BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thailand's taboo-breaking demonstrations are about more than the right to criticise the monarchy without fear of going to prison: Protesters want taxpayers to control investments and real estate worth tens of billions of dollars.
Thailand's royal family has long been the biggest shareholder in two of the country's most valuable companies, Siam Commercial Bank Pcl and Siam Cement Pcl, 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 recent public records, has put the monarchy in business with many of Thailand's tycoons, affirming the king's position at the apex of power.
What's 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. Now the issue has become one of the rallying cries for protesters who march regularly through Bangkok's streets, numbering at times in the tens of thousands.
Those legal changes gave King Maha Vajiralongkorn the power to put his name on the assets of the Crown Property Bureau - an agency that managed them for the palace no matter who sat on the throne. They were the first adjustments to the crown property law in roughly 70 years.
The changes made clear 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 Crown Property Bureau, and eliminated the finance minister's role as the agency's ex-officio chairman.
The student groups - who've 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 "Penguin" Chiwarak, a protest leader who was recently released from jail, said by phone 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 emails to the Crown Property Bureau over a period of several months to Nov 25 went unanswered; an official at the Bureau of the Royal Household reached on Nov 25 did not give their name, but said the 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. But with many people struggling economically during the 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 that read: "The country belongs to the people, not the monarchy."
Authorities removed it the next day. On Oct 14, protesters shouted "My taxes!" at a passing motorcade carrying Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana, in a rare show of public defiance.
The government has recently 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," Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told reporters on Oct 19.
In a speech two days later, Mr Prayut - who led a 2014 military coup and won an election last year his opponents describe as rigged - said 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 in response to questions.
The Crown Property Bureau's profits in Thailand have long been controlled by the king. While the agency doesn't 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 bureau's website.
Over the 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 King Vajiralongkorn's name - had a combined value of US$7.3 billion (S$9.8 billion) as of Dec 2.
Since King Vajiralongkorn took the throne, 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 increased in recent years: Siam Commercial Bank announced a special dividend this year after the sale of an insurance unit, while analysts said Siam Cement had more cash on hand due to increased profitability.
Representatives from Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement didn't respond to requests for comment. In a 2018 announcement, the Crown Property Bureau said the share transfer reflected the legal changes and wouldn't affect the business operations of the companies.
Even more valuable is the crown's land. The 2011 book estimated the value of the bureau's Bangkok landholdings by area - about one fifth of its total - at one trillion baht (S$44.3 billion) at market prices, while saying the agency booked the land value at less than a third of that figure based on cost.
Since that valuation was published, parcels of premium city centre land have skyrocketed. The former British Embassy, a short walk from some of the crown's most-prized real estate, sold for 420 million pounds (S$751.6 million) in 2018. It's unclear how the pandemic may have affected prices, or how the property bureau's land holdings have changed in recent years.
Over the past decade, the agency has sought to revitalise several plots in the city centre, including its first commercial development project offering "super luxury residences." On other plots, the 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 will 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 co-developed by Central Pattana Pcl, 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 the company and development haven't been mentioned by protesters.
Ownership of the monarch's assets has been a point of contention for decades. After the 1932 revolution, civilian leaders passed a law setting up the Crown Property Bureau with the status of a Finance Ministry department 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 bureau to operate independently from the government while retaining the finance minister as ex-officio chairman, and allowing income after expenses to be "paid at the king's pleasure in any case."
While previous governments had differentiated between the king's personal wealth and assets that belonged to the state, one former finance minister said there was no real distinction. Mr Korn Chatikavanij, who served as chairman of the Crown Property Bureau from late 2008 to 2011, recalled once discussing with palace officials how to respond to media reports saying then-King Bhumibol was the world's richest monarch.
The bureau was "huffing and puffing wanting to write a letter of complaint" to clarify the assets belonged to the state instead of the individual, Mr Korn said. But 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."
Mr Korn said the protester demands should be discussed in parliament.
"These are issues that if approached constructively can lead to better understanding and broader acceptance of the monarchy and the institution."
A key figure pushing for change is Mr Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, whose pro-democracy party was disbanded for breaching financing rules after a strong performance in last year's election, a move he called politically motivated. He's criticised a budget passed in September that allocated 8.98 billion baht for royal affairs, a 16.9 per cent jump over last year, compared with a 3.1 per cent increase in overall spending.
In an interview, Mr Thanathorn said 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 committee to vet the budget for the 2021 fiscal year, he said a fleet of 38 aircraft and helicopters used by the palace was set to expand to 47. The government didn't reply to a request for comment.
Any adjustments to the ownership of the assets would be difficult "without a constitutional crisis of some sort," according to Mr Chris Baker, an academic in Bangkok who interviewed officials from the Crown Property Bureau while co-writing the chapter on palace finances for King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life's Work.
"I think the situation now is unsustainable."