By: Our Correspondent

The
history of the land owned by the Thai monarchy, and thus the Crown Property
Bureau, can be traced as far back as the Buddhist kingdom
of Sukothai in the 13th
century, as traditionally in Thailand
the king owns all the land.

In the
1800s, the monarchy set up the Privy Purse to use the profits from royal
trading to pay the royal household, and it was later used to finance overseas
education for royals. At least five percent of government revenues were
transferred into the Privy Purse each year.  In 1890, it became the Privy Purse Bureau
(PPB), acting as the monarchy’s investment arm, according to “A History of
Thailand” by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit.

The
government funds flowing into the PPB increased to about 15 percent of state
revenues and the money was used to invest in rice mills, property developments,
shops and provincial markets.

“As roads
were built the price of land increased, and this attracted the elite and the
PPB to invest in land and land related business such as market places and row
houses,” wrote Porphant Ouyyanont, an economist at Thammasat University,
in an academic paper. “A survey of land prices in Bangkok in the first decade of the 20th
century shows that the price of land was highest in the areas where roads were
cut.”

During
this time many Chinese families who prospered through royal patronage formed
banks and shipping companies to export rice. But a series of poor harvests from
1904 to 1908 led to a financial crisis.

The
monarchy, meanwhile, had set up Siam Commercial Bank with capital from
government revenues, allowing it to survive that economic downturn. SCB
extended loans to the Chinese merchants, who survived for a little while longer
before the monarchy’s bank seized their assets when they defaulted on loans.

By 1910,
the PPB was the country’s largest property owner, with about one-third of all
land in central Bangkok.
It held investments in railways, tramways, electricity, banking, cement, coal
mining and steam navigation. In addition to reclaiming land through bad debts,
it was able to occupy public land, and could directly buy land from whomever it
wanted.

The bureau
“always had the advantage in terms of obtaining information on road cutting,
the price of land, the advantage of land location and so on,” wrote Porphant.
“In this way the PPB acquired many plots of land established at good locations
and commercial centres.”

Often the
PPB would buy a plot of land to build houses, and then demand that the
government build a road nearby to increase the prices of land and properties.

“The
linking of Bangkok's administrative structure
with royal interests produced both a physical and economic stamp on Bangkok which has had an
enduring effect on the city's development,” Porphant wrote.

 

Absolute Monarchy Ends

 

Although in
1932 a coup ended the absolute monarchy, the putsch leaders wanted to keep the
monarch in a symbolic position to help control the masses. In bargaining over
his diminished role, King Prajadhipok, or Rama VII, at one point threatened to
sell many royal possessions, including palaces, shrines and even the Emerald
Buddha, which sits in the Grand
Palace to this day.

The new
government passed laws transferring control of the Privy Purse Bureau to the
government, and subjecting the king to an inheritance tax. Unsurprisingly, King
Prajadhipok failed to sign the legislation.

After the
king abdicated in 1935, the Privy Purse was divided into Prajadhipok’s personal
property and the Crown Property Bureau, which fell under the Ministry of
Finance.  That year, a New York Times
story said the king’s property yielded 500,000 pounds sterling annually, or
about 6.5 million baht at the time. An unskilled laborer in Bangkok at the time would make about one baht
for a day’s work, meaning he would have to work for 17,808 years to amass as
much as the palace made in 12 months.

In 1936,
the Royal Assets Structuring Act declared that all Crown Property Bureau income
was tax exempt, although the king must still pay taxes on his personal fortune.
“National assets are exempted from tax, so therefore the king’s assets are
exempted, because they are the same as national assets,” section eight of the
law says.

Thawiwong
Thawalyasak, educated in Cambridge and a page to Rama VI, persuaded the
government to recognize the palace’s ownership of property that fell into
private hands after Prajadhipok was gone, according to Paul Handley’s book, “The
King Never Smiles.” Thawalyasak made tens of thousands of residents on this
land start paying rent to the Crown Property Bureau, and began evicting those
who wouldn’t pay. He even tried to evict the parliament, but the lawmakers
refused.

The
consolidation of property under the CPB allowed the monarchy to slowly rebuild
its fortune. By the 1960s, Siam Cement, the majority palace-owned industrial
conglomerate, as well as Siam Commercial Bank (SCB), were growing with the
strong economy.

The palace
became the ideal joint venture partner. Its land was used to build major hotels
like the Siam Intercontinental, the Erawan and the Dusit Thani. It held
investments in insurance, agribusiness, tires, and textiles. By the late 1960s,
Handley writes, the CPB had 500 staff members to oversee its investments and
property holdings.

In 1970,
Thawiwong died, and the ensuing decade saw failed investments like Air Siam, an
airline meant to rival Thai Airways, and other challenges to the CPB empire.

In one
case noted by Handley, the bureau ordered slum dwellers at Mu Ban Thaepprathan
to vacate the premises so it could be commercially developed. “The very public
fight against eviction generated comparisons between the CPB and officials who
evicted poor farmers from degraded state forests,” he wrote. “When student
activists got involved and likened the palace to a landowning feudalist, the
embarrassed palace halted the project.”

In the
late 1970s, the Communist Party of Thailand had launched an offensive against
the monarchy, criticizing its extravagance. At one point, the communists
broadcast comments saying: “The more powerful the monarch becomes, the poorer
the people become, and the more the monarch’s income from land rental, his
shares in commercial companies and his bank savings increase.”

 

Prem brings stability

 

By the
early 1980s, the communists had suffered a series of setbacks, and many took up
an amnesty offered by former army chief Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, who
now heads Bhumibol’s 19-member privy council. Under Prem’s watchful eye, royal
projects funded by CPB revenues greatly expanded, along with the enforcement of
lese-majeste laws, ensuring that criticism of the palace came to a halt.

In 1988,
the CPB held stakes in about 40 companies, and the stock exchange was booming.
Its holdings in Siam Cement and SCB alone were worth more than $600 million,
not to mention the value of its 40,000 acres of land, including 13,300 in
Bangkok.

The
bureau’s burgeoning wealth put it on the radar screen of the foreign press, and
the Far Eastern Economic Review wrote a cover story on the CPB in June 1988
called “The King’s Conglomerate.” In it, Chirayu Isarangkun Na Ayuthaya, the
longstanding CPB director who had only been on the job a few months, said the
bureau is neither public nor private.

“We are a
little of both,” he told the magazine. “Our charter appears to highlight the
image of a public entity. But we also enjoy flexibility similar to [but not
totally on a par with] a private enterprise.”

The
article added that the CPB’s operations are “supervised” by a five-man
committee headed by the finance minister. The king is supposed to be consulted
on important matters, the article says, “but actual royal involvement is rare.”

The story
made no mention of the hybrid company’s unfair advantages, and didn’t question
the legal gray area the CPB operates in. For instance, if the CPB gets so many
state privileges and operates under the Ministry of Finance, why is its annual
report only for the eyes of the king?

A former
Finance Ministry official familiar with budgets says that although the
government technically runs the CPB, in reality the decisions are made by the
monarchy.

“Actually
the king is supposed to play a symbolic role,” he told Asia Sentinel. “But this
is Thailand.”

The king’s
personal fortune sits with the Privy Purse. Although the palace gets a stipend
from CPB revenues, the rest of the money goes to support the institution of the
monarchy, including the many royal projects and propaganda activities. But the
details of who gets what are not for public consumption.

Handley
argues that the royal projects, along with low rents and media campaigns, were
an orchestrated effort by the palace to win political support for the throne.
This could be seen from the many villagers who petitioned the king directly to
help them.

“Details
about these petition cases remain a closely held secret of the palace, with the
secrecy enhancing the very mystery of the king’s wisdom and ability to improve
the lives of his subjects,” he writes. “The cases divulged a greater truth,
though: the more the king’s works were advertised by Prem at the expense of the
government’s, the more the people looked beyond the government to their king
for escape from misery.” Without funds from the CPB, this would be impossible.

 

Rapid expansion

 

Things
only got better for the palace business conglomerate in the early 1990s.
Chirayu aggressively sought deals with developers that would give the CPB a
return of share rentals and equity. It put more money into small restaurants,
luxury condominiums, shopping complexes, hotels and office space. The new
leases substantially increased CPB income and the king’s personal wealth. In
1990, Handley writes, dividends to the Mahidol family (Bhumibol was the son of
Prince Mahidol of Songkhla and the grandson of King Chulalongkorn) reached
US$30 to $40 million per year tax-free, and the holdings of the royal family
were worth more than $1 billion. Estimates now put Bhumibol’s personal wealth
at between $2 billion and $8 billion.

The crown also
had big plans. Its media arm sought to buy Thai-language dailies and a
television station, as well as build a film production studio and tourist
attraction to rival Universal Studios. The CPB had subsidiaries involved in
advertising, cable television, financial services, construction, cinemas, insurance,
hospitals, and petrochemicals, among many others.

During
this time, a few questionable deals surfaced. In 1996, the government
investigated when Siam TV & Commercial, a joint venture between the CPB and
SCB, won a concession to run a commercial television station, iTV. The company
won the 30-year contract with an offer of 120 billion baht in royalties, even
though a rival company offered royalties of 625 billion baht. The results of
the investigation were never reported.

Also in
1996, the CPB sought to acquire a 15 percent stake in rehabilitated First
Bangkok City Bank from the central bank for 8.50 baht a share, even though the
market valued them at 22.50 baht per share. The deal was arranged by Finance
Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, who is married to Suthawan Sathirathai, a niece
of Queen Sirikit. The successor for Surakiart, who also served in Thaksin’s
administration, canceled the order, saying “the fund stands to lose too much.”

 

Crash

 

When the
government floated the baht on July 2, 1997, the Crown Property Bureau was
devastated. Its media arm, already struggling before the crash, quickly went
bankrupt. Siam Cement and SCB were also shaken, and Chirayu took over as board
chairman of both companies. Siam Cement had not hedged US$4.2 billion in
foreign debts, resulting in a $1.2 billion foreign exchange loss in 1997. Siam
Commercial Bank was worse off, as loan collateral didn’t even cover half of the
loans given out. The bureau’s total liabilities hit six billion baht.

By 1998,
Chirayu said it was time to “bite the bullet.” The CPB announced that it was
cutting 143 billion baht worth of new projects and adopting the king’s
“sufficiency economy” approach. It would now focus on its core investments in
Siam Cement and SCB, as well as try to extract more money from its leases.

“We're
told not to be greedy,” Chirayu told reporters. “Our problem in the past when
the economy was in good shape was that we received many investment invitations
and we agreed. From now on, we need to be careful and our investment policy
will hinge on the macroeconomic prospects. We must not invest in risky
projects.”

 

Getting a “fair return”

 

The bureau
received a large amount of help post-crisis, although its earnings reportedly
dropped 80 percent in 1998. Honda Motor raised capital in its struggling local
unit partially owned by the CPB and offered to sell the stake back to the
bureau at book value in 10 years. At the same time, Chirayu insisted that the
government help bail out SCB, even though it was strictly a commercial
enterprise.

The
government proceeded to inject $1 billion to bail out SCB and agreed to sell
back its stake to the bureau in the coming years. The CPB did so in 2004 when
it traded a piece of land near Victory Monument to the Finance Ministry, which
technically oversees the bureau, for a 13 percent stake in SCB.

After the
financial crisis, Thaksin also helped the palace out when he paid $60 million
for SCB’s stake in iTV, which for a brief period was the only independent
television station in Thailand. “With little likelihood of ever recovering the
investment, Thaksin was effectively bailing out the bank and the palace,”
Handley wrote.

The CPB
also set a goal in 2000 to increase revenue from rents from 300 million baht
per year to one billion baht by 2005. It would raise rents across the board,
including for the cash-strapped government agencies that supposedly controlled
the bureau.

“We will
focus on both areas and try to maximize benefits from our assets,” Chirayu
said. “We also have no plan to invest in any new projects.”

Having
learned its lesson, the CPB restructured in 2001. Chirayu announced that the
CPB would shed its “antiquated” way of doing business to get a “fair return” on
its holdings. The bureau created CPB Equity to look after its equity
investments and joint ventures, and CPB Property to look after its land
holdings.

 

Things
suddenly got much better the following year, and the halt on investments was
lifted. Helped by a team that prominently featured American business consultant
Michael David Selby, the Crown Property Bureau announced that it repaid its
debts from the financial crisis and was “now financially strong,” according to
executive Yos Euarchukiati.

In fact,
its plans, as the ensuing years have shown, were bigger than ever.

Part
One: How Thailand’s Royal Manage to Own All the Good Stuff

Related
Story: Long Live the King