Thailand’s King Wears Out his Welcome
Vajiralongkorn’s unpopularity presents a dilemma for the army
The tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters taking to the streets in Bangkok, which have turned on the monarchy in dramatic fashion, are there in large measure because King Maha Vajiralongkorn has lost what the Chinese call the mandate of heaven. And now the Thai military, one of the most corrupt and incompetent in Asia, which has bet everything on maintaining the 68-year-old king’s image of royal invincibility, is stuck with him.
It is difficult to see, given the level of disrespect for a once-adored monarchy, how they can get this genie back into the bottle. Where previously Vajiralongkorn’s behavior could once be covered up, his antics have spread unstoppably across social media, showing him cavorting in Germany in bizarre, cropped bra-like singlets and covered with fake tattoos. He has antagonized a large slice of his 70 million-odd subjects by rarely returning to the country, usually only for ceremonial commemorations, even as the Thai people suffered from the devastating economic downturn from the Covid-19 pandemic. He famously rid himself of one consort, jailed her, then publicly brought her back as a general in his own private military.
For the first time in Thailand’s history, commoners booed a royal motorcade carrying Queen Suthida and autistic Prince Dipangkorn (from the king’s third wife, now divorced and disgraced and living as a Buddhist nun under house arrest in Ratchburi province, while the rest of her family languishes in prison). as they made their way through Bangkok’s streets. One longtime political observer in Bangkok noted that everyone knew the protesters were near Government House yet still the motorcade was sent through.
“This whole incident stinks of a set-up, sending out members of the family to spark an incident where protesters would confront the queen and show disrespect. The fact that the king hid in his palace while sending his wife and son into harm’s way tells you everything you need to know about the man.” Two protesters have now been arrested and charged with “an act of violence against the queen’s liberty” – the first time this charge has ever been used – and face the death penalty if convicted.
Undaunted, the protesters have called for reforms to curb the king’s powers, for the government to resign and for a new constitution to replace the one passed in 2016 to make military control bulletproof. The military’s answer has been to intensify a crackdown that they may well win, but at enormous cost to the country.
The student protests that have rocked Bangkok and other major provincial cities for weeks have festered since a plainly rigged election last year that was billed as an end to military rule, but which returned junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to office as the unelected Prime Minister. A manifestly engineered re-jiggering of election rules by the junta’s hand-picked Election Commission was necessary to give Prayuth’s party the votes he needed to return to power, assisted by the unelected Senate that is full of retired military, police, and government bureaucrats selected for their loyalty to the military and king. Then the Constitutional Court ordered the disbanding of the popular Future Forward Party headed by the young, charismatic Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who has consistently dared being imprisoned to continue the protest against the government.
But it is Vajiralongkorn who is facing unprecedented protest, a kind of demystification of royalty previously held in awe by prostrating subjects for decades. Despite his demands to be revered the same way his father was respected during his decades on the throne, outside of palace sycophants and terrified civil servants, no one is really listening. Although the administration has ordered curfews and arrested student lists, they are unable to reverse the growing disdain.
It has been a long time coming, from the time he was a youth who seemingly has never known any curbs on his behavior. As a Thai Air Force pilot, he repeatedly irritated other pilots while taxiing, endangering other planes by pulling in front of them for takeoff.
He married into royalty but quickly abandoned his first wife and took on a long list of cocktail hostesses, actresses, flight attendants and others as consorts as well as running the total to four legally married wives. The public was scandalized by video of a birthday party for his dog – attended by his nearly naked consort, and later third wife – as well as other misbehavior.
Elite Thai families made sure to keep their daughters well away from his gaze, lest they be summoned and ordered into the royal bed. Those who failed to do so were counseled to “close their eyes, and think of Thailand.”
But it is since he ascended to the throne previously held by his austere father, whose photo opportunities ran to wandering rice paddies with his adoring subjects, that the trouble has metastasized.
Almost immediately after gaining the throne, Vajiralongkorn set out to reverse the 1932 revolution that overthrew the government of King Prajadhipok, ending the absolute rule of the Chakri monarchs and implementing constitutional monarchy and an imperfect representative democracy that has been dominated by the military behind the scenes.
A plaque commemorating the advent of democracy which had been installed at the Royal Plaza in front of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall of the Dusit Palace was mysteriously ripped out at night in 2017. Other historical landmarks around the country, celebrating the victories over the absolute monarchy, have also gone mysteriously missing in the middle of the night.
In 2019, he ordered the transfer of all the assets of the huge Crown Property Bureau to his personal name and control. The CPB, which manages the vast properties and businesses of the monarchy, which is believed to be valued at as much as US$60 billion, making him arguably the world’s wealthiest king. He has steadily accrued a growing personal army, in 2019 ordering the transfer of two infantry units from the Thai Army command into his own royal corps. He has named two of his wives or consorts generals in his army, and once named his poodle, Foo Foo, an air chief marshal. The dog received a four day royally sponsored funeral, attended by top military brass, when it died.
The king maintains an officially gazetted, yet deeply feared dungeon at his Thaweewattana palace in Nakorn Pathom province where those who irritate him have allegedly been imprisoned or disappeared for good. Despite being on the list of Department of Corrections facilities, no one dares inspect what goes on at that dungeon.
Although the country has the world’s strictest lese majeste law against criticism of the monarchy, with sentences up to 15 years, and a computer crimes act that is widely used to restrict free speech, Thais have grown increasingly bold.
A broader Free People’s movement has grown from the student led protests[P1] to include labor groups, high school students fed up with harsh discipline, gay, lesbian and transgender youths and a growing number of common citizens is in the streets. An Emergency Decree announced ostensibly to control the Covid-19 outbreak – which has largely been quelled, with only 3,669 cases and 59 deaths -- is being used against the protesters. Special provisions, such as article 11 of that Decree, are regularly used in Thailand’s troubled deep south provinces, where the military has faced a violent Muslim insurgency over the past 15 years. The Decree authorizes detention without charges, or access to lawyers or family members, for up to 30 days.
Most recently, at a time when the economy is in dire straits because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the military’s economic mismanagement, it has become public that Vajiralongkorn has built up a huge fleet of 38 jets of various designations and helicopters that are for the exclusive use of the royal family. He flies into the country periodically for royal ceremonies and leaves almost as quickly. In the face of that profligacy, the economy is expected to contract by 5 percent this year, among the worst performances in the East Asia and Pacific Region, according to the World Bank. Job losses are expected to be steep, particularly in tourism, as Asia Sentinel reported on October 14.
Key protesters continue to be arrested including human rights lawyers and student activists. The government declared a state of emergency on October 15, arresting at least 22 activists including several protest leaders, in front of Bangkok’s Government House.
After the emergency declaration, thousands of riot police armed with batons and shields, forcibly cleared protesters who had camped outside Government House. The emergency decree gives authorities power to impose broad censorship to curb freedom of expression and media freedom, and TV broadcasts of foreign reporters covering the events – like BBC – have been blocked. The popular petition site Change.org has also been blocked in Thailand, evidently because of a petition calling for the German government to kick out the king from his Bavarian residence.
The next day, on October 16, Border Patrol Police, who have a long history of close connections and patronage from the palace, fired water cannons laced with colored ink and tear gas at peaceful protesters in the Siam center shopping district. This forcible dispersal marked a new escalation of force by the government, acting on the behest of the monarch. It appears the government’s forbearance for the protests is at an end. But mass protests on college campuses in Khon Kaen, Ubon Ratchatani, Chiang Mai and other provincial in response to the Bangkok crackdown show there is mass support for the demands of the students and their movement allies.
Across the country, people are talking out loud rather than in previously hushed tones about the monarch. People going to movie theaters are refusing to stand for the royal anthem. In Bangkok, the BTS Skytrain system stopped playing the anthem at the usual hours of 8 am and 6 pm because people were giving the protesters’ three fingered salute in response. Public mood is clearly shifting and there is a growing belief that the royalty, who demand that even minor princelings and princesslings and their dogs be greeted with abject reverence, can no longer be guaranteed that kind of fealty.