in power through the election.  This “process” can be divided into six stages of buttoning up the political system.

First Button – Create a restricted political situation

The PDRC rallies was followed by the interlocking work of the independent agencies, such as voiding the 2 Feb 2014 elections, and the election boycott by parties allied to the PDRC.

Second Button – All sides weakened, only the military can manage.

The Bhumibol Consensus as defined by Prof Kasian Tejapira is changing form.  The old political rules no longer work and there is no centre that society can grasp as before.  The military therefore establishes itself as the political elite with strong bargaining power and takes charge.

Third Button: Administration without politics

After the NCPO takes power, there is severe suppression of the opposition.  In the past 5 years there have been thousands of prosecutions of political activity and expression. 

Fourth Button – Build alliances

Pull in different groups to support yourself in exchange for positions in the National Reform Council (NRC), the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and the Senate.  Freeze local elections and at the same time issue orders to remove government officials through Section 44.

Fifth Button – Change the structure of the Constitution and the voting system

- A 20-year National Strategy is drafted by an NCPO-appointed committee

- For the first 5-year period, the Prime Minister is appointed by a joint vote of MPs and Senators, where 244 members of the first Senate come from appointment by the NCPO and 6 members ex officio (the commanders of the armed forces and police and the Permanent Secretary of the  Ministry of Defence).  This Senate has a term of 5 years which will last as long as at least 2 governments. 

- The design of the MMA voting system does not allow any one political party to get enough seats to be able to form a single-party government (at present, Thailand is the only country in the world to use this system).  This system creates confusion and means that votes do not represent the intentions of the people.  There is a single ballot paper, but votes are counted twice, in both the constituency system and the party-list system.  The more constituency seats a party wins, the correspondingly fewer party-list seats it will get.
Sixth Button – Psychological warfare after the election

Formerly, the military were in a war against the communists.  Now they still have the characteristic of looking at a new group as the enemy.  Gen Apirak Kongsompong said in an interview that the country is now facing a hybrid war where the opposition uses “fake news” to deceive the new generation into turning against the military and the core institution.

An Appointed Senate that You Cannot Not Have

An important question that is being faced today is the appointed Senate.  This seems to have long been an important tool for military governments that staged coups.  If we look at history, we will see that all appointed senates come from constitutions written by coup juntas, be they the constitutions of 1947, 1949, 1968, 1974, 1991, or 2017.

The current Senate can not only join in voting for the Prime Minister, so enabling Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to become Prime Minister for a second time, but can also propose or join votes with MPs on laws related to “16 reforms”.  These 16 reforms can be interpreted so broadly as to cover almost any issue.  For example, Paiboon Nititawan, Deputy Leader of the Palang Pracharath Party, has proposed a way for the Senate to join deliberations on the budget bill by claiming that among all laws arising in the next 5 years, there is no law that does not concern national reform, and this includes the authority to approve new appointments to the independent agencies.

Thamrongsak Petchlertanan, a historian at Rangsit University, believes that Thailand has no need of a senate because the reason for having a senate in the first place starts with its status as a nanny and as a screening process to help MPs.  This is a discourse that allows government officials to control the politics of the people in the election system.

“The security that comes from appointment and the security that comes from elections is a conflict that has gone on for almost 8 decades. The constitutional requirement that the Senate be elected was an on-going principle of the People’s Party from 1932 to 1946 that there be elections at all levels and a process of decentralization of power,” said Thamrongsak.

Research by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) of the US gives examples of countries that have changed from bicameral to unicameral systems, such as New Zealand, Peru and Morocco.  This should help with imagining other alternatives and important discussions about Thai society, especially now when talk is beginning of a ‘single chamber’ in the movement to amend the constitution, such as the proposal from Parit ‘Itim’ Wacharasindhu.

Constitutional Court: Outstanding Results all the Time 

Apart from the Senate, another important mechanism with a role in dominating the political landscape is the Constitutional Court.  If we count from the 2006 coup, decisions of the Constitutional Court caused 10 major political changes and many political parties have been destroyed.

In the draft 2020 Budget Act, the Constitutional Court is the only agency of the courts to receive a budget increase of 25.8%, while other agencies of the courts have an overall budget reduction of 10.5%.

The Constitutional Court was created in the 1997 Constitution along with other independent agencies with the aim of serving as checks and balances against an executive designed to be strong.  But it appears that today the Constitutional Court has travelled far from that goal and entirely distanced itself from its connections with the people, just like the Election Commission.

Under the 2007 Constitution, 9 judges were appointed to the Constitutional Court in the reign of King Rama IX, according to a proposal from the Senate, which at that time had 73 appointed members and 77 elected.  The judges had a term of office of 9 years.  Between 2013 and 2015, 4 judges left office, 3 by resignation, and 1 by retirement.  The remaining 5 judges remained in office until 2017.  But the NLA, which was appointed by the NCPO, extended the term of all these 5 judges until an elected government was able to appoint a new set of judges.  Also, another 4 judges who had been appointed between 2013 and 2015 were allowed to remain until they completed a 9-year term according to the 2007 Constitution (instead of the 7 years under the 2017 Constitution).

The NLA deliberated on the law governing the Constitutional Court by adding a provision on contempt of the Constitutional Court which had never before existed.  2 cases have been prosecuted against academics.  The case of Sarinee Achavanuntakul concerned an article she wrote in the Krung Thep Thurakit newspaper, ‘The Danger of Excessive Rule by Law (Revisited)’, about MPs holding shares in media companies (14 May 2019).  The case of Kowit Wongsurawat concerned a Twitter post saying “the Constitutional Court has received complaints about 32 MPs holding media shares but has not suspended them from duty.  This is beyond ‘shameless’.”  In the end both formally apologized to the court to close the cases.

In another even more eye-catching case, where the Constitutional Court will eventually decide whether to dissolve a party or not, it is claimed that the Future Forward Party received a loan of 191.2 million baht from the party leader and that the party executives are using their rights and freedoms to overthrow the democratic system of government with the King as head of state.

The first case is where the law is in dispute but the second case reflects something bigger, i.e. the ideological and belief system of Thai people which is embedded in every organ of society and which may not be suited to with the modern world.

Future Forward Party: New Enemy of the Elite

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit after he left the Pathumwan Police Station, where he has been summoned to answer a sedition charge on 6 April 2019. (Source: Prachatai)

If we look at the charge of ‘overthrowing of the system of government’, which is used as the basis of a charge to dissolve the party, we find that it comes from a number of things.  For example, a party regulation uses the words “the principle of democracy under the constitution” instead of “the democratic system of government with the King as head of state”; Thanathorn founded the left-leaning Same Sky magazine; Piyabutr is a member of the Enlightened Jurists group which has proposed amendment of Article 112; the Party has a policy to sign the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which includes a provision that the Head of State is not immune from criminal prosecution, etc.

The problem of the role of the monarchy in Thai politics has been there since the change in the system of government in 1932 and in no era has it ever stood still.  So it is difficult to have a sincere debate on this issue in a social and legal atmosphere that creates no opportunity for a fact-based, rational discussion.  In this situation, all that can be done is to investigate certain aspects of history to try to get an understanding of the crux of current conflicts and show that these things are still being created and their meaning is still contested. 

The democratic system of government + with the King as head of state is the name of a system and many Thais do not know its origin.  Historical data tells us that this expression was an invention created in the 1949 Constitution after the 1947 coup d’état of Field Marshal Phibun and his conservatives, which is the moment which many historians believe was the permanent end of the power of the People’s Party.  The name of this system appears in Section 2 which also contains the phrases “the King … shall not be violated” and “no person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action” in Sections 5 and 6 respectively and also in the reconstruction of various royal ceremonies.  The 1949 Constitution also introduced an appointed senate and created the Privy Council.

The charge of overthrowing the system meshes with the ‘overthrow’ allegations that have sporadically been thrown at the Future Forward Party since its foundation.  This is a very old accusation from the time when the Thai state was fighting the communist threat and was used intensively during the protests of the People’s Alliance for Democracy to oust Thaksin Shinawatra.  This resulted in a large number of Article 112 court cases and a broad interpretation of that law, together with penalties that other countries reveal to be the heaviest in the world.

This charge was repeated during the dispersal of the red shirt protests in the form of a ‘plot to overthrow the monarchy’ which the military revealed to the public implicating people from all professions.  It still attracted attention when it was used once more against the Future Forward Party with its status as the voice of many in the middle class and the new generation.  How will this end up?  On another side, there are attempts to spark a ‘nation-hater’ trend with, as its core leaders, Suthep Thaugsuban and ‘Doctor Warong’ Dechgitvigrom.  It has reached the point of thinking about making a law against anti-patriotic beliefs where the target is the Future Forward Party movement.

The New Role of a New Reign

This year counts formally as the new reign of King Rama X, starting from the coronation in the middle in 2019.  This reign is different from those in past in many ways and there have been many important changes in the Thai political landscape.  But before considering this role, it must be said that in this reign, there have been important changes in the use of Article 112.  The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Centre reports that since 2018, there have been almost no new 112 cases brought before the courts, and many cases that had gone to the courts, especially the civilian courts, have been dismissed.  But at the same time it has been observed that officials seem to be trying to use other charges instead, such as the Computer Crime Act or the charge of “incitement” under Article 116 of the Criminal Code.  It is also found that more extrajudicial procedures are used against critics of the monarchy such as detention and forcing people to give information and sign MOUs.

The important political actions of the monarchy have been:

1. Amending the draft constitution that passed the referendum

The 2017 Constitution currently in force was passed in a referendum on 7 August 2016.  The following February, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha announced that the Bureau of the Royal Household had contacted him to say that the King had ‘bestowed royal advice’ on minor amendments to the draft constitution that had been passed in the referendum.

“So it was requested because it was a matter of the royal prerogative of His Majesty.  The Interim Constitution had to be amended because the new Constitution had already been passed in the referendum, so when these changes were made, we had to find a way to do it without the need for another referendum, because it did not concern the people but was merely bestowed by the royal prerogative of His Majesty,” said Gen Prayut in an interview on 11 Jan 2017.

At that time, the government did not explain which Sections would be amended, but it leaked out in the media that there would be amendments to 3 Sections, i.e. 5, 17 and 18.  Later it was found that amendments were made to 7 Sections, i.e. 5, 12, 15, 16, 17, 19 and 182.  

This had never happened during the reign of King Rama IX.  There had only been the occasional exercise of the royal veto to send back laws.  This is an important issue in law and in the practice of democracy.  But there were almost no opinions from academics in law or political science, from the mass media or relevant NGOs.

The content that was amended concerned powers in the event of ‘a political impasse’, the qualifications of Privy Councillors, the appointment of a Regent, and countersigning Royal Commands (see more here).

Section 5 most concerns the people.  This Section states that in the event of a political ‘blind alley’, a situation where it is not known which way to go, the Constitution specifies broadly that decisions and actions should be in accordance with “constitutional practice in the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of the State”.  This provision appeared in Section 7 of the 1997 Constitution, which Sondhi Limthongkul interpreted to mean a ‘royally-appointed Prime Minister’ by King Rama IX.  In the draft constitution, the NCPO later clarified this ambiguity by putting the power to make a judgement into the hands of the President of the Constitutional Court, the President of the House of Representatives, the Opposition Leader in the House of Representatives, the President of the Senate, the Prime Minister, the President of the Supreme Court, the President of the Supreme Administrative Court, the President of the Constitutional Court, and the Presidents of the Constitutional Organizations. However, the royally-bestowed advice which was used in amending the Constitution was to go back to the original provision.

Section 5:  The Constitution is the supreme law of the State. The provisions of any law, rule, or regulation, or any action which are contrary to or inconsistent with the Constitution shall be unenforceable.

Whenever no provision under this Constitution is applicable to any case, it shall be acted or decided in accordance with the constitutional practice in the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of the State.

2. A Royal Command is issued: the case of the Thai Raksa Chart Party

On 8 February 2019, it emerged that the candidate for Prime Minister of the Thai Raksa Chart Party was Princess Ubolrat, something that caused a major panic, since members of the royal family had never condescended to play directly in the political arena like this.  The Thai Raksa Chart Party said that the reasons why the Princess was fully qualified were: 1) she had resigned from the rank of Princess in 1972, making her legal status that of a commoner; 2) the princess had accepted the nomination as required by the 2017 Constitution; 3) candidates for Prime Minister who have not exercised the right to vote are permitted.  In this case, EC Secretary-General Jarungvith Phumma confirmed on 7 Feb 2019 that not having exercised the right to vote was a disqualification according to past Constitutions but the current Constitution had repealed this disqualification.  All that was necessary was that voting rights had not been revoked.

Overnight, there were waves of both criticism and praise for the decision of the eldest daughter of King Rama IX and on the same night a Royal Command from King Rama X was broadcast on the TV pool on all channels.  One section said:

"Every Thai constitution, including the Constitution currently in force, contains a Section specifically on the King which upholds its special status of the monarchy according to the traditions of a democratic form of government with the King as head of state. The King is above politics, and in a position of revered worship. No one shall violate, accuse or prosecute the King in any way.  These provisions of the Constitution will naturally apply to the Queen, the Heir Apparent, and those members of the Royal Family close to the King, whom the King is pleased to designate as his representatives to perform royal duties with His Majesty or on his behalf. Hence, the Queen, the Heir Apparent, every member of the Royal Family is therefore within the principle of the King being above politics and being politically neutral and they cannot hold any political office because this would be in contradiction to the intention of the Constitution and the traditions of a democratic form of government with the King as head of state."

The EC then sent the matter for the Constitutional Court to decide, citing the Royal Command.

On 7 March 2019, the judges of the Constitutional Court ruled unanimously, 9 to 0, to dissolve the party, and by a majority of 6 to 3 to suspend for 10 years the rights of all 10 members of the Executive Committee to stand for election since this nomination was an action against the democratic system of government with the King as head of state.

“(The nomination) is likely to have an effect on the basic principles of the democratic system of government with the King as head of state in Thailand, which hold that the King reigns but does not rule and which are degraded by being eroded and undermined by implication. … If this is allowed, the monarchy will no longer be in the position of being the centre of the Thai people.  This is likely to lead to the democratic system of government with the King as head of state, which is the special characteristic of Thailand, being degraded, brought to an end, or ultimately vanishing.”

“Section 92, Paragraph 1 (2) of the Organic Act on Political Parties decrees clearly on the matter of “intent”, that the mere possibility of opposing [the democratic system of government with the King as head of state] must be prohibited.  It is not necessary for there to be the intention to wish for this result or to wait for severe damage to occur.  It is therefore necessary to prevent damage to the principle institution of the country by a policy of immediately putting out sparks and not allowing a small fire to take hold until it is a disaster which may not be controllable.”

The dissolution of the Thai Raksa Chart Party raises many questions.  One is the status of a Royal Command.  Sawatree Suksri from the Faculty of Law, Thammasat University, sees that the interpretation of this as a possible law must rest on the legal system of the country.  There is a legislative branch which issues acts, an executive branch which issues decrees and an administrative branch which issues various subsidiary laws.  Therefore the Royal Command that was issued is not a law because it has not passed any legislative process, and is merely a royal decision of the King’s.

Meanwhile Poonthep Sirinupong, a legal scholar, thinks that neutrality or a position above politics is a change that has always been creeping into modern political history for reasons peculiar to the context.  The actions of the Thai Raksa Chart Party are therefore only in the nature of being “appropriate” or “inappropriate”.  But the organs of the state instead take a royal command as having the status of a law determining what is “possible” or “impossible”.

“The tradition of governing Thailand under a democratic system with the King as head of state under ‘the principle of the King being above politics and being politically neutral’ is not something which is definite and constant nor has it continued without change since 1932.  It is a principle whose essence changed greatly in 1946 and became a principle without any legal regulation or enforcement in any way, holding the status of a principle according to a political method based on political responsibility only.”  Poonthep also summarizes the role of the Constitutional Court: “On every issue where the Constitutional Court has made a decision in the name of a defender of ‘the democratic system of government with the King as head of state’, including the verdict in the case of the dissolution of the Thai Raksa Chart Party, it has not been a ruling on a legal dispute, but has been a political verdict.

3. Royal power to appoint Supreme Patriarch 

On 7 February 2017, King Rama X appointed Amborn Ambaro, the abbot of Wat Ratchabophit, as the 20th Supreme Patriarch, more than 3 years after this important position became vacant and the NLA amended the law to change the way supreme patriarchs are appointed by removing the need for a resolution of the Sangha Supreme Council but instead putting it under the direct authority of the monarch.  The appointment does not have to go to the most senior monk as before.

Before this, the appointment of the Supreme Patriarch could be called extremely ‘chaotic’.

On 5 January 2016, the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC) called a special secret meeting and resolved that Somdej Chuang, as the most senior of the ranking monks, be appointed the 20th Supreme Patriarch.  Less than a week later, Buddha Isara, the abbot of Wat Onoi, submitted a petition with 300,000 signatures to Gen Prayut opposing the appointment, claiming as a reason unsuitable behaviour.  In February 2016, monks gathered at Phutthamonthon to support the SSC resolution proposing Somdej Chuang as Supreme Patriarch.  3 days later, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) stated that a vintage Mercedes Benz belonging to Somdej Chuang had evaded taxes through false documents. In March, the Ombudsman decided that the SSC had violated the procedure concerning the nomination of Somdej Chuang as the 20th Supreme Patriarch, which must originate with the Prime Minister.  But in July, the Office of the Council of State resolved that the procedure for appointing Somdej Chuang was correct.

Finally on 29 December 2016, the NLA passed a resolution to amend the Sangha Act, giving the power to appoint the Supreme Patriarch to the King, to be countersigned by the Prime Minister.  It is not necessary to get the prior approval of the Sangha Supreme Council and it is not necessary for the Supreme Patriarch to be the most senior ranking monk.

4. Establishing ‘royal agencies’

Wad Rawee, a writer interested in politics, has compared 3 constitutions: the version by Borwornsak Uwanno which the NLA voted to reject, the version by Meechai Ruchuphan which was approved in a referendum, and the current version with some sections amended by the King after the referendum.  He suggests that the provisions relating to ‘royal agencies’ were not specified in the Borwornsak version but were specified in Section 15 of the draft constitution by Meechai, which. was voted on in the referendum.  When the referendum was under way, no one knew the meaning of this Section and there was no discussion at all about this issue.

"Section 15  The appointment and removal of officials of the Royal Household shall be at the King’s pleasure. 

Bureaucracy organization and personnel administration in the service of the Royal Household shall be at the King’s pleasure, as provided in the Royal Decree."

In March 2017, or six months after King Rama X ascended to the throne, the Royal Service Administration Act 2017 was issued, transferring 5 government agencies into royal agencies under a variety of regulations.  It is specified that these shall be “at the royal pleasure”.  The agencies are:

1. The Office of His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary – formerly an independent government agency equivalent to a department, under the command of the Prime Minister;

2. The Bureau of the Royal Household – formerly a royal government agency equivalent to a ministry answering directly to the Prime Minister;

3. The Royal Aide-de-Camp Department – formerly under the Ministry of Defence;

4. The Royal Security Command – formerly under the Ministry of Defence; and 

5. The Office of the Royal Court Police - formerly under the Royal Thai Police.

We may understand the reason for creating these agencies in this way through the notes at the end of the Act which state:

"Since the Bureau of the Royal Household, and the Royal Aide-de-Camp Department, and the Royal Security Command, Ministry of Defence, are governmental agencies with duties concerning the royal service and functions of the Monarch and members of the royal household, by which they are required to provide service in line with ancient royal tradition and the royal pleasure, their governmental activities are thus different from the governmental agencies of the Executive Branch in general. Accordingly, it is in this case appropriate to newly determine the status of the said governmental agencies as royal agencies which carry out governmental activities and are directly subject to the Monarch, with specific administrative organisation and personnel administration in compliance with the royal pleasure, so that the administration of the royal service would be suitable and compatible with the missions of the royal service and harmonious with the provisions of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand. It is therefore necessary to enact this Act."

The Act specifies that royal agencies “are not governmental agencies under the law on national government administration and are not state entities under any other law.”  The effect is that these agencies are not under the authority of the various organizations which have the duty to audit government agencies and all normal state agents.  This includes the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the State Audit Office.

However, in the Royal Decree it is detailed that royal agencies comprise 3 basic agencies with the status of “juristic persons”.  These are (1) the Office of the Privy Council; (2) the Bureau of the Royal Household; and (3) Royal Security Command.  Therefore, their specification as juristic persons means that they are not government agencies or state agencies.  Anyone affected by the exercise of the authority of these agencies must file charges and cannot appeal to the Administrative Court as is the case with ministries, bureaux and departments in general.

In the 2020 draft Budget Bill, the royal agencies are allocated a budget of 7,685.3 million baht, up from 6,800 in 2019, an increase of 885.3 million baht or 13%.

"Section 14.  The transfer of a royal officer to become a different governmental officer than a royal officer or the transfer of such a different governmental officer to become a royal officer shall be at the royal pleasure. And the governmental agencies concerned shall carry out activities to implement the law so that the transfer would further take place in accordance with the royal pleasure."

This Section of the Royal Decree has great significance, in that the monarch can transfer personnel between royal agencies and other government agencies at the royal pleasure.  In practice this reflects the transfer of personnel which occurred when the government issued the 2019 Royal Decree to Transfer Rates of Personnel and Budget of the Royal Thai Army, Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters, Ministry of Defence to the Royal Security Command, a Royal Agency.  This effected the transfer of the 1st and 11th Infantry Battalions, Palace Guard Division, to the Royal Security Command.  The Future Forward Party did not accept that this was an emergency where the Cabinet had to issue a Royal Decree.  In the end, the Royal Decree was approved by parliament in October 2019.

The Royal Security Command is in service to the monarch.  Its structure includes: 1. The Office of the Commander; 2. the Royal Special Operations Office; 3. the Royal Staff Office; 4. the Royal Bodyguards Unit; and 5. the Royal Court Police.
It can be seen that it is not just the military that have to be transferred to be under the royal agencies, but the police also.

Among police circles, 2019 is thought to be a year of serious disorganization.  On 16 August 2019, the Anachak Lo Ngen (Realm of the Silver Shield [symbol of the Royal Thai Police]) column in the Naew Na newspaper, ‘Sea Salt’, whose writer deals with police issues, had a very short-lived article that was withdrawn after a few days. This article severely criticized the leadership of the Royal Thai Police (RTP) for letting some high-ranking police officers advance their interests by “twisting the arms” of a great number of police into becoming “infantry police” who would no longer be under the RTP.  Although it was not said directly, the Royal Security Command is the only organization that has police under its control, and it is in the service of the monarch.

Credible news sources have said that there is a written order selecting 873 “outstanding” commissioned and noncommissioned police officers from the rank of Police Colonel to Police Lance Corporal for training and transfer to the Royal Security Command.  This group must receive 6 months of basic training (1 October 2019 – 31 March 2020).  The criteria for selection are appropriate personal characteristics (straight legs, not emaciated, no sloping shoulders, no spectacles, appropriate weight, 170-180 cm tall), loyalty, good attitude, strong physique, preparedness in all aspects and a signed application for duty.

However, under these circumstances, a great deal of conflict has arisen because of the lack of clarity in the new structure.  The selection had only an approximate classification as royal officials under any authority and royal officials under police authority.  This has led a number of selected police to choose resignation from government service and a number of other officers not to apply for a transfer and to refuse to report.  The latter group was “disciplined” for a 9-month period, part of which must be undergone in the 3 southernmost provinces.  It is initially understood that this second group total more than a hundred officers.

On 26 Sept 2019, COP’s Magazine, which deals with police matters, published an article that stated that a large number of non-commissioned police officers felt uncomfortable.  “What have we done wrong?  If we don’t go for training, why do we have to resign?”  “It’s like I’ve been tricked.  It’s like my real father sold his own children to another agency.”

On 30 Sept 2019, or 1 day before the start of basic training for the Infantry police, Pol Lt Gen Manu Mekmok, Assistant Commissioner General of the Royal Thai Police and Acting Commissioner General, signed Royal Thai Police Order 552/2562 on permission for police officers to resign from government service.  According to the 20th personnel restructuring project (2020 budget) a total of 933 officers from the rank of Police Senior Sergeant Major to Police Colonel, together with 2 Police Major Generals, are likely to form what may be the largest single mass resignation from the police, and the impact on the public is still in question.

5. Royal Initiative Volunteer Programme

Royal Initiative Volunteers 904 is a project under the royal patronage of King Rama X begun in 2017. The Royal Office website states that His Majesty has the intention to continue, maintain and add to the various projects sponsored by King Rama IX.  This organization has a specific structure under the Bureau of the Royal Household.  His Majesty supervised the curriculum himself.  The army is the main implementing agency.  There are short, medium and long curricula, emphasizing the importance of the monarchy and knowledge about what King Rama IX did for society.  There are also mobile training courses on the Thai King for large numbers of government officials and students.  Generally one can volunteer by having a uniform of a yellow cloth cap and neckerchief. The army states that at this time there are more than 4 million volunteers throughout the country.  For many years we have seen news of volunteers conducting public service activities, especially at royal events.  There are those who question whether the goals of this project are similar to those of the earlier Village Scouts.  A search for basic information finds that this project is reasonably different (for more see here).

6. Changes to the Crown Property Act

The Reuters News Agency stated that the Thai monarch is the richest in the world, based on 2018 reports on Business Insider estimating that His Majesty owns at least 30 billion dollars of assets.  In 2015, Forbes magazine similarly reported that the Thai monarch was the richest in the world.

The property of the King was first systematically divided in the resign of King Rama V into the Privy Purse, meaning the property of the King, and the Royal Treasury, i.e. the national budget, with income from the tax system, which began to take shape amid the expanding economy of Siam.  Data from the research in Porphant Ouyyanont’s ‘The Crown Property Bureau and the role of business investment’ (2006) shows that during the absolute monarchy, the Privy Purse had a status similar to that of a department with income from the Royal Treasury, which had a status similar to that of a ministry.  It received as much as 20% of the total budget.  The capital of the Privy Purse accumulated quickly in an era of foreign trade liberalization.  But it began to fall until it turned negative during the reign of King Rama VI because of the King’s expenses, World War 1, and a lack of investment in large-scale activities.

Then after the change in the form of government in 1932, in the economic depression of the 1930’s, the political conflict between the People’s Party and the palace had the result of greatly reducing the role of the Privy Purse Department and adjusting downward the 1933 budget.  The government stepped in to manage the property of the Privy Purse Department on the basis of dividing the property of the Department into 2 parts: the personal property of His Majesty and the property for the monarch.  The personal property of His Majesty was subject to tax while the property of the monarch was exempt from taxation.  In 1936, the Royal Assets Restructuring Act was issued to regulate monarchical property and to set up the Crown Property Bureau.  The authority to control this property was transferred to the Ministry of Finance under a committee chaired by the Minister of Finance and 4 committee members.

[Table 1] Income of the Privy Purse allocated from the Royal Treasury (1892-1935)

Year     Income (million baht)
1892    1.49
1902    6.1
1912    8.7
1922    9.0
1932    0.479
1935    0.409

The 1947 coup d’état is seen by many historians as the permanent end of the power of the People’s Party.  Porphant Ouyyanont also sees this as the time when the conservative-royalist side, centred on the Democrat Party, again took power and proposed to amend the Crown Property Act.  This later became the 1948 Crown Property Act.  Many sections were amended with the result that the Crown Property Bureau had the status of a juristic person independent of the government.  It operates without any legal difficulty.  It invests in renting out a large amount of real estate or in buying shares in, for example, the Siam Cement Group, the Siam Commercial Bank, and the Deves Insurance Public Company.  It has investments in many other businesses and accumulated a huge fund in the decades from 1957 to 1997.

The status of the Crown Property Bureau is an enigma and it has long been questioned whether it belongs to the country, especially when Forbes ranked the assets of King Rama IX by adding the wealth of the Crown Property Bureau.  On this matter the Crown Property Bureau explains that the property of the monarch is the property of the state and of the country managed by the government through the Minister of Finance as the chair of the committee responsible for the Bureau.

At the same time, Somsak Jeamteerasakul disagrees, believing that in law and in practice no government in decades has had the power to control or manage the property of the monarch.  What is important is that the law specifies that the income from the Crown Property Bureau can be spent specifically on committed expenses only: salaries, bonuses, pensions, investments and spending on royal charities, which have specifically received royal approval.  Income after deductions can be spent by the King only at the royal pleasure whatever the case.  A study by Prof Suraphol Nitikraipot (1998) describes the status of the Crown Property Bureau: “The state and agencies of the state themselves do not know its true status.  It may be said that [the Crown Property Bureau] is completely detached from the organisational structure of the government sector.”  Even through the Council of State has given 4 interpretations of its status in 1975, 1990, 1993 and 2000, the assessment each time was different and there has never been a unanimous determination.

This loophole regarding its status makes the administration of the Crown Property Bureau ambiguous and gives it certain privileges at times.  Porphant gives the example of the Tam Yam Kung economic crisis when the Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) and all financial institutions suffered serious losses, making it necessary for the Crown Property Bureau to increase its capital to maintain its status as a major shareholder in the SCB.  Chirayu Isarangkun Na Ayuthaya, the then Director-General, exchanged 484.5 rai [0.775 sq.km.] of Crown Property Bureau land in Phya Thai district with a value of 16.5 billion baht for shares in the SCB held by the Ministry of Finance, even though the exchange of land for shares was something that the law did not allow the Ministry of Finance to do.

In the new reign, all these questions disappeared because the NLA passed the 2017 Crown Property Act and the next year passed the 2018 Crown Property Act. [The 2 laws have slightly different names in Thai (see below) but the same name in the official English Translation.]  iLaw states that at a closed-door meeting on 25 October 2018, the NLA approved this second Act by 194 votes for with 3 abstentions, revoking the 2017 Crown Property Act.  The reason for passing a new law was to make the regulations for the administration of crown property more suitable by presenting the management of crown property to be at the royal pleasure as a royal prerogative.

The essential meaning of the 2017 Crown Property Act is:

1. There is still a division between the personal property of His Majesty and property for the monarch.  Both are called property on behalf of the monarch, and are legally taxable.

2. Public property of the state (various temples and palaces that have been separated out) is held to be the property of the monarch.

3. The Crown Property Committee are all appointed by the King, whereas earlier the Minister of Finance was designated the chair ex officio.

On 14 March 2018, Somsak Jeamteerasakul tweeted an image of the major shareholders of the SCB as of 8 March 2018.  It still appears that the Crown Property Bureau held 18.14% and His Majesty King Vajiralongkorn held 3.34%.

Twitter image from @somsakjeam

The essential meaning of the 2017 Crown Property Act is:

1.  The literal translation of the name of the Act in Thai is “Act on the Organization of the Property of the Monarch”.  The 2017 Act was “Act on the Organization of Property on behalf of the Monarch”.  There is no longer any language indicating that the monarch does not directly own the property.

2.  There is no division between the personal property of His Majesty and property for the monarch.  Both become the property of the monarch.

3.  Crown property is taxable according to the law.

4.  The Crown Property Committee is appointed at the royal pleasure.

On 16 June 2018 (before the 2018 Act was passed), the Crown Property Bureau website published an explanation of changes in the name of the shareholder from the Crown Property Bureau to the King.

"By the legal provisions of the 2017 Crown Property Act, which combined the private property of His Majesty and the property on behalf of the monarch into property for the monarch, the Crown Property Bureau therefore has the duty to present the property on behalf of the monarch which was formerly under its supervision to His Majesty the King for a royal decision on its management and profitable use at the King’s pleasure.  Therefore any former property for the monarch in the name of the Crown Property Bureau, such as share-holdings in limited companies or public limited companies, must be changed to be in the name of His Majesty the King."

Accessed 7 January 2019

“After being pillaged by the power-starved and money-hungry from 1932 to 2017, the crown property is now bit by bit being returned to its real owner, and no longer to any one person who can try to exploit it.  Long live the King.  I, M.C. Julajerm Yukol.”

This Facebook post by M.C. Julajerm Yukol in July 2017 may offer some explanation.

7. Land returned to the Bureau of the Royal Household

Dusit Zoo

On 10 August 2018, Pitak Ounsorn, Director of Dusit Zoo, said that he had received a notification from the Zoological Park Organization under Royal Patronage to start the relocation plan for Dusit Zoo, by closing on 31 August 2018

On 30 Nov 2017 there was a report that Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha led an audience to receive land title deeds under the King’s signature to use for government service activities.  One of these was for 300 rai [0.48 sq km] of land on Khlong 6, Thanyaburi District, Pathum Thani Province, to use as the construction site for a new zoo and offices of the Zoological Park Organization under Royal Patronage.

The Dusit Zoo, formerly known as Dusit Park or Khao Din Wana, was graciously donated by King Rama V in 1895 for the construction of a botanical garden like those in other countries.  Khao Din Wana was one part of the Royal Dusit Palace.  After the change in the form of government, the government of Field Marshal Por Phibunsongkhram requested from the King the donation of Dusit Park for a public park.  Prince Aditya Dibabha, as regent, graciously gave permission in the name of King Rama VIII, and various animals were imported before Dusit Zoo was opened on 18 March 1958, the first zoo in Thailand.

Former Parliament House

On 26 December 2018, about 500 members of the NLA, government officials and reporters, dressed in the yellow of VolunteerSpirit volunteers, joined a ‘Big Cleaning Day’ activity at the parliament building before the overnight transfer of the building and land to the Bureau of the Royal Household, previously set for the end of the year.  Later the Bureau gave permission to the NLA to use Parliament Building for meetings 1 until February 2019, but only on the days of plenary meetings.

The site for construction of the new parliament changed 6 times beginning in 1993 during the Chuan Leekpai government with the idea of moving to the Nang Loeng Racecourse, then in 1999 to State Railways of Thailand (SRT) land in the Phahonyothin area, and in 2000 to Rat Phatsadu at Kiakkai Intersection.  In 2002 the Thaksin Shinawatra government had the idea of moving the capital to Nakhon Nayok, but heavy opposition forced abandonment of the project and land at Don Mueang Airport was chosen.  In 2008, the Samak Sundaravej government passed a resolution to go back to the Rat Phatsadu Kiakkai land.  In 2013 the Sino-Thai company won the construction bid by proposing a minimum price of 12.28 billion baht, to be completed by May 2015, but delays in transferring land and other delays forced extension of the contract to the end of 2019.

In 1969, the government of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn gave permission for the construction of a parliament building on 20 rai [32,000 sqm] of land to the north of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, with a budget of 51 million baht, in line with a proposal of the Secretariat of the House of Representatives, since the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, which had been used for the first parliamentary meetings, was unable to accommodate the increased number of MPs in line with the increase in the Thai population.  Construction took almost 4 years and was completed under the government of Sanya Dharmasakti.

Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall

On 13 September 2017, it was announced on Twitter that “the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall behind the equestrian statue of King Chulalongkorn will be permanently closed after this 30 September.  Anyone who has not yet viewed it should hurry.”  The mass media reported that enquiries made to officials through the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall telephone number given on the tourism website were given the answer that this was true and that it would be open to the public until 30 September 2017 and then closed to viewing.  It had not been determined when it would re-open.  However some of the objects on view in the Throne Hall would be taken for display at Ko Koet in Ayutthaya Province.

Vimanmek Mansion

On 5 August 2019, the media reported that officials of the Bureau of the Royal Household confirmed that at that time the Vimanmek Mansion was not open to tourists or outsiders.

In fact the Vimanmek Mansion in the grounds of Dusit Palace and was opened to the public in 1985 and closed for renovation in the middle of 2016.  Not long after, images from Google Maps revealed that the previous site of the Vimanmek Mansion had been cleared.  The 120-year-old teak building and surrounding buildings had been completely demolished, raising suspicions among many people.

However, Khaosod English reported on 25 July 2019 that the golden teak mansion was being renovated by being completely dismantled and rebuilt.  But after renovation, the building will not be open to the public.

Sanam Luang

Photograph taken 6 October 2019

Sanam Luang is registered as a historical site under the supervision of the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA).  The 1985 Bangkok Metropolitan Administration Act and the 2013 Bangkok Metropolitan Regulations on the Use, Maintenance and Conservation of the Sanam Luang Area specify that the BMA has the authority to supervise personnel, budget, and opening times as announced by BMA.  The Director of Phra Nakhon District has the authority to permit or not permit requests to use the area of Sanam Luang.  After it was fenced off and signposted by the Bureau of the Royal Household, there has been no response to questions to the BMA.

Sanam Luang originated in the construction of Rattanakosin during the reign of King Rama I as the venue for royal and public ceremonies, both formal and informal, until on 13 December 1977, the Department of Fine Arts listed Sanam Luang, with an area of 74 rai and 63 wa [11.92 ha] as a historical site in the Royal Gazette.  The Sanam Luang Weekend Market ran from 1948 until 1978 when the government of Gen Kriangsak Chamanan needed to use the area for the celebration for the Rattanakosin bicentennial.  The State Railway of Thailand transferred land to the south of Chatuchak Park to the BMA to be turned into the Chatuchak Weekend Market for vendors from Sanam Luang in 1982.  Sanam Luang was the venue for political and election campaign rallies after 14 October 1974 and was at the centre of the political violence on 16 October 1976.