The death of Thailand’s much-beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej last week after a protracted illness has left the nation of nearly 70 million people in a state of mourning that plays out in public — with millions dressing in black and joining in memorial rites for a ruler who spent seven decades on the throne.
But in recent days, the collective grief has spawned something else: violent monarchist mobs that pursue those they feel have insulted the late king or who aren’t appropriately dressed.
Several violent incidents have erupted across the country, including one broadcast live Tuesday on Facebook that purported to show a mob kicking and beating a man, then forcing him to bow and apologize for insulting the monarchy.
"I didn't mean to do it. I love the king! It's my fault," the man cried, according to Al Jazeera. In another, a woman was forced to kneel and bow in front of portrait of the king after she allegedly criticized the royal family on social media.
Leaders of the military junta on Tuesday gave conflicting messages to the public about the violence. The prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, exhorted the Thai people to stop “chasing” those who are not wearing black.
But the country’s justice minister, Paiboon Koomchaya, later said: “There is no better way to punish these people than to socially sanction them."
The military, which seized power from a democratically elected government in 2014, has not been shy about enforcing the country’s strict lèse-majesté law, which imposes lengthy jail sentences on those found guilty of insulting the monarchy.
The number cases has sharply increased in that time, according to a report from Freedom House, an independent Washington-based watchdog organization. Cases have been used to target activists, scholars, students, journalists and politicians, according to the report. Two people were given record-setting prison sentences of 28 and 30 years last year after they were convicted of insulting the monarchy on Facebook.
One man was even charged with insulting the late king’s dog, Copper.
The laws have made it difficult for journalists in the country, who have had to pick their words carefully as they chronicle its ongoing transition to a new monarch.
The king’s heir apparent, the thrice-divorced Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is unpopular and widely seen as a dilettante who spends much of his time in Europe, notably at a luxury villa he reportedly owns on a lake outside Munich.
The vigilante justice may reflect Thais' devotion to their king and their rudderless feelings after the loss of a bastion of stability in a fractured political landscape, experts say. One analyst dubbed it “competitive grief.” Bhumibol was the world’s longest-serving monarch when he died.
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