Death of a Monarch or an Oligarch?

Death of a Monarch or an Oligarch?
Photo Credit: Reuters/ 達志影像

What you need to know

At the end of a king’s long reign, it won’t just be a game of thrones that plays out in Thailand – it will be a game of gold.

The Associated Press recently published an article on the “Thai monarchy’s billions.” This makes for an important, if brief, reminder that there is more than just the power of quasi-governmental position or the power of ideology to the elite role that the late monarch held within the Thai polity.

Because the King could also readily command a power of mobilisation and could have, at least theoretically, commanded a certain power of coercion if the Thai nation were to ever actually slip into a prolonged, violent emergency, he also commanded a remarkable degree of power in terms of raw material wealth.

An extreme concentration of material wealth has political consequences. Thailand, in this regard, is no different than any other polity across the globe. What is unique about Thailand is that its wealthiest citizen also happened be the focal point of so many other bases of elite power. The late monarch was both an elite and an oligarch. And as he was arguably the top elite amidst a network of various elites, he was also the top oligarch.

Thus, as objectively and level-headed as one can be about such things, we should do well to review the state of Thailand’s oligarchy at this juncture of the late monarch’s—the late top oligarch’s—death.

As a side note on motivation for this piece, it should also be plainly stated that one does not mull over economic inequality simply for the sake of getting a pat on the back by our overly-represented, Left-leaning colleagues in academia. Nor does one do this in order to conjure up even rarer arguments for the late monarch’s well-recorded and, at times, patently undemocratic tendencies. Rather, one ought to review the late King’s material wealth as social power simply because in Thailand it is an empirical fact that money matters quite a great deal on the political stage, both locally and nationally.

With the King’s passing, what has changed about oligarchy in Thailand? What has stayed the same? Beginning with the latter, the overall structure of oligarchy has not changed within Thailand since Thursday, 13 October 2016.

There are still incredibly wealthy Thai individuals. Those who were ranked at the top on Wednesday were also the same who were ranked at the top on Thursday. Not including the late monarch, and depending on how exact we wish to be about this, there are currently 24 people in Thailand worth more than US$ 1 billion. Of course, a ranking like this is compiled primarily by equity investments, and less on real estate—which is well known as being a murkier topic of research in Thailand.

For Thailand’s structure of oligarchy to have changed in some fundamental way in the last few days would have meant putting together a massive mobilization of people. A mobilization of people led by one individual is never a guarantee for oligarchic overthrow (not to mention its inherent capacity for violence). But a real and protracted physical mobilization of Thais could potentially stifle, if not end for some time, oligarchic influence within the country. Perhaps it is trite to mention this, but the only mass mobilization that has taken place in downtown Bangkok was not against any oligarch, but rather in solidarity with the fallen top oligarch.

From a comparative politics perspective, Thailand’s structure of oligarchy has also not changed recently. By constructing a specific Material Power Index (MPI) for Thailand and then comparing it to MPIs for other national states in East and Southeast Asia where data is available, Thailand’s top 50 wealthiest have an averaged MPI which is higher than that found in China, in Singapore, in Japan, in Indonesia, in Malaysia, in the Philippines and so on. Even if one were to exclude the monarch’s wealth from this averaged MPI calculation for Thailand, the country still comes out on top.

The following is simply an empirical fact: Thailand is the most oligarchic polity by this measure for this region of the world.

It should also be noted that unlike any calculation done to construct a Gini Coefficient or Index, where the measure of inequality retains anonymity for those who are wealthiest, an MPI always points to those who have the greatest share of material power. There is a very good reason why the World Bank pools data for country-level Gini Indices and not Material Power Indices. The former is a spectre that haunts; the latter has a face and name and a physical address where one can mobilise a confrontation of oligarchic power.

For Thailand, this MPI is ignored by the naïve and the willfully ignorant in equal measure.

Admittedly, regurgitating what has not changed about Thailand’s oligarchy is easier to do than record, with genuine accuracy, what really has changed since the King’s passing. This is because with the secrecy surrounding the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) and the very real fear of so many Thais and international scholars to Thailand of being imprisoned for even voicing such a query, adequate public data are not available.

Now that the Thai junta leader has publicly reasserted the Crown Prince as the legal heir apparent to the Thai throne, the assumption is that the same portion of the CPB that was managed directly by the late monarch—managed in theory if not in actuality—will go to the son. There are finer points of royal law on how this transition may take place which are honestly beyond my training in Thai studies. (Others are encouraged to comment below.) But for now, the working assumption is that a sizeable portion of CPB will make its way into the son’s hands.

Corporate governance issues of the Crown Property Bureau—that is how and for whom exactly the entity is managed—have the potential to become a surreal topic once the son becomes more directly involved. On these issues where the CPB’s holdings in equity and real estate overlap with investments by other Thai oligarchs, one can expect to see the most contention. Since the CPB is not taxed in the same manner as other Thai commercial entities or family estates, one would not expect for any particular push for less taxation coming from the new top oligarch on this issue.

Like all families, points of virulent and self-righteous acrimony are bound to surface during this handing over of the keys to the vault from one generation to the next. Who gets what, who feels like they should get what, and so on will play out behind gold-paneled doors no doubt. The general public will not know what is happening.

A weakness in all scholarly works, particularly ones that research oligarchy anywhere in the globe, is that we are often the last ones to analyze such things. Even the really great academic work by Porphant Ouyyanont on the CPB has been published a few years after the fact. This is all to say, and to encourage those investigative journalists, both local Thai and international, that the day-to-day and minute-to-minute machinations of how and to what degree the wealth of the top oligarch is, or is not, dispersed over the coming year will come from you.

That said, that there is any disruption or reluctance in this process of handing over real control of the Crown Property Bureau is the issue on the subject of oligarchy in Thailand that has changed since 13 October 2016.

We have to remember that the late monarch was not just the top oligarch for Thailand, he was actually the wealthiest person in all of Asia. Even if we use the lower estimate of “only” US$ 30 billion in assets, this would make the new heir richer than both Wang Jianlin of China (US$ 28.7 billion) and Li Ka-shing of Hong Kong (US$ 27.1 billion). In fact, the heir would only be halfway from the wealthiest individual in the world with Bill Gates (US$ 75 billion).

The caustic fact which the majority of Thai people and those of us who study Thailand may be reluctant to acknowledge is that because there are only approximately 1,700 known billionaires in the world, whoever has accesses to the Crown Property Bureau will become, comparatively, one of the most materially powerful people in the world. At the very least, the most materially powerful person in Asia will be a Thai.

Let the children enjoy their show of Thailand’s game of thrones. Those in the know understand that the real game is, and always will be, a game of gold.

This article was first published at New Mandala ­– a specialist website on Southeast Asian affairs based at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

Editor: Edward White