Thailand’s Controversial King Outrages Subjects

Apparently overcautious because of the virus, Vajiralongkorn flees for Germany

Amid unparalleled public anger, Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn flew into Thailand for a few hours from his German refuge on April 5 to celebrate Chakri Memorial Day commemorating the 17th-century coronation of Rama I and the establishment of the Chakri dynasty, of which he is the tenth in the line, then flew out again as soon as he could.  

The 67-year-old king was in Thailand just about long enough to commemorate the event. Then he was scheduled to turn around the Thai Airways International airliner carrying him and his royal entourage and fly back to Germany, apparently convincing German and Thai authorities there was no need for quarantine before and after the trip, according to documents unearthed by Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a former Reuters bureau chief in Bangkok who has become one of the regime’s most trenchant critics. 

The king’s plane was one of the very few to land at Bangkok’s massive Suvarnabhumi International Airport, which can handle 63 flights per hour and whose terminal can handle 45 million passengers per year. The airport was closed for three days beginning on April 4, ostensibly because of passengers who resisted quarantine, causing chaos among arriving passengers who had to be shunted to other airports or whose flights were delayed. 

However, the widespread belief in Thailand is that the airport was closed so that the king wouldn’t come into contact with anybody with the slightest chance of passing on the Covid-19 coronavirus, which is sweeping the country. So far 2,220 cases have been reported along with 51 deaths, which is almost certainly a fraction of the real effect of the pandemic. Whether it is true or not that the king ordered the airport closed, the fact that it is believed so widely is an indication of the rising disapproval of the monarch and his behavior. 

That doesn’t mean defenestration anytime soon. The Chakri dynasty, with its deep hold on the Thai psyche, is not going to fall. But for days the hashtag #มีกษัตริย์ไว้ทำไม or #WhyDoWeNeedKing has remained the top Twitter feed in Thailand, having been retweeted more than 1 million times, a shocking erosion of reverence for the monarchy in a country where even the most politically and economically important dignitaries and poohbahs crawl around on their hands and knees in front of him, and where stepping on a coin with the king’s face on it can lead to charges of lèse-majesté. Insulting his dog has led to threats of such charges. The age-old monarchy is one of the world’s richest, with a magnificent complex of palaces and outbuildings in Bangkok.

The criticism of the king is particularly surprising as the military government tightly controls all media through the Computer Crimes Act passed in 2016, which provides sweeping powers to restrict free speech, enforce surveillance of websites and provides for extraordinary censorship designed to shut down social media. A vast army of trolls is employed to attack critics. But despite the stranglehold on the media, which extends to newspapers and television, the public has become enraged over the king’s behavior.  

Scandalous tweets and YouTube videos have blossomed, including of a birthday party the king threw for his dog Foo Foo, which was attended by his then-wife, who was nude. These videos have made the rounds of the elites in Bangkok for several years, but now they have made it out to a shocked general public. 

“As soon as the King flew in from Europe, the Thai Twittersphere immediately came alive with renewed criticism of him that the Thai government has repeatedly tried and failed to stamp out,” a western source in Bangkok told Asia Sentinel. “The anger of many Thai people is still palpable that Vajiralongkorn has abandoned them at a time of profound crisis. While the country goes into national curfew and possibly further lockdowns to fight the coronavirus pandemic, and people across the country are hurting economically and wondering how they will survive, he is hiding out in Europe at a fancy hotel.” 

The king’s rising unpopularity, which would have been inconceivable until quite recently, is translating into a problem for the Thai junta which overthrew the constitutionally-elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, rewrote the Constitution and replaced it with a document engineered to make sure a popularly elected government would be electorally all but impossible.  

Last month the government used tortured legal language to get its judicially pliable constitutional court 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, is connected to the country’s biggest auto parts manufacturer and several establishment figures. Thanorn has been threatened with imprisonment for no other reason than the popularity of his youth movement.

In addition, the economy, reeling from drought, mismanagement and corruption, has been hit with the collapse of the tourism sector, which accounts for about 20 percent of GDP, as several million Chinese stopped coming because of the coronavirus. According to Bloomberg, Thailand faces the highest odds of recession among Asian nations -- at 30 percent -- after Japan. A program to provide Thb5,000 (US$152.10) to Thais in the informal sector appears to have been botched, with only 12 million eligible of the 35 million in the sector.

Hiding Under the King’s Robes

To shore up its position following the coup, the government, headed by the former junta head and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, tied itself to an extreme version of royal privilege that harkens back to the original Chakri kings in the 18th century. That is now coming back to bite the military in the form of the king’s outré behavior.

Certainly Vajiralongkorn’s reign, which started on October 3, 2016 with the death of his revered father Bhumibol Adulyadej at age 88, has been nothing if not controversial. Despite spending most of his time at his estate in Germany, where he is given to wearing fake tattoos and cropped singlets that display his midriff, while shuffling a series of concubines and wives through his life, he has arrogated powers to his throne that were supposedly shorn from it by the revolution of 1932, when the army ended the absolute monarchy. 

In April of 2017, a plaque in Bangkok’s Royal Plaza marking the imposition of constitutional monarchy disappeared and was replaced by one celebrating the monarchy. It was taken as a sign in Bangkok of the monarch’s increasing grip on power. Last year he ordered the 1st and 11th Thai infantry regiments to be transferred out of the Ministry of Defense to his direct command without asking consent of the parliament or the military, adding to his considerable private army.

The king’s latest escapade is to have ignored the Covid-19 crisis sweeping his country to take over the entire luxury hotel with an entourage of concubines and staff in a town that in 1936 was the site of the Olympic Games in which Adolf Hitler sought to glorify Ayrians as a super race. In the meantime, deaths in his country have continued to rise. A man found dead on a train on April 1 was found to have the virus.

“The fact he flew into Bangkok for less than one day to celebrate himself and the dynasty on Chakri Day -- but not to help the people -- is lost on no one,” a source said. “The coronavirus crisis is proving what many Thai people always suspected: Vajiralongkorn only cares about himself, his lifestyle, his privileges, and his power, and in that, he is truly the antithesis of his father to whom the Thai people traditionally turned as a shelter in the storm."