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On Oct. 14—the day before Thailand’s embattled government declared a state of emergency to prohibit mass gatherings in the capital—a royal motorcade passed through a crowd of protesters thronging around Democracy Monument in central Bangkok. The protesters had gathered to call for the prime minister’s resignation, but as royalty passed through, the crowd turned and jeered, “My taxes! My taxes!”
Thailand’s government has budgeted over $1 billion to finance the monarchy this year, despite the fact that King Maha Vajiralongkorn is one of the world’s wealthiest rulers, with an estimated $40 billion in assets. That wealth used to belong to the Crown—the institution, not the ruler—but Vajiralongkorn took control of the privy purse in 2018.
Although criticizing the monarchy is illegal in Thailand, with violators sentenced to 15 years in prison, Vajiralongkorn’s lavish spending and appropriation of the crown’s $40 billion portfolio has opened the monarch up to criticism. As his kingdom’s economy is set to contract 7.8% this year, protesters are making unprecedented demands to have the king’s taxes investigated.
When Vajiralongkorn was officially coronated in 2019, three years after his father’s death, the new king was given Rama X as his regnal name. But among Thailand’s discontent, the king has another moniker—the German—because for the past ten years Vajiralongkorn has been living in Germany, some 9,000 miles away from his kingdom.
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According to German media, as the pandemic raged this summer, the 68-year-old King Rama ensconced himself in a luxury hotel in the Bavarian Alps that was rented entirely for himself, a retinue of servants and a bevy of women. The hotel was given special permission to host the king and his entourage; other hotels in Germany were forced shut due to the pandemic.
In Thailand, too, business were forced to close as the Thai government enacted a strict lockdown, setting a nightly curfew for residents, banning the sale of alcohol, and limiting public gatherings. News of the absent King’s lavish lifestyle provided an unwelcome contrast to the suffering of his subjects—not least of all because Vajiralongkorn’s life of luxury is increasingly seen to come at the taxpayer’s expense.
Until 2018, the wealth of Thailand’s monarchy was managed by the Crown Property Bureau (CPB)—a quasi-governmental agency managed by a board majority appointed by the king. Revenue generated by the CPB’s investments is exempt from taxation and is supposed to serve the royal institution—the Crown—rather than the king. But since succeeding his father as King in 2016, Vajiralongkorn has moved to consolidate his grasp on the Crown’s coffers.
In 2017, the King appointed his private secretary as chairman of the CPB’s board, ousting the Minister of Finance from the seat. The same year, the government passed an amendment to the Crown Property Act, giving the King full control of the CPB’s portfolio. In 2018, the CPB issued a statement confirming it had “returned” all its assets to the King so that he may manage the funds “at his discretion.”
The line between the king’s finances and the crown’s was always blurred, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies. That ambiguity, Chachavalpongpun says, allowed the previous monarch to spend with impunity, while maintaining an image of frugality. But when Rama X became sole arbiter of the Crown’s wealth, he crossed that line.
“It has become too obvious that the King is doing this for his own self-indulgence,” Chachavalpongpun says, pointing to the King’s lavish lifestyle in the Bavarian Alps as proof. “It’s now easier to question the king’s spending because Vajiralongkorn cannot claim that what he’s spending is for the institution.”
The CPB’s assets—now the King’s—are estimated to be worth $40 billion, but due to Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws, critical discussion of the Crown’s portfolio is difficult. Included within the King’s new portfolio is over 16,000 acres of land—much of it prime real estate—and over 40,000 rental contracts with developers.
Bangkok’s popular Siam Paragon, Siam Discovery and Siam Center malls are all built on land leased from the Crown. The King’s portfolio reportedly includes at least $30 billion of property holdings in the capital alone.
The King also owns a 23% stake in one of Thailand’s leading lenders, Siam Commercial Bank, and a 33% stake in Thailand’s largest industrial conglomerate, Siam Cement Group. Taken together, the King’s shares in the two companies are worth roughly $9 billion.
According to the Financial Times, one of the protest’s more prominent figures, Parit Chiwarak, called on Thais to boycott the Siam Commercial Bank during a rally in September. “You are replenishing money for the German,” Chiwarak said, calling the bank a “money pot of feudalism.” The student leader has been arrested at least twice during this year’s protests.
There could be a silver lining to the King’s seizure of the CPB’s assets. Although revenue earned by the CPB is exempt from taxation, the King’s earnings are not. Any return on investment within the crown’s $40 billion portfolio should now be subject to tax, as the CPB stated in 2018 when transferring the assets.
However, the strict lèse-majesté laws that prohibit criticism of the King make demanding a review of the monarch’s tax payments a risky order. Any perceived criticism of the King is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. But protesters are defiant.
On Monday, a crowd of demonstrators marched to the German embassy in Bangkok and petitioned Berlin to investigate the King’s taxes. In particular, protesters question whether the King’s long-standing residence in Germany would make him liable to pay German inheritance tax on the wealth he received when his father, King Rama IX, died.
“In the past people believed the monarchy can do no wrong. More than that, it’s written in the constitution that the monarchy can do no wrong,” Chachavalpongpun says. “But the students are arguing that the monarchy can do wrong and, when it does, the people need to be able to complain about it.”