The crown and the crop top

28 11 2020
The Economist’s Michael Peel has a really quite good article in one of the newspaper’s magazines. It’s behind a paywall but deserves to be more widely available, not least for the fabulous graphics. We hope the newspaper can put up with our reproduction of its excellent work:

The crown and the crop top: the king of Thailand in six objects

Decoding the mysterious monarchy that has provoked massive protests

The monarchy has long been treated with deference in Thailand. Until recently, people rarely mentioned the royal family in public except to proclaim their loyalty to it. Thailand is unusual among constitutional monarchies in having a potent lèse majesté law – a prohibition on insulting the royal family. Taking the king’s name in vain can lead to a prison sentence of 15 years.

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the current king’s father, commanded genuine respect, though it wasn’t always clear where devotion ended and fear of transgressing the law began. When Bhumibol (pronounced Poom-ee-pon) died in 2016, he was succeeded by his son and heir – a very different public figure.

To many Thais the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn (pronounced Wa-cheera-long-kon) is less worthy of veneration: he is on his fourth marriage, spends most of his time in Germany and has sought to accumulate personal wealth and power, most recently by taking direct command of two army units in Bangkok. Even his mother once described Vajiralongkorn as a “bit of a Don Juan” and suggested he might have to change his ways or quit the royal family.

Over the past few months thousands of young Thais have been staging demonstrations in the streets. In an unprecedented show of defiance, they are not only talking about the monarchy but openly criticising the way it operates. Protesters have many reasons to be frustrated – the army’s influence in politics, choking restrictions on freedom of speech and a wider sense that the gerontocratic Thai elite is closed to new ideas amid a lingering economic malaise. One personality looms over these diffuse grievances: the king.

In theory the Thai monarchy acts as a unifying force and, like its British counterpart, stays out of politics. But a long history of coups by the palace’s allies in the army (most recently in 2014) suggests otherwise. The aura of a quaint, benignly ruled country that Thailand used to project to outsiders is fading. The deliberate opacity of the monarchy doesn’t help. The king rarely gives interviews and the mainstream press is not allowed to probe his role (in a rare interview Vajiralongkorn gave as crown prince in the 1980s, he complained at being the subject of false rumours). When scraps of information about the royal family or images of the king do make it into the public domain, people pore over them, parsing the regal stage props: old fashioned Kremlinology for the media age.

King Vajiralongkorn was formally crowned in 2019 with a two-foot cone of diamond-encrusted gold enamel dating back to the start of the Chakri dynasty in 1782. The Great Crown of Victory is an expression of the mystique with which the Thai royal family has surrounded itself.

For most of history, the Chakris were just another absolutist dynasty. Then, in 1932, an uprising by military officers and bureaucrats forced the monarchy to accept some democratic changes, like a parliament. When Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946 he was only 18, and at first depended heavily on generals, business and bureaucratic elites and foreign diplomats. Within this informal alliance everyone worked to promote their mutual interests, a form of monarchical governance so unusual that a new term was coined to describe it: the “network monarchy”.

Over time Bhumibol added to his personal power with ritual and prestige. He pursued archaic practices such as an annual ploughing ceremony, held to mark the start of the rice-growing season, and reinstated a custom that individuals prostrate themselves before the monarch (a predecessor had stopped this in the 19th century, regarding it as demeaning).

The economy boomed under Bhumibol, thanks more to foreign investment and tourism than the agricultural initiatives he championed, like cloud-seeding. One of Bhumibol’s lasting agrarian interventions was to set up a department of royal rainmaking.

The coronation jewels are a potent emblem of a powerful monarchy to which some older Thais feel an almost religious devotion. The crown’s height is supposed to evoke the summit of Mount Meru, the heart of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies. Yet the crown also acts as a real-world symbol of an institution reliant on spectacle: at 7kg, it is one of the heaviest coronation crowns still in use today (the St Edward Crown, placed on the head of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, came in at a paltry 2kg). That’s a weighty legacy to bear.

Friends with benefits Beware expensive gifts

Western powers have long played a role in boosting the status of the Thai monarchy. The 1960s and 1970s were not an easy time to be a king in South-East Asia and Bhumibol’s position was greatly strengthened by his close relationship with America. But it’s a friendship with strings attached: there’s a murkier side to the bountiful displays of support and affection.

In 2018 the American embassy in Bangkok held an eye-opening exhibition to celebrate the relationship, entitled “Great and Good Friends”, a reference to a salutation American presidents used in addressing the “kings of Siam”. On display were the extravagant gifts Thai monarchs have bestowed on occupants of the White House.

Come for the gold niello turtle presented to Lyndon Johnson’s baby grandson, and stay for the diamond-embellished vine-woven bags given to Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush when each was First Lady. King Bhumibol and his wife Queen Sirikit toured America twice in the 1960s, appearing on a TV chat show and hanging out with Elvis Presley. The young Thai monarch also met the then-president, Dwight Eisenhower, and gave him a recipe for Thai noodles.

The bonhomie masked a grittier relationship. Thailand agreed to host the American B-52 bombers that pummelled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam war. The king also proved to be a valuable propaganda asset: as a Western-friendly monarch, he stood in contrast to the communists who were sweeping to power in other parts of the region. As Time magazine wrote in 1966, “(The) men who run Thailand are well aware that their youthful king is their – and the nation’s – greatest living asset.” The long line of the Chakri dynasty belies a frailty at its heart: the friends, and compromises, it has been forced to make to survive.

In dogs we trust A fuss over Foo Foo, the prince’s poodle

Dogs have featured heavily in the life of Thai monarchs. King Bhumibol, a man who projected seriousness and dignity, even wrote a book about his pet mongrel Tondaeng, extolling the virtues of canine obedience. It was widely seen as a prescription for the Thai people. Tondaeng had been a street dog and the message was clear for all: loyalty is not about pedigree, and everyone should know their place.

King Vajiralongkorn’s relationship with his pet poodle Foo Foo was quite different. When he was crown prince he reportedly appointed Foo Foo as an air chief marshal. At a gala dinner for a jazz band from New Orleans, the dog attended wearing “formal evening attire complete with paw mitts”, according to an account relayed in a diplomatic cable later published by WikiLeaks. “At one point during the band’s second number, he jumped up onto the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses.” When Foo Foo died in 2015, four days of mourning were held for him, complete with Buddhist prayers, before he was cremated.

Foo Foo also became a symbol for the playboy prince’s lifestyle. His fame began with a bizarre video which began circulating on the internet in 2009 showing Vajiralongkorn sat at a table with his third wife, Princess Srirasmi, who was wearing only a G-string. The prince clutched Foo Foo as the couple sang “Happy Birthday” (it’s not clear to whom), and then the princess crouched before the prince and his dog, offering up birthday cake from a silver dish. It’s the kind of surreal behaviour that has only added to the air of menace and unpredictability surrounding Vajiralongkorn.

His Sunday best Demonstrators mock the king’s crop tops

In Thailand King Vajiralongkorn is most often seen parading in his royal regalia, complete with a colourful array of medals. Unusually for a Thai king, however, Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time in Bavaria, where he has been snapped wearing skimpy crop tops, sometimes with elaborate temporary tattoos splayed across his back and arms.

Despite attempts by the generals in Bangkok to scrub these images from Facebook, it’s a look that has been noticed back home. Protesters have started turning up to demonstrations in similar attire, a satirical comment not just on the king’s surprising sartorial choice but what they see as his wider rejection of Thailand and the standards of propriety demanded by his office.

The king’s unorthodox lifestyle is a growing headache for the government in Germany, too. He apparently holed up in a hotel in Bavaria at the start of the coronavirus pandemic (at a time when all such establishments were ordered to close). Members of Bavaria’s state parliament have asked whether the king is liable to pay tax locally. The foreign ministry recently warned Vajiralongkorn not to conduct affairs of state from German soil.

Cementing his power The list of royal assets is long and growing

Protesters often focus their anger on the vast fortune of the royal family. With a total estimated wealth of more than $40bn, Vajiralongkorn is among the richest monarchs in the world. His many assets include a large shareholding in the Siam Cement Group: the lorries and mixers of this industrial giant are ubiquitous, a daily reminder of the king’s economic clout.

The wealth of the Thai monarchy has grown under Vajiralongkorn. Previously, royal investments had been held by the secretive Crown Property Bureau. Information about the bureau’s activities is limited, but it is known to control large amounts of property in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand, some of it highly prized (the bureau was reported to have demanded only peppercorn rent for a sprawling plot it leased to the American government for the ambassador’s residence).

Some people already suspected that the bureau was effectively the monarch’s personal piggy bank, but officially at least, it was holding the wealth “in trust for the nation”. In July 2017 Vajiralongkorn personally took over managing the bureau. The following year the bureau announced it had transferred all its holdings to Vajiralongkorn himself, removing the last element of ambiguity about whose money it was.

What a handful “The Hunger Games” defiant salute finds new followers

For years demonstrators in Thailand have staged intermittent protests against the coup-happy army (which is allied to the royal family) and its hold over the political realm. The dynamics of these demonstrations often reflected struggles among the political and business elite, as different sides mobilised their supporters.

Things are different this time. Those who started the current protests in Bangkok are remarkable for their youth – some are still at school. They don’t have an official leader. And they have a radical new agenda: wide-ranging reform of the monarchy itself. Their demands include the right to criticise the royal family, a reduction in its spending and removal from the school curriculum of material glorifying the monarchy.

This new cohort of protesters identifies with the group of rebels fighting despotic oppression in “The Hunger Games”, a series of books and films for young adults. The three-fingered salute of Katniss Everdeen and her fellow freedom-fighters had been used by protesters before in Thailand, but it has become the iconic image of the current demonstrations.

The potential dangers of opposing the Thai royal family are real. In 2018 the bodies of two Thai campaigners against the monarchy were found in the Mekong river in Laos, close to the border with Thailand. The murderers have never been identified. In Bangkok the authorities have arrested many protesters and charged some with sedition. So far the royal response to recent demonstrations has been merely to ask the younger generation to “love the country and love the monarchy”. King Vajiralongkorn has said that Thailand is a ”land of compromise”, but many reckon the biggest scenes in this drama are still to come. The house of Chakri – and those who benefit from it – do not take challenges lightly. ■

ILLUSTRATIONS: JAKE READ

Additional images: Getty, Backgrid, John Burwell, Splash News, AP, Alamy

In addition, The Economist has a very useful little podcast on recent events, which seems to be free to access at: https://embed.acast.com/theintelligencepodcast/athismajesty-displeasure-thailand-santi-monarchypush beginning on Thailand at about 0:50 and running for about 5 minutes.





The Economist on King Vajiralongkorn

16 10 2020

The Economist has a timely briefing on the king. With humble apologies to the publisher for taking it in full, but it is very good and deserves to be read by all. Here it is:

Battle royal
Thailand’s king seeks to bring back absolute monarchy
Maha Vajiralongkorn has provoked something new in Thailand: open criticism of a king

THE MONUMENTS disappear in the dark. In April 2017 it was a small bronze plaque from Bangkok’s Royal Plaza. It marked the spot where, in 1932, revolutionaries proclaimed the end of Thailand’s absolute monarchy. In December 2018 a statue was hauled away. It commemorated the defeat of rebels who attempted a coup against those same revolutionaries. Last month activists installed a plaque in the heart of Bangkok’s royal district to protest against the missing monuments. “The people have expressed the intention that this country belongs to the people, and not the king”, it stated. Within a day it was gone.

The world knows Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn as a playboy who has churned through four wives, lives among lots of women in a German hotel and relishes skimpy crop tops that reveal elaborate temporary tattoos. For Thais, his four-year-old reign has been more sinister.

The king makes elderly advisers crawl before him, shaves the heads of courtiers who displease him and has disowned several of his children. Worse, he has steadily amassed power, taking personal control of “crown property”, assuming direct command of troops and ordering changes to the constitution. He makes no secret of his hankering for the days of absolute monarchy (hence the disappearing monuments). But Thais began to protest in July. Can they prevent the removal not just of plaques, but of constitutional constraints?

On October 14th thousands of protesters marched through central Bangkok to camp outside Government House, where ministers’ offices are located. They also formed human chains to carry away potted plants that blocked the way to the country’s Democracy Monument. Not far away King Vajiralongkorn himself, in the country on a fleeting visit, passed by in a motorcade. Clusters of royalists gathered wearing yellow shirts to show their loyalty to him.

That night a spooked government issued an emergency decree banning gatherings of more than four people and prohibiting reporting on topics that could “harm national security” or “cause panic”. The government warned that protesters who insulted the monarchy would be prosecuted. Several prominent leaders of the protest were arrested the following morning. Yet tensions increased as protests continued in defiance of the decree.

Thailand defines itself as a democracy with the king as head of state. The monarchy is revered. Photographs of royals adorn public buildings and private homes. Father’s Day is celebrated on the previous king’s birthday. Thais hear a royal anthem before films start at the cinema.

Technically King Vajiralongkorn rules as a constitutional monarch. But ancient structures have never entirely disappeared. The king used to sit at the apex of society in a semi-divine role. Defenders of the vestiges of this order have long clashed with those claiming to represent an alternative source of authority: the Thai people.

The conflict helps explain why Thailand has endured 12 coups and 20 constitutions since 1932. Since the 1950s a symbiotic relationship between the army and the palace has bolstered the legitimacy of military regimes. For the past two decades the greatest foe of such elites has been Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist prime minister ousted by the army in 2006. His supporters, known as red shirts, battled their yellow-shirted foes in the streets on several occasions in the years after he lost power.

The generals engineered a coup in 2014. The commander who led it, Prayuth Chan-ocha, remains prime minister. An army-friendly constitution disadvantaged large parties, such as Mr Thaksin’s flagship one, Pheu Thai, in an election last year.

One supposed reason why the army seized power six years ago was to ensure a steady succession between the ninth and tenth monarchs of the Chakri dynasty. King Vajiralongkorn’s path to the throne was not simple. Thailand’s elites took against him while his popular father still lived. King Bhumibol Adulyadej was considered the richest monarch in the world, his wealth outstripping that of oil-endowed Middle Eastern rulers and Europe’s royals with their castles and palaces.

Aristocratic types fretted because the crown prince, as Vajiralongkorn was previously known, caused so many scandals. Even his mother likened him to Don Juan. After leaving his first wife, a princess in her own right, he disowned four of his five children with his second wife, an actress, who eventually fled Thailand. When the relationship ended with his third wife—once filmed almost naked and crouching before her husband with birthday cake—several of her family members went to prison. The prince spent lavishly and indulged in eccentricity, elevating his beloved poodle, Foo Foo, to the rank of “air chief marshal”.

Still, King Vajiralongkorn took over unimpeded after his father’s death. Whereas the father was publicly loved, the son is privately loathed. His coronation last year attracted tiny crowds compared with those at the late king’s funeral rites. Despite his co-operation with army regimes, millions of Thais felt King Bhumibol displayed the virtues expected of a Buddhist monarch.

King Vajiralongkorn does not even live in Thailand. He rules a country of 70m people from more than 5,000 miles away in Germany. One insider bluntly appraises his activities there: “Bike, fuck, eat. He does only those three things.” The German government finds his presence awkward. “We have made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil,” the foreign minister, Heiko Maas, told the Bundestag on October 7th.

Money, money, money

The king’s militaristic harem inspires embarrassing headlines around the world. Just months after his fourth marriage to a former air stewardess last year, he elevated one concubine, a former nurse, to the status of “royal noble consort”. She is the first woman to hold this title since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy.

Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi fell from grace soon after her elevation. She disappeared from view. Then, in September, she was reinstated and declared “untainted”. Chinese netizens have likened Ms Sineenat to a crafty concubine from a popular television series, “Empresses in the Palace”.

In March 2012 permission from the Justice Department was published in the Royal Gazette for a temporary prison. A spartan map appears to show its location as possibly within the grounds of a palace owned by Vajiralongkorn. His bad books are a miserable place to be. Pictures allegedly of Srirasmi Suwadee, once his third wife, appeared in a German newspaper last year. Head shaved and tearful, she was reported as being under house arrest.

Airing such dirty linen in public in Thailand, however, is perilous. The country’s lèse-majesté law allows between three and 15 years in prison for insulting “the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”. King Vajiralongkorn has instructed the government not to use the law. But this hardly reflects newfound tolerance. Critics instead risk charges for sedition or computer crime, among others. In July one man was sent to a psychiatric hospital for wearing a T-shirt that stated: “I have lost all faith in the institution of monarchy”.

Playboy antics distract from the more sinister feats of the monarch since he came to power. In political, financial and military matters King Vajiralongkorn has gained powers never possessed by his father. His interventions appear part of a larger strategy to push Thailand closer to absolute monarchy once more.

Take his finances. In 2017 he gained full control of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), which manages royal investments (it was previously run by the ministry of finance). Its holdings are estimated to be worth $40bn. In 2018 the CPB declared that its assets would be considered the king’s personal property. As a result the monarch has stakes in some of Thailand’s corporate titans. He is the largest shareholder in Siam Cement Group, a conglomerate with revenues of almost $14bn in 2019, with a third of its shares. The head of the CPB, long a stalwart in the king’s circles, is a director of Siam Cement Group and of the 113-year-old Siam Commercial Bank, one of Thailand’s biggest, in which the king also has a stake.

In addition to the king’s private means, the Thai state showers the royal family with funds. For the 2021 fiscal year government agencies have drawn up budgets which allocate more than 37bn baht—over $1.1bn—to the monarchy. The Royal Office will receive 9bn baht of that directly. Much of the rest goes to government agencies, the police and the defence ministry for security and for development projects. By comparison, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth cost her taxpayers the equivalent of $87m last year. Precise details on where the money goes are elusive. Huge sums go to pay for royal transport alone (there are many planes and helicopters to maintain).

King Vajiralongkorn’s political interventions are another demonstration of his growing authority. In theory the monarch sits above parties, parliament and politics. But after a referendum in 2016, in which campaigners were banned from opposing the constitution put forward for approval, the monarch demanded changes to the charter. He altered it specifically to make ruling from afar easier.

He meddled even more audaciously ahead of last year’s parliamentary election. Mr Thaksin persuaded the king’s older sister to run as a putative prime ministerial candidate for a party with links to him. But the crown in effect came to the rescue of Mr Thaksin’s military foes. The monarch declared his sister’s ambitions “unconstitutional”. He also stated that royals should stay out of politics—yet the night before the election, he urged Thais to vote for “good people”, which was taken as an endorsement of Mr Prayuth and his allies.

Tomorrow belongs to me

This is just one example of how the palace and the barracks have continued to support each other since King Vajiralongkorn came to the throne. The king has a deep interest in military matters. Trained in an Australian academy, he holds the titles of admiral, field-marshal and air-marshal. The queen is a general and Ms Sineenat a major-general. The king has drawn military forces to his direct command. The Royal Command Guard has been created with some 5,000 soldiers. They are stationed in Bangkok, while other important army units, including an infantry regiment and a cavalry battalion which have facilitated past coups, have been moved out of the city. Overthrowing any government without advance co-ordination with royal troops would prove extremely difficult.

Why has the army permitted such manoeuvres? Defence of the monarchy is one of its central reasons for existing. Both the powerful army commander who retired in September, and his replacement, are deeply loyal to the king. They also rose through the ranks of the King’s Guard, in which Vajiralongkorn himself once served. Mr Prayuth and his closest allies, by contrast, emerged from the Queen’s Guard within the Second Infantry Division.

The prime minister can hardly counter the monarch’s power grabs. He depends on the king’s support for a semblance of legitimacy. Whereas the middle and upper classes of many countries contain democratic champions, those of Thailand “have never needed mass support to advance or protect their interests”, explains James Wise, a former Australian ambassador to Thailand, in his book “Thailand: History, Politics and the Rule of Law”. These conservatives would not stand for an army-linked prime minister rebuffing the royal institution.

Mr Prayuth is also weak: he wrestles even with his allies in the ruling coalition and lacks personal popularity. That hinders his ability to tackle the difficulties Thailand faces. Growth was slowing even before the coronavirus pandemic struck (see chart). Now the central bank expects the economy to contract by more than 8% this year—worse than the crash in the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Why should I wake up?

A very few opposition politicians have resisted King Vajiralongkorn’s growing control. In October most MPs from the liberal Future Forward Party, founded in 2018, opposed an executive decree in the lower house of parliament. The decree, which passed anyway, facilitated the partial transfer of army units and related budgetary allocations to the Royal Command Guard. Even so, it was the first time that lawmakers had ever opposed a legal procedure linked to the monarchy.

Future Forward no longer exists. Its platform in favour of democratic freedoms and army reform, as well as the popularity of its charismatic leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, made it a threat to the establishment. The outfit grew from nothing to become the country’s third-largest party in parliament in little more than a year. Legal cases against the institution and its leadership started to mount. In November Mr Thanathorn was stripped of his status as an MP. In February the party was dissolved by the constitutional court and its executives banned from politics for a decade. The judges decided that a loan Mr Thanathorn gave the party was an illegal breach of individual-donation limits.

Flash mobs mounted protests, though social-distancing measures soon put an end to them. The lull was temporary. Social media have provided an outlet for audacious criticisms. So widespread was moaning over the traffic jams caused by royal motorcades, for example, that in January the king instructed police not to close entire roads for travelling royals.

Other grumbles could not so easily be sorted. In August, after legal threats from the Thai government, Facebook blocked access from Thailand to a 1m-member group criticising the monarchy. “Requests like this are severe, contravene international-human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves,” the firm stated. It is preparing to mount a legal challenge.

Popular anger has moved from screens to streets. Since July protesters have gathered to call for the dissolution of the government, reform of the constitution and an end to the harassment of opposition activists. Students’ demonstrations inspired a wider swathe of Thais to march, too. Their efforts mark an evolution from the feud between red shirts and yellow shirts. New battle lines are over democratic freedoms.

Maybe this time

The boldest protesters have called openly for reform of the monarchy. They object to the king’s financial set-up and his consolidation of military power. Mr Thanathorn has also called for transparency about how state funds are spent on the monarchy.

The situation grew more serious as the protests swelled in size. The great fear is that the bloody treatment of student protesters in the 1970s will be repeated. In 1976 police, army and vigilante groups attacked students after they staged a mock hanging in protest against the killing of two pro-democracy activists. A story spread among royalists that the figure hanged resembled Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. According to official figures, 46 students died and more than 3,000 were arrested.

So far the authorities have arrested a few dozen protest leaders. The government had claimed it wanted to talk to students about their grievances. “Having a peaceful and civil dialogue where we exchange our views is the best approach for moving forward,” said the education minister. However, this week the establishment ran out of patience. If the prime minister cannot bring calm he may be replaced. Any drastic intervention is unlikely, however, without the monarch’s foreknowledge.

But King Vajiralongkorn’s clout has come at a price: open criticism of the monarchy. “The ghost is out of the bottle and you won’t get it back again,” reckons one diplomat in Bangkok. The more brazen the king’s moves towards a more absolute form of rule, the more forceful the criticism. “We are trying to bring the king and monarchy under the constitution,” explains one teenage protester. “We aren’t trying to bring them down.” King Vajiralongkorn’s actions could determine whether Thailand continues to revere royalty, or starts to revile it.





The king and his antics II

11 09 2020

Thailand’s king and his antics in Europe have attracted plenty of unfavorable comment, The most recent is from The Statesman. While we think that most of PPT’s readers will know all of the facts and antics recounted, we consider the article by Francis Pike, with our added illustrations, worth reproducing in full:

The depraved rule of Thailand’s Caligula king
Protestors are risking it all to take on the monarchy

Fu Fu

The Roman emperor Caligula was renowned for his extravagance, capricious cruelty, sexual deviancy and temper bordering on insanity. Most famously, before he was assassinated, he planned to appoint his favourite horse as a consul. This is probably a legend. But King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the Thai throne in 2016, adopted Caligula’s playbook for real. In 2009 the then crown prince promoted his pet miniature poodle Foo Foo to the post of air chief marshal, in which capacity he served until his death in 2015, aged 17. Foo Foo’s cremation was preceded by four days of formal Buddhist mourning.

The poodle first came to the attention of the general public when a video was released showing him eating cake from the hand of Vajiralongkorn’s third wife, Princess Srirasmi, while she cavorted in a G-string at the dog’s lavish birthday party. At a 2009 gala dinner in honour of Vajiralongkorn, Foo Foo was kitted out head to paw in black-tie dress and, according to a WikiLeaks-revealed account by US ambassador, Ralph Boyce, ‘jumped onto the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses, including my own’.

When on parade the new king wears crisp, snowy-white, gold-braided, Ruritanian military uniforms or elaborate Thai regalia that make him look like a Buddhist temple in human form. In downtime his dress code can at best be described as kinky: trainers and low-hung jeans paired with the skimpiest of crop tops. His back and arms are festooned with possibly fake tattoos.

Vajiralongkorn is famously lecherous. Indeed, in his youth, Thai aristocrats would pack off their daughters to Europe to get them out of his clutches. Happily for Bangkok’s elite, the crown prince’s tastes, after his divorce from his first wife, an aristocratic relative of his mother, were consistently low-rent. His second wife was an aspiring actress, albeit of the soft-porn variety.

Prince, and kids in earlier times

The marriage did not last. After Vajiralongkorn put posters all over the palace accusing her of adultery, she fled to London and later to the US with her children — apart from a daughter who was kidnapped and brought back to Bangkok. The daughter was elevated to the rank of princess, but her mother and brothers had their diplomatic passports and royal titles revoked by the crown prince. The Thai public was left horrified by his treatment of his family.

Another marriage followed in 2001, to the aforementioned Srirasmi, though it was not publicly announced until 2005 when the crown prince, by then in his early fifties, declared it was time to settle down. How-ever, in 2014 he stripped his wife of her royal titles because of her relatives’ corruption. Srirasmi’s parents were jailed for two and a half years each for lèse-majesté.

Sineenat

Five years later, on 1 May last year, and just three days before his official coronation, Vajiralongkorn married for the fourth time, to Suthida Tidjai, a former Thai Airways hostess, giving her the title of Queen Consort. The Thai people were dumbfounded when just two months later, the new king named his mistress, Major General Sineenat Wongvajira-pakdi, as his Royal Noble Consort; it was the first time this form of address had been used for more than 100 years. The new relationship lasted three months. On 21 October, Sineenat was stripped of all her titles and disappeared from public view, supposedly for being disrespectful to the queen.

The king’s extravagance is no less remarkable than his private life. A monarchy that was impoverished in the postwar period had, by some estimates, increased its wealth to between $40 billion and $60 billion by last year. Most of the wealth resides in land; ownership of some four square miles of central Bangkok makes the Thai monarchy the world’s wealthiest by a large margin. Overseas holdings include a major stake in the Kempinski hotel group.* Indeed, for years Vajiralongkorn has spent months on end at the Munich Kempinski with his harem and servants. In addition, he owns a mansion on Lake Starnberg to the southwest of Munich. In spite of his huge allowances as crown prince, affording him ownership of two Boeing 737s, it is thought that he had to resort to begging funds from the then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to cover his gambling debts.

Why do King Vajiralongkorn’s private shenanigans matter? Royal families throughout Europe have long weathered sexual and financial scandals. Juan Carlos may have had to step down as king and go into exile, but the Spanish monarchy has survived. So too has the Belgian monarchy after the former King Albert II admitted to a love child. There is no suggestion that Prince Andrew, cherubic by comparison with King Vajiralongkorn, will bring down the British royals because of the Epstein imbroglio. But the key difference is that, unlike Thailand, all those are constitutional monarchies.

Bhumibol and Ananda

In Thailand the monarchy is integral to the country’s real power structures. This was a 70-year legacy of Vajiralongkorn’s father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Bhumibol’s reign started under a cloud following the killing of his 20-year-old predecessor, King Ananda Mahidol, by a single shot to the head with a Colt .45 pistol. After a questionable trial two servants were executed for the murder, though it is widely suspected that the king was accidently shot by Bhumibol, his brother. For the first decade of his rule King Bhumibol was entirely powerless and lived under the rule of the quasi-dictator Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram, who, during the second world war, had allied Thailand with the Axis powers.

Bhumibol, Sirikit, Prem

But gradually, as Thailand inched towards a democracy, Bhumibol won the adoration of the Thai people thanks to his moderating influence and good works, such as paying for medical facilities for the poor. His political power increased. In 1952 he bravely refused to preside over ceremonies for Phibunsongkhram’s new militaristic constitution.** However, Bhumibol’s finest moment came in 1981 when he faced down the ‘April Fools’ Day’ coup d’état by fleeing Bangkok and raising the Thai royal standard at the military base at Khorat, where General Prem emerged as the new military strongman. There followed what is now known as the ‘Network Monarchy’ era, a coalition of military interests and those of the financial and industrial elite based in Bangkok. As a former American deputy-president at Thailand’s Bank of Asia noted: ‘Thai politics has been about dividing up the pie among the elite.’ At the centre of the web stood the Thai monarchy. Elected democratic institutions remained largely an adornment to this oligarchic structure.

In 2001 a business chancer and mobile phone billionaire, Thaksin Shinawatra, later the owner of Manchester City FC, swept to power with his Thai Rak Thai party promising a populist agenda including reform of health and education. Much to the chagrin of the ‘Network Monarchy’, Thaksin won a sweeping electoral victory again in 2005. Bhumibol, who loathed Thaksin, gave tacit support to the coup that first removed him and then sent him into exile two years later. Until his death in 2016, Bhumibol thwarted, either by military or judicial coup, the democratic will of the Thai people, who since 2001 have consistently voted into power Thaksin-backed parties and their proxy leaders. Bhumibol’s historic reputation, albeit tarnished by his thwarting of the democratic will, became an important pillar of resistance to Thaksin’s outsiders. After Bhumibol’s death in 2016, the critical power of the monarchy was left in the hands of his dissolute playboy son.

Will King Vajiralongkorn redeem his dire youthful reputation and do a ‘Prince Hal’, moving to the path of royal righteousness? The signs so far are not good. Just over a week ago, the Royal Noble Consort Sineenat suddenly re-emerged with no information other than an inventive Royal Gazette announcement that ‘It will be regarded that she was never stripped of the royal consort title, military ranks and royal decorations’.

More important than this saga of extra-judicial fiat, the king intervened in the drafting of a new constitution by the military junta in 2017 to grant himself new powers over the appointment of regents. In addition, the new constitution asserted the king’s rights to ‘manage’ during any constitutional crisis. Given that Thailand has had 17 military coups since 1932, this is not trivial. Two crack regiments have also been put under his direct control. As the political exile and professor at Kyoto University Pavin Chachavalpongpun has noted, the king ‘is basically running the country now, though he’s not doing that like his father did through moral authority. He’s using fear to solidify his position and to take command.’

It is therefore interesting that in the past month, demonstrations of up to 10,000 people have called for the powers of the king to be curtailed. Protestors have defied Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws — which can incur up to 15 years’ imprisonment — to chant ‘Down with feudalism’. It remains to be seen whether the protests are a straw in the wind of future political instability. The new king’s attempt to transition from a monarch with influence within the ‘Network Monarchy’ to a monarch who rules is fraught with danger. But at least Vajiralongkorn is unlikely to come to Caligula’s sticky end; the king has a ready-made home for an exile in his beloved Bavaria.

*For discussions that reflect changes in ownership, see here and here.

**The refusal to attend was a fit of pique and self-interest.





Hyper-royalism dogs Thailand

10 10 2019

As the king moves to embrace economic and political power not seen since the days of the absolute monarchy, hyper-royalism is again on the rise, stoked by the palace’s propaganda machine. Nowhere is this clearer than in the linking of the dead king and the new one. In its more bizarre forms, this draws on dead dogs as well.

Khaosod reports that the long dead palace bitch Thong Daeng, complete with royal title, described in the report as “iconic,” has been resurrected through artificial insemination. Yes, “scientists” are mimicking Dr Josef Mengele, they do work to please the higher ups. Of course, we are exaggerating somewhat, but the image is of scientists making their work fit the regime.

The the royalist sycophants at the “Faculty of Veterinary Science at Kasetsart University revealed Tuesday that eight grand-dogs of Khun Thong Daeng were birthed earlier this year via artificial insemination with frozen semen from two of her dead sons. All of the eight puppies are healthy, and have been bestowed royal names from … the King.”

Not Thong Daeng. Clipped from Bohemian.com

The article then establishes the “royal” family tree of the Thong Daeng line. And, we learn in breathless reporting, the whole business “was approved by King Rama X…”. Official pictures of the mutts were released.

The palace promised “[m]ore information about the eight dogs … for a public release at a later time…”.

Thong Daeng is described as “the most eminent pet of … the [deceased] King” and is claimed to be “held in high regard in Thai society.” Not bad for an old soi stray.

Royal dogs were little heard of except for King Vajiravudh’s favorite pooch which apparently deserved a statue. In recent years, they have been considered newsworthy as royal insanity has infected many royalists and others. We’ve seen dopey journalists eating cake with a princess’s yapper, the prince’s poodle promoted in the military and the king’s bitch made into a model dog and a model for the Thai people to somehow emulate.

But the point of all this sycophantic nonsense is to show how everything associated with the kings is fabulous, erasing their huge wealth and the fear associated with the palace. Royal dogging seems a bigger deal than any normal human being would have thought. Thong Daeng, Fu Fu and other royal pooches get more protection than any of those normal humans.

The report notes this fear by mentioning that in 2015, Facebook user and political activist Thanakorn Siripaiboon was charged with lese majeste for comments about Thong Daeng. The last we heard of this case was that, even though the lese majeste law only applied to a few palace humans, this case would be heard by a military court. Even dead royal mutts get the full support of Thailand’s (in)justice system.

It gets worse from here as neo-feudalism takes hold and throttles the country.





On monarchy’s futures

7 05 2019

A week or so ago The Economist had a long article on monarchies. Some aspects of it have relevance for Thailand as coronation has been used to promote Vajiralongkorn’s reputation and position.

It notes that monarchy are both fragile and regressive:

If monarchy did not exist, nobody would invent it today. Its legitimacy stems from ancient ritual and childish stories, not from a system based on reason and intended to achieve good governance. It transfers power through a mechanism which promotes congenital defects rather than intelligence. It is sexist, classist, racist and designed specifically to prevent diversity, equality and personal merit from creeping into its inbred ranks.

Self-crowned

No one can miss the significance of this for Vajiralongkorn, with the fate of the male line after him in doubt, clouded by “congenital defects” and exiled sons.

Other threats for Thailand’s monarchy lie in its relationship with military dictatorships and Vajiralongkorn’s efforts to increase the monarch’s power. As the article notes, one reason monarchies have survived “is that most of the surviving monarchs are virtually powerless, and the less power a monarchy has, the less anybody bothers to try to get rid of it.”

Vajiralongkorn “is open in his hunger for power.” That should worry monarchists. The Economist also notes the palace’s symbiotic relationship with the military as a problem for the monarchy.

Vajiralongkorn’s craving of power may well be creating a threat for the monarchy’s future. The article states: “Succession is a dangerous moment for a monarchy, and many observers wonder whether Thailand’s will survive the current transition.”

While the so-called contrasts between Vajiralongkorn and his father are overdone, the new king is always going to look different and unlike his father, he doesn’t have the time to create a fully-fledged image that masks his real actions. His behavior is often startling for those used to Bhumibol’s behinf-the-scenes manipulations:

The new monarch, who lives in Germany, barely spends any time in his realm, let alone inspecting rural projects. He has a string of abandoned children and dumped consorts around the world. He made a poodle [Fu Fu] an Air Chief Marshal. His escapades inspire disdain; his rule, fear. Strict lèse majesté laws promise three to 15 years in prison for those critical of the royals.

While noting that Bhumibol was as much a military supporter as his son, and he “discouraged efforts to fix a broken political system prone to deadlock…”,  Vajiralongkorn’s recent political “interventions damage the monarchy’s standing further. The result could be turmoil as the military regime clings to power.”

If there is political “turmoil,” it is highly likely that the monarch will be openly engaged. The article concludes that monarchy:

often throws up candidates too stupid, too corrupt or too arrogant to do such a difficult job. The surprising survival of monarchies is in part a tribute to the nous of the old guard, who have understood the need to subsume their interests into those of the institution. If some of the new bloods fail to learn that lesson, the monarchy may resume its decline.





The Economist on the king

4 01 2019

The Economist’s story on Thailand this week will be banned in Thailand. It deserves to be widely read, so we reproduce it in full:

A royal pain

As the army and politicians bicker, Thailand’s king amasses more power
He appoints generals, patriarchs and executives, and disposes of crown property as he pleases

3 Jan 2019

IT HAPPENED IN the dead of night, without warning. In late December security forces showed up with a crane at a crossroads in Bangkok and whisked away the monument that stood there. No one admitted to knowing who had ordered the removal, or why. Police stopped an activist from filming it. The memorial itself, which marked the defeat in 1933 of putschists hoping to turn Thailand back into a royal dictatorship, has vanished. It is the second monument to constitutional monarchy to disappear under the military junta that has run Thailand since 2014: in 2017 a plaque celebrating the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932 was mysteriously replaced with one extolling loyalty to the king.

Making hard men humble

The current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has been on the throne for two years. He has unnerved his 69m subjects from the start. When his father, King Bhumibol, died in 2016, he refused to take the throne for nine weeks—despite having waited for it for decades. The delay was intended as a mark of respect, but it was also a way of signalling to the military junta that runs the country that he was determined to make his own decisions. It was only this week that a date was set for his coronation: May 4th. King Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time abroad, in a sumptuous residence near Munich. He even insisted on tweaking the new constitution, after it had already been approved in a referendum, to make it easier to reign from a distance.

King Bhumibol was on the throne for 70 years. Partly because of his clear devotion to the job, and partly because military regimes inculcated respect for the monarchy as a way of bolstering their own legitimacy, he was widely revered. Official adulation for the monarchy endures, but in private King Vajiralongkorn is widely reviled. His personal life is messy: he has churned through a series of consorts, disowning children and even imprisoning relatives of one jilted partner. He has firm ideas about the decorum he should be shown—the picture above shows the prime minister prostrating himself before him—but little sense of the respect he might owe anyone else: his cosseted poodle, elevated to the rank of Air Chief Marshal, used to jump up onto tables to drink from the glasses of visiting dignitaries. The tedious tasks expected of Thai monarchs, such as cutting ribbons and doling out university degrees, he palms off on his more popular sister.

Writing about such things in Thailand is dangerous. The country’s fierce lèse-majesté law promises between three and 15 years in prison for insulting “the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”. In practice, it has been used to suppress anything that could be construed as damaging to the monarchy, whether true or not, including novels that feature venal princes and academic research that casts doubt on the glorious deeds of the kings of yore.

As his critics are cowed, the king has focused on accumulating personal power. In 2017 the government gave him full control of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), an agency that has managed royal land and investments for decades and whose holdings are thought to be worth more than $40bn. In 2018 the CPB announced that all its assets would henceforth be considered the king’s personal property (he did, however, agree to pay taxes on them). That makes the king the biggest shareholder in Thailand’s third-biggest bank and one of its biggest industrial conglomerates, among other firms.

With the help of the CPB the king is reshaping an area of central Bangkok adjacent to the main royal palace. The bureau declined to renew the lease of the city’s oldest horse-racing track, the Royal Turf Club, leading to its closure in September after 102 years. An 80-year-old zoo next door closed the same month. The fate of two nearby universities that are also royal tenants remains uncertain. The CPB has not revealed the purpose of the upheaval; Thais assume the king just wants an even bigger palace.

King Vajiralongkorn has also put his stamp on the privy council, a body which has a role in naming the heir to the throne, among other things. It once contained individuals who opposed his becoming king at all. Now it is stuffed with loyal military men. The royal court is ruled with “iron discipline”, according to one local businessman. Leaks about the king’s disturbing conduct have dried up. Some former favourites have found themselves in prison. Hangers-on who traded on their royal connections have been shown the door.

The king’s authority over religious orders has also grown. In 2016 the government granted him the power to appoint members of the Sangha Supreme Council—in effect, Thai Buddhism’s governing body—and to choose the next chief monk, known as the Supreme Patriarch. He did so in 2017, elevating a respected monk from the smaller and more conservative of Thailand’s two main Buddhist orders.

The army, too, is receiving a royal makeover. The commander-in-chief appointed in September, Apirat Kongsompong, is the king’s man. Over the next two years he will supervise the relocation of a regiment and a battalion out of Bangkok, ostensibly to relieve crowding. Security in the city will fall instead to the elite Royal Guard Command, which is directly under the king’s control.

Many contend that it is the king who has pushed the army to hold the oft-delayed election that has at last been called for February 24th. This is not to suggest that the king is a democrat (his actions suggest anything but). Rather, the contest is likely to lead to a weak, chaotic government, which probably suits him well. The constitution the army designed makes it hard for elected politicians to achieve a parliamentary majority. But even if the army retains power behind the scenes, it will have surrendered absolute authority. Either pro-army types or democrats would probably seek royal support to govern, strengthening the king’s position however the vote turns out.





Funeral, significant others and the world’s gaze

28 10 2017

The Bangkok Post has one of those “maintain the royal myths” stories headed “World grieves in sympathy with sorrowful Thais.” The implication being that the “world” grieved for the dead king. Reading the story, it becomes clear that it is about Thai officials and Thais overseas remembering him, with the latter getting lots of prodding from the former.

It is true that some of the world’s media had some interesting spreads on the funeral. One striking set of pictures appears at The Daily Mail, one of the world’s most read news websites. While the salacious and strange are its standard fare, it doesn’t ignore a good story. And it found one in the funeral.

In an earlier post, PPT mentioned that some of the king’s concubines, in full military kit, were front and center at the ceremony. The Daily Mail noticed as well and had this long headline:

Thailand’s colourful new King brought ‘his mistress AND his former air stewardess wife’ to his father’s lavish cremation ceremony with both marching in bearskin hats

This is followed by several photos. This is snipped from one of these:

The caption states: “King Maha [Vajiralongkorn]’s alleged lover Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi screams an order as she takes part, marching in a military uniform…”.

Other significant points:
  • King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s wife Suthida Tidjai and his alleged lover Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi seen at service
  • Both women wearing military dress, with Tidjai in uniform of general and Wongvajirapakdi in that of colonel
  • Tidjai was never confirmed as wife of King Maha but was given honorific titles that imply they were married
  • She was spotted with the King boarding a plane while the monarch wore a crop top and carried a small dog…

Of course, the German fake tattoo-crop top photos get another run.

On the king, the paper observed:

The 65-year-old father-of-seven is known for his eyebrow-raising antics, whether its wearing a skimpy yellow crop top while shopping with a mystery woman, racing around in sports cars or reports of dubious business dealings.

And as his wife Suthida Tidjai marched alongside him in the procession, followed by his alleged lover Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, it appeared his ascension to the throne would not be curbing his old habits.

The story goes on to assess the king and his troubled past, with a picture from the famous video of a near naked Princess SrirasmiShe’s the wife ditched in 2014 and held under house arrest and her family jailed since then.

Not all the details are quite right, but the article’s drift is clear when writing of the king:

… a father-of-seven with three failed marriages, a love of fast jets and a reputation for having an explosive temper….

The King was described by one royal biographer as ‘a man prone to violence, fast cars and dubious business deals’.

Even Fu Fu gets a mention in this example of the rest of the world’s jaundiced view of the king and his court.





The king and junta have the world agog

16 05 2017

A tabloid is often sensationalist and there is some emphasis on “celebrities.” Britain’s Daily Mail is often described as this kind of tabloid.

Yet the Daily Mail has shown an interest in Thailand over the past few years, mainly focused on odd stories and accounts of celebrity holidays and problems faced by tourists. It has published a bit on the monarchy.

Its most recent story on King Vajiralongkorn is a doosie.It has it all. Naked wife, first marriage, concubines, fake tattoos, weird clothing, lese majeste, Fu Fu, coups, military junta, Facebook threats and more. And it all comes with lots of pictures and video.

If the military junta needs evidence that its actions and those of the king are problematic, they might look to the Daily Mail’s story. It is as if both junta and king have aimed a machine gun at their collective feet and shot them off.

The Daily Mail has about 4 million readers each day and its website has more than 100 million unique visitors each month. All of them will be either laughing or shaking their heads about the state of affairs in Thailand.





Creepy and useless

17 12 2016

The negative reports on Thailand’s king continue. Some are accurate, some sensationalist, and some contain errors. The point, however, is that King Vajiralongkorn has a history that means he is unlikely to every get the political free ride his father had for decades.

The latest example is from the UK’s left-wing Morning Star, with the headline, “Thailand’s Caligula-like and useless new king.”

There’s lese majeste, Fu Fu, Srirasmi’s trials including her nakedness, the arrest and jailing of her relatives and the role of the monarchy partnered with the murderous military.

The king is creepy, But useless? Not for the military.

There’s also a bit on regional politics and Thailand’s move toward China.

The article concludes:

In this context, the quaint invented rituals of an anachronistic monarchy may seem irrelevant. However, the Thai throne has been a key linchpin of Thailand’s conservatism and its pro-Washington bias for the whole post-war period. The country’s underlying social and political tensions are bound to re-emerge sooner or later with one key political weapon of the elite gone.





More on dog lese majeste

1 12 2016

With a new king meant to be in place on Friday, the lese majeste case involving the now dead king’s now dead dog raises the issue of whether the now dead Fu Fu is now on “sacred ground” too.

In arguably the most bizarre of the many lese majeste cases in recent years, Thanakorn Siripaiboon was arrested on 8 December 2015 by military and police officers. He was accused and has been charged with violating the lese majeste law by spreading “sarcastic” content via Facebook which allegedly mocked Thong Daeng, once the royal dog, favored by the late king.Thong Daeng

A provincial court is reported to have concluded that Bangkok’s military court has the jurisdiction to try the case.

On 29 November 2016, Bangkok’s Military Court of Bangkok held a deposition hearing on the case, reading “a statement from Samut Prakan Provincial Court, which concluded that the jurisdiction to try Thanakorn belongs to the military court according to the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)’s[that’s the military junta] announcement No. 37/2014.”

This means that mocking the dead king’s pet pooch is considered a crime involving national security.

Bizarre.

Thanakorn also faces charges under the Computer Crimes Act for the alleged lese majeste post and another, unrelated sedition charge for having posted an infographic on the Rajabhakti Park corruption scandal on Facebook.

There remains some different view between the provincial and military courts over the details of the lese majeste case. That still has to be sorted out.

Meanwhile, Thanakorn remains on bail and lives as a monk.








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