Erratic Thai King Earns Subjects’ Unprecedented Anger
Entrenched in Germany with harem, Vajiralongkorn ignores Coronavirus crisis
Thailand’s controversial king Maha Vajiralongkorn, despite being protected by some of the most stringent lèse-majesté laws in the world, has come under unprecedented attack by young Thais who have taken to Twitter and Facebook to denounce him for his apparent disregard of his subjects during the Covid-19 crisis.
“He has been heavily criticized for not caring about his subjects at home, for continuing to enjoy an indulgent life with a harem in a German hotel,” said a source who is living in exile overseas. “Criticisms from international media are not strange. What is phenomenal is the fact that Thais, especially the younger generation, are now willing to talk about this openly, especially on Twitter. They asked a pertinent question: ‘Why do we need a king?’ This shows a shift in the people's attitude toward the monarchy. Many years ago, this would have been unimaginable. Today, cursing at the king seems normal.”
The appearance of criticism on social media of the 67-year old king, who accepted the throne on December 1, 2016 as the latest monarch in the 238-year-old Chakri dynasty, is extraordinary and seems to flow to places where Thai censors aren’t nimble enough to follow, including using arcane and derogatory references to the king on a K-pop news outlet normally used for dating rumors. Younger Thais are getting bolder, a source said, especially given the king’s apparent lack of concern for the plight of the economy, which is collapsing under the weight of the virus and other problems.
“These are new revelations to millions of Thais,” an expatriate source told Asia Sentinel. Apparently, not just the young but people across the country have been given access to a barrage of YouTube videos providing details, not only Vajiralongkorn’s life and antics, but of the whole royal family. The effect has been to debunk the myths of divinity and sacredness of the family, shocking middle-aged Thais to the extent that respect for the monarchy is becoming a casualty.
The hashtag #มีกษัตริย์ไว้ทำไม or #WhyDoWeNeedKing was the top Twitter feed in Thailand earlier this week, an indication of the erosion of the monarchy's position in politics despite the military’s attempts to prop it up and a sign that despite harsh laws on criticism, more and more people are in favor of bringing the monarchy under scrutiny.
Almost certainly some of the anger spilling out on the part of Thailand’s young is due to the decision by authorities to outlaw the Future Forward party, which gathered six million votes in last year’s election and whose charismatic leader, the 41-year-old Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a political aristocrat connected to the country’s biggest auto parts manufacturer and several establishment figures, has been threatened with imprisonment for no other reason than the popularity of his youth movement .
“I guess it is hard to control the viral posts on Twitter,” said Puangthong Pawakapan, a lecturer in international relations at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “The more the state tries to suppress it, the more it has gone viral. Also, the way they wrote the posts on Twitter, it is difficult for the authorities to pinpoint that they were discussing the monarchy. For example, they shared a poster of the Korean film ‘The Kingdom’ and said the hashtag is about the film. Of course, readers know the true meaning of it. I got the sense among the young tweeters that they thought they could get away with it.”
The military government tightly controls all media through the lèse-majesté laws as well as the Computer Crime Act passed in 2016, which provides sweeping powers to restrict free speech, enforce surveillance of websites and provides for extraordinary censorship. Veneration of the king ordered by the military has achieved comic levels, with photos of commoners even crawling beneath the king’s portraits. People have dared punishment for even not showing enough respect to distant royal relatives. Prayuth and top army officials routinely crawl on the floor in his presence.
Despite the stranglehold on the media, which extends to newspapers and television, the public has become enraged over the king’s decision not only to stay in Germany, where he lives most of the year, but to rent the entire four-star Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl in the famed Alpine resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen with an entourage that is said to include a harem of 20 concubines and numerous servants, according to the German tabloid Bild.
In the meantime, as he wallows in luxury, the king’s 70 million-odd subjects have been subjected to an unprecedented lockdown as the coronavirus has spread, badly denting an already-ailing economy. After dithering for weeks over the damage to the country’s tourism industry, which represents up to 20 percent of GDP, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha finally announced on March 26 that the nation’s borders would be closed to foreign visitors, social gatherings have been banned, domestic travel restricted and all but essential shops have been shut until the end of April. Although officially only 1,524 were recorded with the virus at the time of publication, testing has been sporadic at best and health officials say every recorded victim could represent as many as 2,000 who are in fact ill.
With the king spending most of his time in Germany, returning only for ceremonial events in marked contrast to his father, the late Bhumibol Adulyadej, who famously never left the country after 1967, irritation and frustration have continued to climb. A pilot who trained in the Royal Thai Air Force, the king flies his own Boeing 737 with its own livery although he has been known to borrow jets from the ailing Thai International, which because of the coronavirus may be facing extinction. Last October, the airline had already warned it could face bankruptcy.
Since taking the throne, Vajiralongkorn, who was regarded as unacceptably volatile during his years as crown prince, has acted in unsettling ways to attempt to return the throne to the absolute monarchy that the military ended in 1932, including forcing changes to the constitution to allow him to exercise his authority even when he is away from the country in Germany. He has won control of the Crown Property Bureau, whose assets are valued at an estimated US$60 billion and has enlarged his own private army to the point where it has unsettled the regular military. He now controls some of the most expensive land in Bangkok and is able to use it at his own whim.
But it is his own personal behavior that has unsettled elite society to an almost unacceptable extent. The world got a preview of that well before he ascended to the throne. He has married four times and fathered seven children. When he decided to get rid of his then-wife Princess Srirasmi, a former cocktail hostess, in 2014, he humiliated her, forced her into exile outside Bangkok and arrested many of her family. On his ascent to the throne, several top aides disappeared, with some having died in questionable circumstances.
Last year, months after he married his fourth wife, Suditha, he took a “royal consort,” Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, and shortly afterwards stripped her of her rank for having been "ambitious" and trying to "elevate herself to the same state as the queen."
Cables from the US Embassy in Bangkok released by Wikileaks several years ago indicated that many in the power structure didn’t view the then-crown prince as a suitable successor. One cable described his dog Foo Foo a marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force and allowing the dog to graze on food atop tables at an official banquet.
A leaked video of a birthday for Foo Foo, complete with a naked Princess Srirasmi, his now-discarded wife, is now circulating widely along with videos of Buddhist funeral rites when Foo Foo died in 2015. Previously these videos circulated among the elite in Bangkok. Now they have spread to the general populace, causing shock.
The military and the palace have had what is described as a symbiotic relationship since the 1960's that was based on mutual benefit, with the military gaining the patronage and pride of being the protector of the monarch and the impunity that goes along it, while the palace was assured of a bedrock of supporters with arms prepared to act if needed.
The living example of that was Prem Tinsulanonda, the onetime army chief who subsequently served as prime minister and went on to head the royalty’s privy council, remaining deeply influential, especially with Bhumibol, almost until his death at age 88 in May 2019.
Today, there is widespread concern at the top of Thai society that they have created a monster in the form of Vajiralongkorn and his increasingly ostentatious relatives who cannot be controlled. But, embarrassed as the Thai elites may feel about the spectacle of an erratic king, attempting to force his abdication is fraught with dangers. The growing contempt of young, middle-class Thais is not likely to change things.