A man, let’s call him Somchai, lives in a prime location in central Bangkok. Now in his sixties, Somchai designed and built his house himself nearly 30 years ago. He doesn’t own the land, but he only pays about 400 baht ($11) in rent to his landlord.
So why does he now wish he lived somewhere else?
“If I could do it all over, I wouldn’t build on this land,” he said. “There is no security. I can get kicked off at any time.”
But he won’t go voluntarily. Somchai’s land, you see, is owned by the King of Thailand.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
In fact, most of Bangkok’s best real estate is owned by Thailand’s royal family through the Crown Property Bureau (CBP), which manages the monarchy’s land holdings. Somchai was able to build the house by bribing bureau officials a few decades ago. Now if he sells it, 75 percent of the money will go to the CPB, giving Somchai—who is retired with little savings—no incentive to leave.
“The people around here all worry that they might be forced out, but we are too scared to talk about it,” he said.
That fear of upsetting the monarchy goes a long way to explain why so little has been written about the Crown Property Bureau. King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s golden robe shields the bureau from public criticism, allowing it to oversee a modern form of feudalism with little scrutiny.
More than any institution over the past hundred years, the CPB has shaped Bangkok and in recent years it has only picked up speed. Since recovering from huge debts incurred during the 1997 financial crisis, the CPB has aggressively sought to boost profits from its prime Bangkok land plots, often pushing out poorer shop owners and tenants that have lived on the land for generations.
The ceaseless development of huge malls, hotels and office buildings is rarely debated as the bureau avoids public criticism. When its officials do speak, they simply tout the king’s theory of a sufficiency economy, which preaches moderation, reasonableness and immunity. As the bureau has found, however, the best immunity from an economic downturn is to make sure its birthright properties are yielding large amounts of cash.
Some may argue that this doesn’t matter, as the Crown Property Bureau’s assets are technically national property. Yet if that’s the case, then it should shed its opaque “semi-private, semi-public” legal status and open its books for all to see where the money is going. As of now, all anyone has to go on is the words of executives and the general belief that they must be morally outstanding because of their closeness to the royal family.
This moral image is crucial to the success of the monarchy and its financial arm.