Saturday, October 15, 2016

Thailand Mourns its King

King Bhumibol of Thailand for more than 70 years has died. He was genuinely revered by his subjects. The king was an accomplished composer and musician who had jammed with jazz musician Benny Goodman. He became active in village technology, touring the country to oversee rural development projects. He is succeeded by the Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

The Crown Property Bureau (CPB), in Thailand, is not obliged to release any details of its accounts or activities, so its precise assets are unknown. 2014 estimates by Porphant Ouyyanont, a Thai academic who has done landmark research on the CPB, put its portfolio at up to $59.4 billion — nearly four times richer than the British monarchy.

The CPB has invested in dozens of companies over the years, but the bulk of its returns come from land, banking, and cement. Company accounts show it holds a 23.69 percent stake in Siam Commercial Bank ($2.9 billion) , the kingdom’s oldest bank, and a 31.6 percent stake in Siam Cement Company ($5.2) billion a sprawling conglomerate that has paved Thailand’s urban expansion and branched out across the region’s growing economies. The CPB is also one of the kingdom’s largest landlords with 40,000 rental contracts, half of which are in prime areas of Bangkok, according to the 2011 biography of Bhumibol published on the CPB website. Property holdings cover 3,320 acres in Bangkok and more than 13,000 acres in the rest of the country. It says a high estimate of the value of the Bangkok property alone is $28 billion but the Bureau values it at less than a third of that. Many of the rents it charges are far below market rates.

The Bureau’s returns is tax-exempt and is an estimated revenue of $2.5 billion to $3 billion a year, from which part of the royal family's expenses are paid.

The CPB was initially placed under state control when it was formed in 1936, just a few years after the absolute monarchy was abolished in Thailand. But a decade later the keys were handed back to the king, giving him final say over any asset sales and power to appoint six out of seven board members. The 1948 legislation also made clear revenue “may be disbursed only by the king”.

The bureau’s funds are used to cover the royal family’s expenses and the upkeep of palaces and other royal sites. However, the palace also receives millions of dollars from the government budget to foot a number of other expenses. Around $170 million annually in state funding covers the salaries of staff working in the Royal Household Bureau and other key palace offices, plus security provided for the royals by police and armed forces. Public funds also cover many of the rural development projects that have been exhaustively promoted by the palace. 

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