The elephant in the room: Explosive revelations about royal involvement in police corruption

Also in this edition: Australian obsequiousness backfires, Bajrakitiyabha does a carefully rehearsed parachute jump, and a policeman is punished for polygamy

Welcome to the Secret Siam weekly news roundup. If you missed it over the weekend, I published a new article on the three innocent men executed 66 years ago for allegedly conspiring to murder King Ananda Mahidol. The article is for paying subscribers, so if you would like to read it you can sign up here:

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Elephant ticket revelations electrify the censure debate

After a four-day censure debate from Tuesday to Friday, the 10 targeted cabinet ministers easily survived their no-confidence votes on Saturday, as expected because of the regime’s large coalition majority. But the debate gave the opposition a chance to air evidence of government corruption and incompetence, and the most explosive moment came on Friday when the Move Forward Party’s Rangsiman Rome made a bombshell speech exposing palace involvement in widespread corruption in the police.

Rome, a 27-year-old activist-turned-legislator, discussed how the palace is directly involved in police promotions via a system of “elephant tickets” — documents issued by Major General Torsak Sukvimol, head of the Ratchawallop Police Retainers of the Royal Guard 904, the special military and police force directly commanded by Vajiralongkorn. Torsak is the younger brother of Air Chief Marshal Satitpong Sukvimol, one of the king’s closest and most powerful advisors, who heads the Crown Property Bureau and is Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household Bureau. According to Rome, Satitpong runs the elephant ticket scheme with Torsak.

He shared a document from 2019 in which Satitpong asked Vajiralongkorn to authorise promotions and awards for 20 police officers. This was granted, in a document signed by both King Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida, although in the version shared by Rome their signatures were redacted.

Rome also discussed how some police officers are ordered to do special training for several months at Thaweewattana Palace to join the Ratchawallop Police Retainers, and anyone who refuses is punished by having to go on a lengthy disciplinary course.

Predictably, there was uproar in parliament as Rome gave his speech, and he was interrupted several times even though he only identified those involved in the elephant ticket scheme by their initials. Parliament speaker Supachai Phuso ordered him to avoid further mention of the monarchy. Prawit Wongsuwan, who has been involved in the corrupt sale of military and police promotions for years along with his brother Patcharawat, was so infuriated that he stormed out.

In a news conference after his parliament speech, Rome presented the evidence in much greater detail.

Daring to share these revelations showed incredible bravery. The regime has already threatened to file lèse majesté charges against him. Suphon Attawong, the former Red Shirt activist “Rambo Isaan” who changed sides and is now assistant minister at the PM’s office, told reporters: “Our legal team has looked into it and concluded that the information is sufficient for prosecution under Article 112.”

But the risks go beyond lèse majesté. In his news conference Rome mentioned not only the Sukvimol brothers but also Vajiralongkorn’s feared security chief Jakrapob Bhuridej and his brother, police Major General Jirapob Bhuridej who heads the Crime Suppression Division. These men hate being in the spotlight and are certain to be enraged by Rome’s accusations. They have a history of violence against their enemies.

Rome acknowledged the danger he faces, saying: “I’m aware that this could be the dangerous mission of my life, but since the people already chose me for this job, I have to carry out my duty to the best of my ability. I don’t know what will be the consequences of my action from now. I don’t know what waits for me in the next three days. I don’t know what will happen in the next three months. I don’t know if I’ll still be able to speak on behalf of the people. But no matter what happens, I don’t regret carrying out my duty today.”

Vajiralongkorn and his allies have interfered with police promotions for decades to build a network that raises significant funds through organised crime and abuse of police procedures. He has intervened in the appointment of most police chiefs and other senior positions since the 1980s, and had significant control over the police long before he began establishing influence over military promotions. In 2009, his pressure to get Jumpol Manmai appointed police chief led to a major row with prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva that was discussed in several leaked US cables, including 09BANGKOK2289:

Jumpol was the go-between for Thaksin Shinawatra to send cash skimmed from the national lottery to Vajiralongkorn, and also a gift of a $9 million villa in Phuket. He was eventually purged and jailed by the king in 2017.

Vajiralongkorn also installed Pongpat Chayapan, uncle of his third wife Srirasmi Suwadee, as head of the police Central Investigation Bureau for several years until he divorced Srirasmi and purged and jailed her relatives in 2014. Pongpat ran an extensive criminal network on behalf of Vajiralongkorn, involving smuggling of oil and antiques, illegal casinos, and intimidation for hire.

The upper echelons of the police are dominated by palace appointees and allies and relatives of the Sukvimol and Bhuridej brothers.

Rome’s information on how some officers are ordered to spend months away from their family for training at Thaweewattana Palace to join the Ratchawallop Police Retainers, and face severe punishment if they decline, is also accurate. I have been contacted by several police over the past few years who were distraught at being put in this position, and I was sent documents in 2019 showing the fate of punished officers.

The revelations are intensely awkward for prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha, his sidekick Prawit, the palace and the police. Police are refusing to comment, and the regime has tried to brush off the scandal. But there has been huge interest on social media — the hashtag #ตั๋วช้าง was the top trending topic on Twitter on Friday, and now a new anti-monarchy hashtag #เลิกซาบซึ้งเจ้าตอนไหน — How old were you when you lost faith in the monarchy? — is getting hundreds of thousands of comments and retweets.

During the debate, notorious regime MPs Paiboon Nititawan and Sira Jenjaka also tried to silence Move Forward legislator Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn when he criticised the disastrous vaccine procurement strategy and accused Prayut of using the lèse majesté law to hide behind the palace and avoid scrutiny of the vaccine plans. Sira even moved seats to be close to Wiroj as an intimidation tactic. His other main claim to fame over the week was being reprimanded after he showed up with a protective amulet with the face of party leader Prawit Wongsuwan. With typical incompetence, Sira somehow managed to spell both Prawit’s first and last name wrong on the amulet.

Prayut, who can’t handle criticism without flying into a rage, claimed that if there were any problems with the vaccine rollout, it wasn’t the fault of his government and the critics should be blamed instead. “Mark your own words if there is a problem, you will be held responsible,” he angrily told Wiroj. In another outburst later in the week, he stormed out of the chamber on Thursday afternoon during a discussion of the southern economic zone.

Two protests were held outside the National Assembly during the censure debate — a Mob Fest event on Friday, and a Ratsadon rally on Saturday. Activists on both days made a point of stressing the importance of protesting peacefully, after ugly scenes the previous week when some hardcore members of the crowd pelted police with bricks, bottles and firecrackers. Jailed human rights lawyer Anon Nampha also released a statement from prison warning against “playing into the hands of the state and inciting the use of violence”.

Both protests ended without any confrontation, although plenty of activists made clear what they think about the monarchy.

The next protest will be on Tuesday, February 23, and the theme — inevitably — is the elephant ticket.

"Unfortunate to put it mildly"

Last Monday, the Australian embassy hosted a special event with the king and queen in attendance, along with prime minister Prayut and several cabinet ministers and privy councillors, for the screening of a film about Vajiralongkorn’s six years in Australia at school and then the Royal Military College at Duntroon.

Several guests present at the event were startled by the obsequious behaviour of ambassador Allan McKinnon. The king and queen had special chairs to watch the film, while everybody else bizarrely had to sit facing sideways.

According to embassy sources, Thailand’s foreign ministry told McKinnon last November that the palace was extremely displeased with a high-profile 60 Minutes report on the king which included an interview with me and revelations from declassified Australian cables — also reported by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Michael Ruffles — showing Vajiralongkorn struggled in Australia with his schooling and military training. Thai diplomats routinely complain to foreign governments about media coverage deemed disrespectful towards the monarchy, even in countries with freedom of the press.

To try to repair the damage, the Australian embassy created an 18-minute film with archive footage and photographs of Vajiralongkorn’s time at the King’s School in Sydney and then Duntroon, plus hagiographic commentary from various elderly Australian men and some clumsily intrusive background music. After Monday’s special royal screening, it was shown on Thai television over the following three evenings.

But as ABC’s southeast Asia correspondent Mazoe Ford reported, “the timing has raised some eyebrows”. Given the king’s scandalous private life, the abduction and murder of several Thai dissidents abroad, and the lèse majesté charges being pursued against at least 60 pro-democracy activists and legislators, it was a remarkably tone-deaf gesture by the embassy.

Veteran journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk told ABC that the timing was “unfortunate to put it mildly”. He added: “It's sending a very awkward message because we are in the middle of unprecedented calls for monarchy reform and then you see the government of Australia simply behave as if, you know, there is no controversy.”

Greg Raymond of the Australian National University agreed that “the timing does seem slightly amiss”, adding: “They're producing this documentary in a social and political context where the place of the monarchy in Thailand is becoming increasingly a fraught question.”

Besides the timing, another problem with the documentary is that Vajiralongkorn’s performance at Duntroon was a major embarrassment, and indeed he never actually graduated from the college — his performance was not good enough. As cables cited by 60 Minutes and the Sydney Morning Herald showed, an assessment of his first year at Duntroon was that: “He is obviously unsure of himself, needs others to lean on and is seeking security.”

In a mysterious incident in July 1973, rumours spread in Bangkok that Vajiralongkorn had been shot at Duntroon. It was quickly denied by the Australian government, and a secret US cable also said the story wasn’t true.

After a trip back to Thailand in December 1973 and January 1974, during which his father King Bhumibol tried to instil some discipline into him, an Australian cable said Vajiralongkorn was “generally in a state of considerable shock as a result of impressions and experiences during his visit home”, adding: “He had mumbled incoherently a great deal.” A reply from the Australian embassy in Bangkok said Vajiralongkorn found the responsibilities of being a future monarch “somewhat traumatic, bewildering and overwhelming”.

For the final years of his training at Duntroon, Vajiralongkorn did not follow the same programme as other students, because he was unable to keep up with the academic elements of the course, and he did not do well enough to formally graduate from the college. This caused a diplomatic headache, as the Australians wanted to avoid causing embarrassment. A cable from Marshall Johnston, Australian ambassador in Bangkok, insisted:

It is most important that the prince should not be made to feel different or inferior or to lose face in any way. If this happened we would risk losing the tremendous goodwill we have built up here by training the prince at Duntroon. I hope, therefore, this question will be approached with imagination and flexibility.

So in the end, Vajiralongkorn joined the graduation parade, but instead of being handed a graduation certificate by governor general Sir John Kerr like all the other cadets, he was instead given a commission as a captain in the Royal Thai Army. It was a face-saving way of allowing him to participate in the ceremony.

Details of Vajiralongkorn’s performance at Duntroon remain classified to avoid harming relations with Thailand, so it has always been difficult to conclusively verify whether or not he graduated, even though several informed sources are clear that he did not. The Australian embassy documentary includes footage of the graduation ceremony around the 14 minute mark in which an announcement can be heard that Vajiralongkorn was receiving his Thai army commission, and so inadvertently confirms that the information is correct and he never graduated from Duntroon.

Drawing attention to this embarrassing episode so publicly may end up doing the embassy more harm than good.

The princess finally parachutes

As I reported last week, Princess Bajrakitiyabha has been spending time at the Special Warfare Command in Lopburi, allegedly for military training. Palace propaganda about her training claimed she’d be learning various advanced warfare techniques and doing a HALO (high-altitude low-opening) parachute jump. She even had her hair cut into the style her father requires for soldiers, police and most members of his harem.

In a curious episode last week, photographs and video of a woman doing a parachute jump were given to royalist Instagram fan pages, and several media reported that they showed Bajrakitiyabha. In some of the images, her instructors were kneeling on the tarmac as she boarded the plane. But after it was widely pointed out in online comments that the woman clearly wasn’t Bajrakitiyabha, military sources then claimed that the images showed a step-by-step dress rehearsal. The following day, video of Bajrakitiyabha’s actual parachute jump was released.

The fact that it required a full dress rehearsal, and that three instructors surrounded her during her descent to ensure that absolutely nothing could go wrong, shows that this was not real military training at all. No other cadet in training would receive such special treatment. Indeed, when Vajiralongkorn was at Duntroon his instructors and classmates were told to treat him like any other cadet, and obviously nobody was required to prostrate to him, as soldiers in Lopburi are having to do for the princess.

Siege mentality

Aside from a small group of protesters who threw projectiles at police earlier in February, leading to a brutal response, the Thai democracy movement has been extremely careful to avoid violence, even in the face of extreme provocation and attacks with tear gas, water cannons and riot police batons. But the regime continues to act as if it’s terrified of being violently overthrown.

On Saturday, Bangkok residents awoke to find the Grand Palace had been completely barricaded by a long wall of shipping containers, even though protesters had made clear they had no plans to go near Sanam Luang that day.

Sanam Luang — previously a public park — is now completely closed. Members of the public are not allowed in to walk across the park or use the running and cycle track.

Nearby in Royal Plaza a large permanent fence is being erected, along with signs declaring the area to be “royal ground” — a warning to protesters to stay away.

It’s more evidence of the paranoia and siege mentality of Vajiralongkorn.

Quote of the week

Health minister Anutin Charnvirakul shares more wisdom about his vaccine plan:

I haven’t hidden anything but need to find the right time to explain my decisions. There are concerns about untoward occurrences, like what happens if the plane carrying the vaccines crashes? If the vaccine does not arrive, it will not be the government’s fault, because we have completed our side of the job.

Polygamous policeman punished

Thai social media has been abuzz with the tale of a policeman who was in the middle of a marriage ceremony with his new bride at a temple in Chai Nat province when his actual wife stormed in along with their kids and even his mother, who smacked him over the head.

“I want this to be a lesson to all women!” his mother said. “If you know a man already has a family, don’t be a homewrecker. I don’t understand why the bride got married to him, knowing that he was already married.”

The 34-year-old police captain faces disciplinary action and 30 days detention for illegally trying to marry a woman when he already has a wife.

But what has made the story so intriguing for Thais is that it closely mirrors the soap opera unfolding within the palace, where King Vajiralongkorn has been signalling his devotion to his official consort Sineenat “Koi” Wongvajirapakdi even though he’s married to Queen Suthida “Nui” Tidjai. As I’ve been reporting for several weeks, it’s likely that Koi will be promoted to become a second queen this year. Ordinary people aren’t allowed two wives, but the king, it seems, can do whatever he wants.

That’s all for this edition. Thanks for reading! 🙏