Can Vajiralongkorn return to Germany?

15 12 2020

A few days ago a Japanese newspaper published a story about King Vajiralongkorn’s relationship with Germany. It was behind a paywall for us at PPT. Fortunately, The Thaiger has a version of it.

Based on German media reports, the report states that there are doubts that Thailand’s king “will ever return” to Bavaria.It seems that the demands of fighting back against domestic criticism requires his attention, even if past PR efforts have gone badly throughout his life.

Nikkei Asia reports that Holger Sabinsky-Wolf, a journalist from a local daily, Augsburger Allgemeine, recently reported that ‘diplomatic sources’ have explained they do not expect the Thai king to return to Germany.

Meanwhile, Berliner Morgenpost, had a headline on December 9… “Thai king has left Bavaria – will he ever be back?” The article reported that local shops, jewellers and restaurants “regretted his absence” as the full entourage, including “twenty accompanying business [sic.] women” who had generated significant revenue for the small village.

Meanwhile, German parliamentarians have questioned his presence in Germany and protesters began to dog his life in Germany. And, Germany is going into virus lock-downs.

The article gets some things wrong. For example, it says the ‘King’s earlier schedule [was] to return to Germany at the end of December…”. In fact, his October visit was scheduled for three weeks.

The report tiptoes around some issues:

… the King has attracted considerable publicity in Germany for the length of his stay, the list of people who were sharing the hotel with him [PPT: his harem of women, servants, and security], the cost of security and alleged Covid-19 lockdown breaches.

The German Government were also dragged into Thailand’s spate of protests when rally was mounted outside the German embassy in Sathorn Road on October 26. Protesters delivered a letter personally to the German ambassador Georg Schmidt, openly asking for an investigation of HM affairs and legitimacy as a long-term resident in Bavaria. They directly addressed the issue of a foreign monarch conducting state affairs on German soil amongst other matters that could contravene German law.

Journalists have concluded that “the German government would be able to tie any future visa for the Thai monarch to ‘explicit requirements that [the king] appoint a regent in Thailand to act in his place when he was visiting Germany’.”

Despite all of this, the report unaccountably concludes that the German government is not bothered about the king being in Germany. So the point of the story was….





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.





Updated: Palace PR at full throttle III

23 11 2020

It may be that the current palace PR effort is about to be undone (again).

Royal critics Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Andrew McGregor Marshall have both has posted pictures they he says are from phones that once belonged to Consort Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi. Andrew McGregor Marshall has confirmed the existence of the photos. Many of the hundreds of photos are said to show her naked. Both imply that that the leaking of the photos is a part of a continuing conflict between Queen Suthida and Sineenat.

In the past, the leak of naked photos of the crown prince’s/king’s women have indicated some kind of “partner crisis.” The king has displayed a penchant for erotic images of his women and PPT has previously seen photos of former wives Yuvadhida Polpraserth and Srirasmi and of current queen Suthida. Of course, the video of a naked Srirasmi has been widely circulated.

Pavin and Marshall, who don’t always see eye-to-eye, have begun leakeding some of the tamer photos this information with the latter claiming he’s had them for some time and initially decided not to make them public on moral and ethical grounds. It seems that several news outlets also have the photos, so it may be that they racier photos will come out sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, Marshall has posted links to German news media suggesting that the king’s troubles there are not over. One is an Ardmediathek video report and the other is a 2DF video report. Interestingly, Deutsche Welle reports that “Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn may be expelled from Germany if he issues decrees from his Bavarian villa, the Bundestag has said.” The report clarifies that the king has diplomatic immunity when he is in Germany, meaning that the “German state has very little power to prosecute the Thai king, despite recent threats by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.” Rather, Germany would need to expel “the king from Germany as a ‘persona non grata’…”.





The king and his rightists I

10 11 2020

Yesterday PPT posted on an award to Australian journalists for their reporting on Thailand’s minister Thammanat Prompao, a convicted heroin trafficker.  We felt readers might like to see the latest from one of those journalists. We reproduce it in full, with photos added by PPT:

King of compromise? Thailand’s Vajiralongkorn plays the long game in face of protests

By Michael Ruffles
November 8, 2020

The tyres hit the tarmac of Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport. The prince steps out in his army uniform. It has been a long flight from Perth, where he has been training with the SASR for months since completing four years at Duntroon, but his day is not over yet. The 24-year-old is off to temple on a political errand.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn meets a saffron-robed figure, a monk who for 10 years was Thailand’s military dictator before being ousted. The sanctuary in the temple is a signal of royal support, and the meeting is a pointed one as political protests grow at the university campus nearby. It does nothing to quell the anger. It is October 2, 1976. Four days later the campus is the site of a massacre that haunts Thailand to this day.

When King Vajiralongkorn flew in to Bangkok from Germany on October 9, 2020, he landed in a similar political storm. For all the social and economic changes over the decades, young protesters are similarly angry at the military’s dominance and thwarted democracy.

It is also personal: the King’s life in Germany, the women in his life and use of taxpayer money are all the target of criticism, satire and outrage. Yellow-clad supporters counter that the nation, religion and monarchy are core to the Thai identity.

Exiled academic and royal critic Pavin Chachavalpongpun says it is as if “somehow politics got stuck”.

“Almost everything, if you just close your eyes it seems like we go back to 1976,” Pavin says from Kyoto. “The source of the problem has remained with the monarchy, and in particular with the same figure [Vajiralongkorn]. And with the kind of tactics, building up vigilante groups, supporting hardcore royalists to come out, using both propaganda and violence to intimidate the pro-democracy movement.

“This is amazing that we have changed very little from that point to now.”

Vajiralongkorn was an important, if perhaps unwitting, figure in 1976. Actors in a student play were accused of staging a mock execution of the then crown prince and on October 6 a coalition of right-wing militia and police launched a pre-dawn assault on Thammasat University. Forty-three were killed, including five who were lynched. No one has been held accountable. The army seized power in the name of defending the monarchy.

In the past month, protest leaders have been arrested multiple times, flash mobs have sprouted across Bangkok and tear-gas and water cannon have been deployed. Riot police have been out in force but unable to stop protest tactics adopted from last year’s demonstrations in Hong Kong. The words “republic of Thailand” have appeared at protest sites and populate segments of Thai social media with alacrity.

The three official aims of the self-styled People’s Party, or Khana Ratsadon, are the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a rewrite of the military-backed constitution and reform of the monarchy. The royal reforms they want include greater transparency and accountability, and to rein in the use of taxpayer funds at a time when Thailand’s tourism-dependent economy has been hammered. The issue of the monarchy is the most contentious and has brought issues that have long been suppressed by harsh laws and media self-censorship to the fore.

The tensest moment came after a Rolls-Royce carrying the King’s youngest son, Prince Dipangkorn, and Queen Suthida strayed into a protest zone on October 14. British foreign correspondent Jonathan Miller described it on Channel 4 as a “major security lapse”. The more suspicious saw it as a ruse to turn public opinion against the young demonstrators.

Through it all, Vajiralongkorn has stayed in the spotlight. He has lived mostly in Germany since 2007 and had the constitution rewritten to make it easier for him to rule from abroad, but has postponed his return to Europe. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas made pointed comments about Vajiralongkorn being unable to rule from Bavaria, which has complicated matters. “I think the King is wise to not go back now because at least they want the story to fade away,” Pavin says.

Vajiralongkorn has also been greeting supporters. Together with Queen Suthida, his Noble Consort Sineenat and his two daughters, the King has walked among them, posed for selfies and offered moral support. At one such event last Sunday, Channel 4’s Miller stood behind a staunch royalist former monk and scored a scoop. He asked the King what he would say to the protesters.

“I have no comment,” Vajiralongkorn said, waving the question away. “We love them all the same. We love them all the same. We love them all the same.”

Miller asked if there was room for compromise, to which he said “Thailand is the land of compromise” before moving away.

Political commentator Voranai Vanijaka, the editor-in-chief of news website Thisrupt, says the events are designed to rehabilitate the prestige of the monarchy and strengthen the royalist base.

“With the King remaining in Thailand, royalists now have the presence of the King as motivation, something near and dear to fight for,” Voranai says.

“The royal walkabouts are designed to do just that. In recent weeks, we have seen increased activities from royalists, with more royalist celebrities coming out to lead protests and gatherings. This is a push back against the Ratsadon Movement.

“The game is to win public legitimacy, which side has more support, which side can claim millions, which is the greater cause, monarchy or democracy.

“The words by the King are as they are, something he’s supposed to say. Royalists say it’s a shining example of the King’s greatness. Ratsadon makes sarcastic memes and signs.”

Activist Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, who has led the push for reform of the monarchy and faces sedition charges, tweeted in response: “Yes, land of compromise. But protesters are arrested, cracked down on, assaulted. Those criticising the institution are kidnapped. Yes.”

Pavin, an associate professor at Kyoto University whose Royalist Marketplace Facebook group boasts two million members, says Vajiralongkorn and his immediate family have been filmed telling supporters in almost identical terms that they need to fight to correct a misunderstanding of the monarchy.

“Himself, two wives and his two active daughters are totally in sync, this is not coincidental,” Pavin says. “They have to defend the monarchy, that I understand, but if you read closely whatever these people say to the loyal subjects is the same thing. This has been calculated.”

As far as compromise goes, Pavin believes the King “did not mean what he said”. Talk of replacing the Prime Minister has been circling – there is often talk of a coup in Thailand, where there have been a dozen successful putsches in the past century.

Pavin says the fate of the Prime Minister could be a bargaining chip for the King, giving the protesters a victory. But it was more likely the monarchy and military wanted to exhaust protest leaders and outlast the movement.

“This is a tactic that the King has been adopting for some time now. I think eventually they just hope that the persistence on the part of the palace and the government would eventually win, meaning that as long as they can hold on to the status quo then they would emerge as the winner.”





Thinking about the ruling class I

30 10 2020

Often PPT is startled by some of the reporting we see in the mainstream media. Sometimes we are disappointed that some of that media simply cannot extract itself from regime and palace propaganda, from ruling class interests and from strangling self-censorship.

We reckon that the Bangkok Post has been particularly awful in the way it has reported many recent events. Its latest reporting on the king’s problems in Germany had this ridiculous, even laughable, line: “the King travels to Germany from time to time.”

Do they think its readers are morons? Every one knows that the king spends most of his time in Germany and that he ordered the junta’s constitution changed to allow him to conduct the affairs of state when in Germany. Everyone knows that royal minor wife Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi spends most of her time – since she was released from jail – in Germany. Every one knows that the queen spends most of her time in Switzerland. And, many know that Princess Sirivannavari spends much of her time in France. This is a European royal family. So why is the Post so hopeless?

Sirivannavari and boyfriend at Paris Open

Thinking about hopeless stuff, how about bail?

As we know, many of the “leaders” of the anti-regime protests are in jail, denied bail. THese are mostly young students.

How’s that work when a report in the same Bangkok Post tells us that “[s]elf-professed gambler Apirak ‘Sia Po’ Chat-anon was detained after showing up at a police station in Bangkok to be questioned about a shootout on Tuesday that resulted in two men being wounded.” Sia Po stands “accused of shooting and wounding two men in front of Saree Sauna & Spa…”.

When he showed up at the police station – they didn’t go out and arrest him – he arrived with  “his brother … accompanied by Santhana Prayoonrat, a former deputy superintendent of Special Branch Police…”.

Royal Household Bureau via Khaosod

We won’t go into how it is that a gangster and gunman has a retired senior policeman with him – the answer is too obvious. But we do note that Sia Po was “later released without condition by the Thon Buri Criminal Court after posting 350,000 baht bail.”

But the students who haven’t shot anyone or or engaged in any violence are denied bail. Fair? Of course not. It is all ruling class buffalo manure. Think of all the cops supporting the Red Bull who drove over and killed a policeman.

There was another Sia who accused of gangsterism. That was Sia O several years ago. Are they all in this together? Of course they are. It’s a ruling class.

Even if the royal family aren’t engaged in gangsterism, they plunder the taxpayer’s money.





King in the clear?

29 10 2020

An anonymous source tells Reuters at Al Jazeera that “Germany does not believe that Thailand’s king has so far breached its ban on conducting politics during his extended periods in the country…”.

The source is said to be “a parliamentary source” talking about a session where “legislators were briefed on the issue by the government” at the “Bundestag’s Committee of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday…”.

For the feudal lord, in Germany

The government told “MPs that it believed the king was permitted to make occasional decisions, as long as he did not continuously conduct business from German soil.”

The report also refers to the “king’s immigration status,” saying that the “monarch has a visa that allows him to stay in Germany for several years as a private person and also enjoys diplomatic immunity as a head of state.”

PPT reckons the German government should look more closely at the king’s “work” – the visits he gets, the announcements, the communications, etc.

We are also interested to know how one can be both a private person and have diplomatic immunity as head of state at the very same time.





Updated: Germany warns Vajiralongkorn

27 10 2020

Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has made his government’s position clear. He has warned King Vajiralongkorn:

If Thai King … Vajiralongkorn breaks the law on German soil, there will be immediate consequences, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday.

“We have not only been looking into that in recent weeks, but on a regular basis,” Maas said at a news conference. “If there are things we consider to be illegal, that will have immediate consequences.”

Such a statement must be infuriating to the king. After all, for his whole life, the king has always got what he wanted. To have a mere minister warn him must be something he has never previously experienced. With protesters also demanding that his power and influence be reigned in, the king must be not just angry but suffering cognitive dissonance. This makes him dangerous as solving this psychological state means an “alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.”

Update:





Challenging monarchism I

27 10 2020

Pro-democracy protesters have dramatically changed Thailand’s political and cultural landscape.

One of the best examples is in newspaper reporting. Some outlets have gone full-on mad monarchist, but all are reporting on the monarchy as never before. It was only a few weeks ago that Thais relying on the mainstream media might easily have thought that the king and queen were living in Thailand. Almost no outlet ever mentioned much about the royals spending all their time in Germany and Switzerland.

That’s all changed.

These outlets have to report on events such as last evening’s march to the German Embassy in Bangkok. In reporting such events, the media find that they must say something about them. Sure, they still self-censor on the most radical statements and the students poking fun at the monarch and even purloining his recent statements to ultra-royalists as anti-monarchy memes. For example, when Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha ignored the demand that he go, the Khana Ratsadon 2563 named the 26 October march to the German Embassy “Very Brave, Very Good,” with the note: “Because we can’t talk sense with the dog, we shall talk to the dog’s owner.” A huge banner read: “Reform the Monarchy.”

While not mainstream, like many other outlets, Thisrupt explained why the protesters were going to the German Embassy: “Today, Khana Ratsadon will march from Samyan Intersection to the German Embassy on Sathorn Road. Germany has been the residence of … King Rama 10 for many years. ”

The Nation reports: “Pro-democracy demonstrators submitted a letter to the German embassy in Bangkok on Monday asking its government to investigate whether HM the King is ruling from German soil.” The protesters stated; “The request is aimed at reinstating … the King to Thailand so the Palace is placed under the Constitution and Thailand can return to being a genuine constitutional monarchy…”.

A Thai PBS photo

Thai PBS reports: “Thousands of protesters ended their rally in front of the German Embassy on South Sathorn Road after submitting a letter addressed to the German government stressing their call for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to resign and demanding a probe into … the King’s frequent visits to Germany.”

Can anyone imagine such a reporting even a month ago?

Even anti-democrat ultra-royalists have had to acknowledge that the king they claim to revere prefers to spend his time living the high life in Germany. Their tiny rally at the German Embassy before the thousands of pro-democracy protesters showed up, begged the German government to ignore the “false information” about their usually absent king.

We don’t think the monarchy can recover from this. Of course, after its involvement in the 1976 massacre at Thammasat University, the monarchy took years to recover its ideological hegemony, mainly through military-backed government led by unelected premier and groveling royalist Gen Prem Tinsulanonda. In parliament, ultra-royalists like the reprehensible Paiboon Nititawan, an MP for the junta’s Palang Pracharath Party, continue to wind the clock backwards, “accusing protesters of trying to overthrow the monarchy.”

Military supporters like Paiboon may want the extreme repression and bloodshed they’ll need to push the anti-royalist genie back into the bottle. We think the bottle is also broken.





The Guardian on Thailand’s absolutist monarch

16 10 2020

The Guardian has an editorial on Thailand that deserves to be widely read. With apologies to the publisher, we reproduce it here in full (including hyperlinks):

The Guardian view on Thailand’s protests and the king: the end of deference

Demonstrations reflect a longstanding appetite for democracy – but challenging the monarchy breaches a taboo

Thailand is often described as coup-prone, given the numerous military takeovers since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. It would be as accurate to call it democracy-hungry. Thais have periodically fought to determine their own future, despite the risks.

Early on Thursday, the government declared a “severe” state of emergency in Bangkok, in response to months of protests culminating in a mass rally on Wednesday. It banned gatherings of more than four people and the publication of information that could “create fear” or “affect national security”. Thousands immediately surged into the streets, angered by the arrest of protest leaders. The fear of a harsher crackdown is well-founded given the brutal repression of previous movements, including the 1976 massacre at Thammasat University. The UK and others must press the regime to respect the rights of protesters.

Prayuth Chan-ocha’s administration, a military junta that laundered itself into an elected government via a rigged system, is both incompetent and authoritarian. Even dissidents who have fled the country have been harassed, disappeared or killed. Unhappiness has been fuelled by Covid-19’s destruction of the tourism sector, on which the country is heavily dependent. Protestors demand the prime minister’s resignation and the redrafting of the constitution. But they have also broken new ground by demanding reform of what was previously taboo, thanks to heavy penalties for discussing it: Thailand’s royalty. Anon Nampa, the lawyer who helped kick the movement off and is now detained, warned: “If we don’t fix the monarchy, we can’t fix anything else.”

While his father, who died in 2016, was seen touring provincial development projects, King Maha Vajiralongkorn is better known for his personal life, including the ruthless treatment of ex-wives. He resides largely in Bavaria with a female entourage; Germany’s foreign minister says it has “made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil”.

But the king has also centralised both wealth and power, taking direct command of troops, insisting on constitutional changes and taking personal ownership of the Crown Property Bureau’s holdings – estimated at $40bn [PPT: way too low]. While millions are unemployed, $1bn of this year’s government budget will go to the monarchy. Cue previously unthinkable scenes, with protestors giving a three-fingered salute to the royal motorcade in reference to the Hunger Games and to liberty, equality and fraternity.

Yet the institution’s revered status had already begun eroding. While the last king was seen as a pillar of stability, he consistently sided with the forces of conservatism. Anti-monarchism began to emerge among the largely poor and rural “red shirts” who supported the ousted and controversial prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Strikingly, however, there now seems to be a nascent realignment between this movement and another with which it has often clashed: the urban, largely middle class pro-democracy movement often rooted in universities and NGOs, and which most recently swung behind Future Forward, a now-dissolved pro-democracy party.

Thailand’s establishment has so far proved incapable of grasping that the age of deference is over. It is not surprising that the elites resist change in a country with possibly the highest wealth inequality in the world, where the richest 1% control almost 67% of assets. But nor is it feasible that the rest will be content with their meagre lot. Until a better political and economic settlement is reached, the strains will continue to grow. The monarchy’s position is now one of them.





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.








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