The crown prince of Thailand’s third marriage unraveled in lurid headlines: The princess was stripped of her titles, her parents and brothers jailed over vague corruption allegations, her uncle purged from his senior police post.
Then the heir to the throne had to finesse a divorce settlement.
Luckily for the prince, he had access to one of the largest royal fortunes in the world, a secretive holding company laden with stakes in blue-chip Thai companies and prime land in the heart of Bangkok. The company covered the payment, reportedly close to $6 million.
Two years later, in 2016, the prince ascended to the throne. One of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s first major acts was to transfer all the holdings in the vast company, known as the Crown Property Bureau, to his personal ownership, giving him control of more wealth than the reported riches of the Saudi king, the sultan of Brunei and the British royal family combined.
Those assets — conservatively valued at $70 billion — are now a focus of a pro-democracy movement clamoring for greater transparency into the monarchy’s finances and limits on its extensive powers.
In August, students at Thammasat University demanded the king restore the assets to Crown Property Bureau control and place it under government oversight — a startling act of defiance in a country where a strict royal insult law has traditionally silenced criticism of the monarchy.
Some protesters have also called for a boycott of Siam Commercial Bank, in which the king holds a nearly 24% stake. Fears of a run on deposits prompted a director of Thailand’s central bank to reassure investors that there was sufficient liquidity in the country’s financial institutions.
“When the protesters talk about the monarchy as an institution, the CPB is at the core,” said Pongkwan Sawasdipakdi, a lecturer at Thammasat and a doctoral candidate in international relations at USC. “One of the top things that people think about is how can the monarchy accumulate such really high wealth and we don’t really know anything about it.”
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