Thailand’s taboo-breaking demonstrations are about more than the right to criticize the monarchy without fear of going to prison: Protesters want taxpayers to control investments and real estate worth tens of billions of US dollars.
The Thai royal family has long been the biggest shareholder in two of the country’s most valuable companies, Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement, as well as vast plots of land in central Bangkok that house luxury shopping malls, high-end hotels and towering office buildings.
That portfolio, as confirmed by public records, has put the monarchy in business with many of Thailand’s tycoons, affirming Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s position at the apex of power.
Illustration: Constance Chou
However, new is the level of public discourse about it, fed by disquiet over legal changes in 2017 and 2018 that were approved by a military-appointed parliament without public debate.
The issue has become one of the rallying cries for protesters who regularly march through Bangkok’s streets, numbering at times in the tens of thousands.
Those legal changes gave the king the power to put his name on the assets of the Thai Crown Property Bureau — an agency that managed them for the palace no matter who sat on the throne. They were the first adjustments to Thailand’s crown property law in about 70 years.
The changes made clear that the king was one of Asia’s wealthiest men, and that he had final say on the holdings. They consolidated management of personal assets and those managed by the property bureau, and eliminated the Thai minister of finance’s role as the agency’s ex-officio chairperson.
The student groups — who have been protesting since mid-July — include the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, which has produced 10 demands “to resolve the problems with the monarchy.”
The students are seeking a revocation of the legal changes and “a clear division” between the king’s personal assets and other crown property.
“The monarchy’s power isn’t just limited to politics, but also touches the economy,” Parit Chiwarak, a protest leader who was in August released from jail, said by telephone in September. “The king now holds shares in some of the country’s biggest companies, owns assets and has connections with many big businesses in the country.”
Multiple calls and e-mails to the property bureau over a period of several months to Wednesday last week went unanswered, and an official at the Thai Bureau of the Royal Household did not give their name, but said that the household bureau did not comment on such matters.
In a note explaining the legal changes in 2018, the property bureau said it “had the duty to return whatever assets of the crown property previously under its charge to His Majesty so that His Majesty may take decisions on all matters pertaining to their charge and management at his discretion.”
The royal family is shielded by strict defamation laws that have stifled discussion about palace finances. However, with many people struggling economically during the COVID-19 pandemic, the king’s wealth has turned into a source of resentment — and a potential risk for some tycoons who do business with the palace.
In September, protesters installed a plaque near the Grand Palace in Bangkok that read: “The country belongs to the people, not the monarchy.”
Authorities removed it the next day.
In a rare show of public defiance, protesters on Oct. 14 shouted at a passing motorcade carrying Thai Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana: “My taxes!”
The Thai government in the past few weeks stepped up arrests and some protesters face sedition charges, which could lead to as many as seven years in jail.
“The key task for the government is to protect the monarchy,” Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters on Oct. 19.
In a speech two days later, Prayuth — who in 2014 led a military coup and won an election last year his opponents describe as rigged — said that his duty was to ensure “the prosperity of the nation, the protection from dark forces that may seek to damage our country and fairness to all in society.”
His government has been silent on the demands to reform the monarchy.
“Political expression is guaranteed under the constitution, but the important thing is it has to obey the law,” government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said.
The property bureau’s profits have long been controlled by the king. While the agency does not give a detailed accounting of its assets, it issued annual reports for 2010 to 2016 that included some financial information.
It also disclosed previously unreleased figures in the 2011 book King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work, part of which is still posted on the property bureau’s Web site.
Over the past few decades, the bureau has held stakes in companies involved in everything from insurance to producing COVID-19 tests.
Its most prominent corporate holdings were in Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement, which — now in the king’s name — had a combined value of US$7.3 billion as of Wednesday.
Since Vajiralongkorn became king, that stake received more than US$1.2 billion in net dividends, according to calculations by Bloomberg.
At both companies, the dividend payout to net income ratio has in the past few years increased: Siam Commercial Bank this year announced a special dividend after the sale of an insurance unit, while analysts said that Siam Cement had more cash on hand due to increased profitability.
Representatives from both companies did not respond to requests for comment.
In a 2018 announcement, the property bureau said that the share transfer reflected the legal changes and would not affect the business operations of the companies.
Even more valuable is the crown’s land. The 2011 book estimated the value of the property bureau’s Bangkok landholdings by area — about one-fifth of its total — at 1 trillion baht (US$33.1 billion at the current exchange rate) at market prices, while saying that the agency booked the land value at less than one-third of that figure based on cost.
Since that valuation was published, parcels of premium city center land have skyrocketed. The former British embassy, a short walk from some of the crown’s most-prized real estate, in 2018 sold for ￡420 million (US$564.46 million at the current exchange rate). It is unclear how the pandemic might have affected prices, or how the property bureau’s land holdings have changed in the past few years.
The property bureau has over the past decade sought to revitalize several plots in the city center, including its first commercial development project offering “super luxury residences.”
On other plots, the property bureau is leasing land it manages to companies owned by some of Thailand’s wealthiest individuals.
One Bangkok, a nearly US$4 billion project that is to include one of Southeast Asia’s tallest buildings, is being developed in part by a group owned by billionaire Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, who made his fortune selling alcoholic beverages such as Chang beer.
Dusit Central Park, another project, is being codeveloped by Central Pattana, a company owned by the billionaire Chirathivat family.
A representative of Dusit Central Park declined to comment on the protests, or the company’s links to crown land, “due to the sensitivity of the issue.”
A representative of One Bangkok was similarly “unable to comment,” noting that the company and development have not been mentioned by protesters.
Ownership of the monarch’s assets has for decades been a point of contention.
After the 1932 revolution, civilian leaders passed a law setting up the property bureau with the status of a department of the Ministry of Finance to manage the monarchy’s assets, which were separated from the king’s personal holdings.
A royalist administration changed the law in 1948, allowing the property bureau to operate independently from the government while retaining the finance minister as ex-officio chairperson and allowing income after expenses to be “paid at the king’s pleasure in any case.”
While previous governments differentiated between the king’s personal wealth and assets that belonged to the state, one official said that there was no real distinction.
Former Thai minister of finance Korn Chatikavanij, who served from late 2008 to 2011, recalled a discussion with palace officials on how to respond to media reports saying that then-King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the world’s richest monarch.
The property bureau was “huffing and puffing wanting to write a letter of complaint” to clarify that the assets belonged to the state instead of the individual, Korn said.
THE KING’s BENEFITS
However, it had no grounds to complain because the law clearly stated that “any benefits derived from the assets — such as dividends and interest — belonged to the king.”
Korn said that the protester’s demands should be discussed in the Thai parliament.
“These are issues that, if approached constructively, can lead to better understanding and broader acceptance of the monarchy and the institution,” he said
A key figure pushing for change is Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, whose pro-democracy Future Forward Party was disbanded for breaching financing rules after a strong performance in last year’s Thai general election, a move he called politically motivated.
Thanathorn criticized a budget passed in September that allocated 8.98 billion baht for royal affairs, a 16.9 percent jump over last year, compared with a 3.1 percent increase in overall spending.
In an interview, Thanathorn said that he was “furious” that taxpayer funds for the monarchy are rising at a “dangerous rate” when millions are out of work.
He described royal spending as a “black hole” and called for transparency regarding all expenditure.
Citing documents he saw in his role as a member of a legislative committee to vet the budget for the next fiscal year, he said that a fleet of 38 aircraft used by the palace was set to expand to 47.
The government did not reply to a request for comment.
Any adjustments to the ownership of the assets would be difficult “without a constitutional crisis of some sort,” said Chris Baker, an academic in Bangkok who interviewed officials from the property bureau while cowriting the chapter on palace finances for King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work.
“I think the situation now is unsustainable,” Baker said.
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