King gives royal land deeds to universities after protests

Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn has handed over several royal title land deeds to two public universities and a number of government agencies at a handover ceremony at the royal palace this week attended by the presidents of the two universities.

The land donation has highlighted the relationship between universities in Bangkok and the monarchy, which is currently under scrutiny. Ongoing, almost daily, rallies led by students and young people who have been calling for democratic reforms, have demanded reform of the monarchy – a longstanding taboo – and, more recently, greater transparency of the king’s assets and financial affairs.

The king, who spends most of his time in Germany, owned several vast pieces of land in the capital, Bangkok, and around the country. An act passed by parliament in 2018 after he became King in 2016, enabled the transfer of the entire Crown Property Bureau (CPB) portfolio, originally under the Thai government, to his private ownership.

The land transfer to universities was seen by some as a way to reduce pressure on the monarch over his asset holdings and to defuse protesters’ focus on the CPB, after protesters said this week they would march to the offices of the CPB, which still manages the king’s portfolio, though they later changed that plan. Some in the protest movement have also been calling for repeal of the 2018 crown property act.

According to the Thai Public Broadcasting Service, among the 12 royal title land deeds that cover approximately 514.9 hectares in Bangkok and the provinces, four were given to two public universities and three schools at a ceremony held at the Dusit Palace in Bangkok on 22 November at which Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha led ministers and officials in receiving the deeds.

A land deed of about 9.6ha in the Dusit district of Bangkok was handed over to Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University.

Another title deed of approximate 5.9ha, located in the same area, was given to Suan Dusit University, which currently has 8,000 students and 2,000 lecturers and staff. Higher Education Minister Anek Laothamatas said the value of the land was estimated at 10 billion baht (US$330 million).

Suan Dusit University’s President Sirote Phonphanthin said in an interview in the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper that the university was grateful that the king attached so much importance to education. He said the university land belonged to the Royal Household Bureau, which had previously told the university the king did not intend to reclaim the land from the university but, instead, would give it to the university.

The land, part of the Dusit Palace royal residential complex, was originally owned by King Rama V also known as Chulalongkorn, who reigned from 1868 to 1910. The university was founded in 1934, after the 1932 revolution in Thailand, which saw a change from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, and some of the land was used for educational purposes.

Aside from the two universities, Ratchavinit School in the same area was given a land deed of around 1.6ha, while another land deed of approximately 0.96ha was given to Ratchavinit Secondary. The boys’ boarding school, Vajiravudh College, was given a land deed of 10.7ha in Sam Peng district, a commercial area of Bangkok.

‘The King and Universities’

In an article, “The King and Universities”, published by the Thai-language Isra News Agency on 24 November, Anek described King Vajiralongkorn’s handing of deeds to the two universities as similar to past Thai kings’ support of higher education and said it was a continuation of a royal tradition to patronise and sustain universities.

Anek cited a number of universities in the Bangkok metropolitan region whose lands were once royal properties. Mahidol University was built on palace land, and its huge Salaya campus in central Nakhon Pathom province was bought from the Crown Property Bureau at a very ‘cheap’ price, he said.

Thammasat University land at the Prachan campus close to the palace in Bangkok, and the approximately 184.48ha of Chulalongkorn University land, which Anek described as ‘priceless’, is in the heart of Bangkok’s business district, were also once a part of the Crown Property Bureau whose titles were changed by the government after the 1932 political reforms.

According to Anek, the reason the king has so much land in Bangkok and other provinces was because, over about 250 years, Siam’s Chakri dynasty preserved Siam, as Thailand was once called, from numerous enemy invasions.

According to ancient Thai traditions, all land belongs to the king, and is seen as a symbol of ‘sovereignty’. Beginning with the reign of King Rama V, land deeds were given by the king to royal family members, nobles and the people “so that they had their own land,” Anek wrote.

He stressed that the king had generously ordered the granting of “enormous amounts of land” to the government for the public’s benefit and “most importantly, for Thai higher education”.

A closer look at university land

Despite Anek’s views on the relationship between the king and higher education institutions, each university in Thailand has forged its own identity based on its own history.

Thammasat University has traditionally identified itself as ‘The People’s University’ as it was originally established by former Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong, one of the leaders of the 1932 political reforms, as an open university that did not have the stiff entry requirements of other institutions and provided opportunities for higher education to poor students and adults who wanted to study.

Chulalongkorn University, however, was popularly seen as a university under the patronage of King Rama V, with its land given by the king.

However, Chulalongkorn’s land ownership was recently clarified by Sopon Pornchokchai, a real estate businessman and head of the Appraisal and Estate Agents Foundation, a non-profit organisation under the ministry of the interior. He issued a statement on 20 August titled “Where Does Chulalongkorn’s Land Come From”.

Sopon cited Chulalongkorn University’s land deed as evidence that the university’s land was not given by the monarch as popularly understood. Rather, the university had signed a 30-year lease contract with King Rama VIII, the heir of King Rama V, in January 1935.

After the 1932 political reform, the then government led by Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, with cabinet approval in 1940, transferred the name in the land deed from the king to the CPB, then under the ministry of finance. On the same day, Chulalongkorn University terminated the lease agreement and the ministry of finance transferred the deed to the university.

Thanks to Plaek and his government, Chulalongkorn University earned a lot of income from leasing the land to both the public and private sectors.

“It became an important resource for Chulalongkorn in the development of teaching and learning and for the enjoyment of Chulalongkorn personnel until today,” he wrote.

According to a report by Reuters in May last year, CPB held title to 6,560ha of land in Thailand, including 1,328ha in Bangkok.

The largest tracts handed over to different agencies on 22 November were given to the Royal Thai Army (approximately 169.4ha of land in Pathum Thani province and about 78.9ha in Chon Buri province) and the Rama VI camp of the Border Patrol Police (about 199ha in Phetchaburi province).

This is not the first time King Vajiralongkorn has donated land to government agencies. In 2017, he handed over deeds of several plots of land for official use, including 48ha in Pathum Thai province for a new zoo and for the office of the Zoological Organisation.