Officially, May urged Prayuth to hold “free and fair elections” and to allow political parties to function freely, but it’s clear that the two countries’ desire to boost trade took the upper hand. Let’s hope that Macron will take a tougher line. Such an intervention is urgently needed — even if Thailand’s deepening problems aren’t solely of the prime minister’s making.
Last month, a controversial monk, Buddha Issara, was arrested at dawn by a troop of commandos while sleeping in his temple.
The unexpected move sent shockwaves through Thai society, which finds itself facing a new climate of fear ever since King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s ascent to the throne in December 2016.
Buddha Issara has been a highly influential abbot among the pro-monarchy faction in Thailand’s deeply polarized politics. Supported by Prayuth, Buddha Issara has been an activist monk, key in instigating the 2013 demonstrations against then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that paved the way for a coup the following year. He is alleged to have employed forces to seize government offices, thwarted elections, extorted money from businesses, detained policemen and even resorted to violence against the opposing political camp.
Such crimes, if proven, would entirely justify his arrest. But many Thais believe that the real motive for the raid — which could have taken place years ago — lies elsewhere. Buddha Issara has been accused of engaging in royal forgery, stamping amulets with the royal insignia of the late King Bhumibol without palace permission. Trading in counterfeit royal emblems is a severe crime punishable by up to 20 years in jail.
The alleged royal forgery puts him in a direct conflict with the monarchy — making it likely that the order for his arrest came not from the generals but from the palace.
Since the beginning of Vajiralongkorn’s reign, the government’s use of the harsh lèse-majesté law, which prohibits criticism or disrespect of the monarchy, has reached a critical level. In the preceding era, the monarchy had survived mainly because of the success of Bhumibol’s accumulated moral authority. Today, Thailand is ruled by fear under Vajiralongkorn.
While previous cases of lèse-majesté were brought to the police by defenders of the monarchy, the current trend indicates that Vajiralongkorn himself is wielding the law to protect his own image. Vajiralongkorn has a record of using the law for purposes of revenge. Some of the victims were those in the inner royal circles.
After divorcing his wife, Princess Srirasmi, in December 2014, he used the law to imprison several of her immediate family members. Srirasmi herself has to date been placed under house arrest. The media refuses to report on her for fear of retribution.
When I reported on Srirasmi’s house arrest on social media, Vajiralongkorn instructed his men to harass and intimidate my family in Bangkok. (We can assume this because the troops who came to my house served in the king’s regiment.) They threatened to detain my ailing mother if she failed to tell me to stop writing about his former wife.
Vajiralongkorn has also used lèse-majesté against three of his close aides, including the famed fortuneteller Suriyan Sucharitpolwong. The men were accused of embezzling from a charity event connected with the king’s mother. While in jail, Suriyan reportedly died of a blood infection. Of the other two, one committed suicide in prison and another died mysteriously while under detention.
Vajiralongkorn has converted his palace, Dhaveevattana, into a prison — including, shockingly, a crematorium. Most inmates are convicted on charges related to the monarchy. Media is banned from reporting. Some who died while under detention were cremated there, away from public view. I learned about the crematorium, and the general’s fate, from a former prisoner in the complex. (Though I currently live in exile in Japan, I remain in touch with many sources in Thai society who are often willing to share information with a member of the opposition.)
Almost anyone, it seems, can become a target. A student activist was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison under the lèse-majesté law after sharing a BBC article on Vajiralongkorn shortly after he ascended the throne. Another activist guilty of the same “offense” managed to flee the country before her arrest.
As Thailand heads toward an election, supposedly to be held early next year, Thai royalists are turning to the lèse-majesté law to eliminate their political nemeses. Vajiralongkorn has worsened the already precarious political situation by legitimizing the use of the lèse-majesté law as a preferred approach to safeguard himself.
A new political party, the Future Forward Party, led by a young businessman-turned-politician, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, recently came under attack after one of its members proposed an amendment of the lèse-majesté law. The party was soon forced to distance itself from the proposal.
The arrest of Buddha Issara proves that the palace is ruthless in dealing with its fault-finders. Although Buddha Issara is himself a royalist, his case has made the public realize that nobody is safe under Vajiralongkorn’s rule.
The lèse-majesté law is a black hole at the heart of Thai democracy. It is also counterproductive to the royal family. Other monarchies in the world have survived into the modern era by adapting. The Thai king, by contrast, is contesting modernity by clinging tightly to an anachronistic law. Nothing could be better calculated to drive the monarchy into unavoidable decline.