These announcements may well be a reaction to Thailand’s latest online scandal. Journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall released videos this month showing the king walking around the German city of Munich, where he spends most of his time, with his new mistress. The videos were entirely innocuous — aside from the fact that both the king and his consort were wearing skimpy crop tops revealing plenty of fake tattoos. The clips went viral on the Internet, prompting the government to retaliate against Facebook.
On its own, there’s nothing particularly new about Thai officials displaying zealousness in their efforts to protect the image of the king. Thailand has the harshest punishment for lèse-majesté (the crime of injury to royal dignity) in the world. Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code states that defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the king, queen or regent are punishable by three to 15 years in prison.
Yet there is a palpable sense that the current government is reacting with much greater sensitivity in the case of the current king — far more so than at any other time in recent memory. According to the Economist, 105 Thais are currently doing jail time on lèse-majesté charges, compared with five under the civilian government in 2014, just before it was toppled by a military coup. Last month, a provincial court even charged a local man for posting a lascivious online comment about a 14th-century queen.
On Saturday, another five people were arrested for allegedly setting fire to portraits of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Vajiralongkorn’s father. This public display of contempt was quite remarkable, considering that the previous king enjoyed considerable respect among the populace. The same cannot be said of his son, as the Munich videos so eloquently demonstrate.
Now many Thais are linking these latest moves by the government to a mysterious incident six weeks ago, when a modest memorial plaque suddenly disappeared from the sidewalk of the Royal Plaza in Bangkok. The marker commemorated the 1932 revolution that overthrew the centuries-old absolute monarchy and introduced Thailand’s first modern democratic government. In early April, passersby noticed that the plaque had been quietly replaced with a new one that mentioned nothing about the revolution; the original had vanished. Thais began to wonder among themselves whether an official whitewashing of history was taking place, and if so, by whom.
The year 1932 witnessed the abolition of the absolute monarchy in Thailand. A group of military officers and civilians who called themselves the Khana Ratsadon, literally meaning the “People’s Party,” seized power from the king and put an end to centuries of royal absolutism. The original plaque bore an inscription commemorating the event.
By contrast, its replacement conveys a message of calculated blandness: “May Siam be blessed with prosperity for ever. May the people be happy and cheerful and become the strength of the country.” Around the edge of the new plaque runs the motto of the ruling Chakri dynasty: “Loyalty and love to the Buddhist Triple Gem, the State, one’s family, and an honest heart for the King are good tools for the prosperity of the state.”
That inscription, as well as the fact that both the military government and the police have shown a conspicuous disinterest in finding the thieves, suggests that the palace is likely behind the operation. Even so, since the plaque’s disappearance, several Thais have embarked on a sort of personal quest to hunt it down — despite facing a possible jail term for doing so.
On April 30, two Thai activists turned up at King Vajiralongkorn’s chateau outside Munich to protest the disappearance of the original plaque. The two women read aloud a manifesto written by the 1932 revolutionaries as well as a statement declaring the king “unfit” to serve as the country’s head of state, citing his indulgent lifestyle and his apparent lack of concern for his people. This was the first time that anti-monarchists have launched a direct attack on the king to contest his legitimacy.
Some analysts say that both the removal of the plaque and the intense official reaction to any online questioning of King Vajiralongkorn’s image show that he is beginning to exert his influence over the state. He is clearly very serious about reintroducing royal absolutism, and not at all interested in defending democracy or free speech.
The question is whether his increasingly hard-line policies will reinforce support for the monarchy or ultimately contribute to its weakening. Even some royalists are beginning to question whether the king is really the right man to lead Thailand forward into its future.