Thai­land’s king faces trou­ble on two con­ti­nents

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Shashank Ben­gali and Erik Kirschbaum

SIN­GA­PORE — The scion of one of the world’s most priv­i­leged fam­i­lies, he wrapped him­self in the trap­pings of roy­alty, wealth and a com­fort­able hide­away thou­sands of miles from his sub­jects.

For Thai­land’s King Maha Va­ji­ra­longkorn, the co­coon has come un­done with re­mark­able speed.

Last week in Ber­lin, the Ger­man gov­ern­ment faced ques­tions in Par­lia­ment over the king’s le­gal sta­tus in Bavaria, where he re­sides. For­eign Min­is­ter Heiko Maas said that if the king were mak­ing de­ci­sions af­fect­ing Thai­land from Ger­man soil, “We would quite clearly not stand for that.”

Then, vis­it­ing Thai­land this week to mark the fourth an­niver­sary of his fa­ther’s death, the king’s fam­ily came face to face with prodemoc­racy pro­test­ers ag­i­tat­ing for lim­its on his power. At one point, demon­stra­tors con­fronted the queen’s mo­tor­cade and hurled in­sults at her cream­col­ored Rolls- Royce.

In a coun­try where crit­i­ciz­ing the king or his fam­ily is pun­ish­able by up to 15 years in pri­son, the dra­matic scenes in Bangkok pro­vided the stark­est il­lus­tra­tion yet of the cri­sis fac­ing Thai­land’s con­sti­tu­tional monar­chy and the mil­i­taryled gov­ern­ment that sup­ports it.

“The bub­ble that pro­tected them from re­al­ity is burst­ing, with­out a doubt,

and in a very graphic way,” said Pravit Ro­janaphruk, se­nior staff writer with the Khaosod English news site.

Since the skir­mish with the mo­tor­cade Wed­nes­day, au­thor­i­ties have banned large gath­er­ings, ar­rested dozens of ac­tivists and charged two with vi­o­lence against the queen, which car­ries a pos­si­ble life sen­tence. Thou­sands de­fied the ban and ral­lied at a Bangkok in­ter­sec­tion Fri­day evening un­til po­lice in riot gear dis­persed the crowd with ba­tons and wa­ter can­nons.

As the months- long protest move­ment con­tin­ues, the rev­er­ence long de­manded of Thai­land’s monar­chy is break­ing down in ways big and small. Thais are re­fus­ing to stand for the royal an­them in movie the­aters, lam­poon­ing the king in Face­book groups and openly ques­tion­ing his im­mense wealth and spend­ing.

The scru­tiny he is now fac­ing in Ger­many is an added nui­sance for a 68year- old king who has long treated his adopted home as a play­ground.

As the only son of King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej, who reigned for 70 years, Va­ji­ra­longkorn was des­tined to in­herit the throne. But since about 2007 he has spent most of his time in Ger­many, where the tabloid press has fol­lowed his ex­ploits with rel­ish.

In the pic­turesque south­ern state of Bavaria, Va­ji­ra­longkorn, who has been mar­ried four times, is said to have pur­chased a villa near pris­tine Lake Starn­berg in the town of Tutz­ing in 2016. He re­port­edly spends time there and at a four- star Alpine ho­tel in Garmis­chPartenki­rchen that he rents out en­tirely for his en­tourage, in­clud­ing what one news­pa­per de­scribed as “hun­dreds” of ser­vants.

The Sued­deutsche Zeitung in Mu­nich re­ported this year that the king has “ac­quired an abid­ing fond­ness” for the rugged Bavar­ian foothills.

“He likes to pick straw­ber­ries, ride bi­cy­cles or visit one of the coun­try inns af­ter his tasters have tested ev­ery­thing f irst and his body­guards have found the premises ap­pro­pri­ate and safe,” the news­pa­per wrote.

As crown prince, he was known in Bavaria pri­mar­ily for his ec­cen­tric tastes. He was pic­tured wear­ing a

tight- fit­ting crop top over an oth­er­wise bare torso while get­ting on a ski lift, and cov­ered in tem­po­rary tat­toos dur­ing an ex­cur­sion to a Mu­nich mall.

Since he as­sumed the throne upon his fa­ther’s death in 2016, King Va­ji­ra­longkorn’s stay in Ger­many has be­come more con­tro­ver­sial.

He amended the Thai Con­sti­tu­tion to al­low him­self to rule from abroad with­out ap­point­ing a re­gent, as past monar­chs did dur­ing long stints out­side Thai­land. Af­ter tak­ing per­sonal own­er­ship of the es­ti­mated $ 70- bil­lion crown for­tune, he broke with cus­tom by in­ter­ven­ing di­rectly in Thai pol­i­tics — bar­ring his pop­u­lar sis­ter from run­ning for of­fice in 2019 elec­tions, the f irst since a 2014 mil­i­tary coup.

“His au­thor­ity is much greater than past monar­chs, and he has ex­er­cised it very shame­lessly since he as­cended the throne,” said Junya Yim­prasert, a Thai ac­tivist who was charged with in­sult­ing the monar­chy in 2010 and went into ex­ile in Fin­land.

She has or­ga­nized sev­eral protests in Ger­many, in­clud­ing out­side the ho­tel in Garmisch- Partenkirc­hen in Septem­ber, when she said

mem­bers of the king’s en­tourage tailed demon­stra­tors in a car and took their pic­tures.

When they re­ported the ha­rass­ment to lo­cal po­lice, she said, of­fi­cers told her this was the king’s “nor­mal prac­tice.”

Ac­tivists and lo­cal me­dia have raised ques­tions about the king’s tax sta­tus in Ger­many, as well as whether the gov­ern­ment ap­proved his ho­tel stay while the rest of Bavaria was closed to tourism dur­ing a COVID- 19 lock­down in the spring.

Last week in the Bun­destag, a mem­ber of the op­po­si­tion Greens party asked Maas, the for­eign min­is­ter, whether the gov­ern­ment ap­proved of the king mak­ing pol­icy de­ci­sions about Thai­land from Ger­many.

“Why has the Ger­man gov­ern­ment been tol­er­at­ing for many months this ex­tremely un­usual and, in my view, il­le­gal be­hav­ior in Ger­many by a for­eign head of state?” asked the law­maker, Frithjof Sch­midt.

Maas re­sponded that he was “aware of the many bizarre re­ports about what is hap­pen­ing there” but that the gov­ern­ment’s po­si­tion was firm.

“We have made it clear that poli­cies con­cern­ing

Thai­land should not be con­ducted on Ger­man soil,” he said.

In an in­ter­view, a Greens mem­ber of Par­lia­ment in Bavaria, Tim Par­gent, said the party’s in­quiries have es­tab­lished that the king was not in Ger­many as a diplo­mat, and is there­fore bound by Ger­man laws and tax codes.

“If he likes liv­ing in Ger­many, that’s quite clearly his right,” Par­gent said. “But what I want to avoid is [ that] a despot who isn’t treat­ing his own peo­ple very well gets any kind of spe­cial pro­tec­tion here in Ger­many. He should be treated like ev­ery­one else.”

In Thai­land, where past democ­racy move­ments have been sup­pressed with bloody force, the gov­ern­ment has been re­luc­tant to use such tactics against the largely stu­dent- led protests. For months, Prime Min­is­ter Prayuth Chan- ocha said the gov­ern­ment would con­sider calls to amend the con­sti­tu­tion but warned that the monar­chy must be re­spected.

But many demon­stra­tors ap­pear to be­lieve that Thai­land’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem can­not be re­formed with­out trim­ming the sails of the monar­chy, which has seen its share of the pub­lic bud­get grow while eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties worsen and the coun­try faces a wrench­ing COVID- 19 slow­down.

Frus­tra­tion bub­bled over Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon when the royal limousine — car­ry­ing Queen Suthida, the king’s fourth wife and a for­mer f light at­ten­dant, and his son from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage, Prince Di­pangkorn — turned onto a road near Gov­ern­ment House, the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice.

Pravit, the jour­nal­ist, said about 200 pro­test­ers gath­ered there had not ex­pected the mo­tor­cade to take that route. In video shot by Khaosod, one protest leader, col­lege stu­dent Fran­cis Bunkuea­nun Paothon, is seen speak­ing to po­lice through a mega­phone when a pha­lanx of black- clad of­fi­cers sud­denly pushes up against the crowd, clear­ing the road.

That was when the mo­tor­cade ap­peared. Many demon­stra­tors f lashed the three- f in­ger salute that has be­come a protest trade­mark; oth­ers raised their mid­dle fin­gers, yelled in­sults or chanted, “It’s my tax,” re­fer­ring to the roy­als’ spend­ing.

None got close to the car, and there was no dam­age. But on Fri­day, Bunkuea­nun stood out­side a Bangkok po­lice sta­tion and said he had been ac­cused of in­tent to harm the queen, the most se­ri­ous charge lev­eled against pro­test­ers since the demon­stra­tions be­gan.

Fac­ing the prospect of life in pri­son, he wiped away tears but vowed to keep fight­ing “even if I have to risk it all.”

Michael Mon­te­sano, co­or­di­na­tor of the Thai­land stud­ies pro­gram at the ISEAS- Yu­sof Ishak In­sti­tute in Sin­ga­pore, said pro­test­ers and the mil­i­tary were head­ing down a dan­ger­ous path of es­ca­la­tion. Prayuth told re­porters Fri­day that he would not re­sign and is­sued a warn­ing — “Do not chal­lenge the Grim Reaper” — that some ac­tivists in­ter­preted as a threat.

“This has be­come a gen­uine cri­sis,” Mon­te­sano said. “And the mech­a­nisms for re­solv­ing the cri­sis, whether in terms of com­pro­mise or di­a­logue, don’t seem to ex­ist.”

‘ What I want to avoid is [ that] a despot who isn’t treat­ing his own peo­ple very well gets any kind of spe­cial pro­tec­tion here in Ger­many.’

— Tim Par­gent, Greens mem­ber of Par­lia­ment

in Bavaria

Gemunu Amarasingh­e As­so­ci­ated Press

PO­LICE USE wa­ter can­nons to dis­perse pro- democ­racy demon­stra­tors call­ing for King Maha Va­ji­ra­longkorn’s res­ig­na­tion Fri­day in Bangkok, Thai­land.

Wa­son Wanichakor­n As­so­ci­ated Press

THAI­LAND’S King Maha Va­ji­ra­longkorn and Queen Suthida leave Bangkok’s Grand Palace on Tues­day. The coun­try has long de­manded rev­er­ence for its monar­chy, but that is break­ing down amid a protest move­ment.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.