Ailing Thai King is Watched Anxiously

Thailand’s royal couple, King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his wife, Queen Sirikit, left Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok on May 10 to return to their seaside palace in Hua Hin, 200 km to the south on the Gulf of Thailand. But as the couple waved to cheering crowds that lined the streets along the way, the public appearance did little to allay fears over the health of both.

The king appeared motionless. The queen waved feebly, but photos appeared to show a hand lifting the 82-year-old monarch’s hand to the window. Both have been in obviously poor health for several years despite carefully staged public appearances that have left more questions than answers.

The condition of the monarch, the world’s longest-serving, who has never left his country after his 1950 coronation, is of enormous emotional importance to Thailand’s 67-million people. It is also of concern to a palace writhing with intrigue over how to deal with his eventual death and who or what will follow, and indeed whether the royal institution will survive.

The king went into the hospital seven months ago to have his gall bladder removed. He had previously been confined to the hospital for four years before coming out for a brief period

Both he and the queen are believed to have had a series of strokes that have left them basically incapacitated. As the health of the two has waned, however, Thailand remains caught in the coils of a crisis that appears unlikely to end anytime soon, with the military in full control and continuing to tighten the screws, and a restive rural population disheartened and intimidated by the ouster of democratic government last year. Most of the democrats’ leaders have either fled the country or are in jail.

Although the king has no formal political role, his replacement, assumed to be the 62-year-old crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has inspired little confidence and a lot of scorn for his profligate womanizing and seeming irresponsibility in a country that has worshiped the royalty.

That worship is said to be waning as an incapacitated king clearly no longer has any role in the running of the country and the behavior of the crown prince, who named his poodle, Foo Foo, an air marshal, has long since seeped out into the general public, raising continuing problems for a junta seeking to justify its coup as ratified by the palace.

Vajiralongkorn is largely held in contempt by the common citizenry. In November last year, he suddenly kicked out his consort, a former cocktail hostess, Princes Srirasmi, who was ordered to give up the royally-granted family name Akharapongpreecha. Ousted with her was a long list of allies in the police force including her uncle, the head of the Criminal Investigation Division, Thailand’s FBI. The prince now has a new consort, a former Thai International flight attendant, and a new son.

The king made a rare public appearance in a wheelchair on May 5 to mark the 65th anniversary of his coronation as Buddhist monks chanted prayers. As he has over the past three years, the king didn’t speak in public. Nor has Queen Sirikit. The king’s customary New Year’s speech has been replaced by a written statement often read by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who accompanied her father and mother on the trip to Hua Hin. The 60-year-old Sirindhorn, a potential if unlikely heiress to the throne, is currently running the day-to-day royal affairs while Vajiralongkorn remains in Germany, where he spends the bulk of his time. Most of the palace, according to sources, would prefer to see Sirindhorn made the queen, although there is no precedent in Thai history for a female monarch.

Meanwhile, in a draconian bid to stop any criticism of the monarchy, the government has continued to rely on its lese majesté law, which allows for penalties up to 15 years in prison for anybody who might have insulted the royalty, although the law is so broad that anyone can accuse anyone else of lese majesté. Critics say the law is used as a weapon against political enemies not just of the royalist elite but of the military now running the country.

Today, May 12, a Thai court jailed a 65-year-old woman for a year despite the fact that she was deemed to be mentally ill for allegedly insulting a picture of the king. Thitinan Kaewjantranont was first detained nearly three years ago but her sentence was suspended when she was deemed to be suffering from mental health problems. However, the Court of Appeals nullified the suspension after prosecutors appealed. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of other lese majesté offenders are said to be in jail although the true figures are unknown.

In the meantime, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the May 22, 2014 coup, and is now the country’s prime minister, appears fully in charge and intending to stay that way into the foreseeable future despite a promise to hand back power to a civilian government. The timetable, however, keeps receding into the future.

The Thai military, which was treated handsomely by the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in terms of defense procurement, has declared that Christmas is coming. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which compiles annual defense expenditures, spending has increased sharply since the coup, with a 2016 budget proposed in April of US$6.3 billion, seven percent above the current level despite the fact that the country’s borders are secure and there is nobody in particular to fight.

On the personal and press freedom front, rights have continued to shrivel. Human Rights Watch in January said rights were “in free fall.”