Within minutes, photos of the Bavarian protest filled social media back in Thailand. It’s worth remembering that this is a country where a draconian lèse majesté law imposes jail terms of up to 15 years on anyone who insults the monarch.
The problem for the king is that such a law can work only as long as his subjects continue to regard the monarchy with a measure of reverence. His father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, could still claim to serve as a symbol of national unity. But Vajiralongkorn (officially known as King Rama X) no longer appears to enjoy such respect. Lacking any sort of comparable legitimacy, he has chosen to rule by intimidation instead. Thailand has become a kingdom of fear.
Since ascending to the throne in 2016, the king has spent little time in his homeland, apparently preferring the environs of Munich. The Thai constitution stipulates that the king must appoint a regent to oversee royal affairs when he traveled abroad. But he had it amended so that he continues to keep power in his hands while he is away. He is effectively ruling Thailand by remote control.
Members of the younger generation refuse to accept this. They have taken to social media to express their frustration with Vajiralongkorn — over everything from blocking rush-hour traffic for the royal motorcade to his bizarre lifestyle. Many also criticize his apparent indifference toward the novel coronavirus pandemic back home.
So far he has said little about the outbreak. But when he was compelled to return to Bangkok in early April for a ceremony commemorating the founding of his dynasty, Vajiralongkorn violated the lockdown by returning home on Thai Airways, the national airline, without observing quarantine precautions. When the outbreak started, the airline suspended all flights to Europe — with the exception of Munich and Zurich, the two cities closest to the areas frequented by the king.
Vajiralongkorn’s taxpayer-funded trip to Bangkok lasted merely 24 hours, prompting anger on social media. #WhyDoWeNeedAKing quickly became the top Twitter hashtag in Thailand, tweeted more than 1 million times. The protests in Germany have built on the general sense of outrage. Republicanism is gaining ground.
Vajiralongkorn’s image hasn’t been helped by a string of scandals in his entourage over the years (including the mysterious prison deaths of former aides). Last year, German newspaper Bild revealed that the king’s third wife, Srirasmi, is under house arrest (prompting Thai authorities to block Internet access to the paper). Her relatives have been jailed. Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, whom Vajiralongkorn elevated to the position of a royal concubine only to disown her a few months later, has been sent to prison. Since her disappearance, there is zero information about her well-being. Her mansion, commissioned by the king, has been demolished. Again, nobody knows why. Vajiralongkorn simply does what he does, without any concern for the law.
Even more ominously, death squads have targeted anti-monarchist refugees outside of the country. Three of them have been abducted and killed in Laos, their bodies eventually floating to the surface of the Mekong River. They were not the first to meet this fate. A few years earlier, two members of the opposition also vanished. One has never been seen again; the other turned up dead.
As a leading critic of the monarchy, I have faced intense online harassment, including death threats. And last year, an unknown assailant attacked me in my home in Japan. Japanese police are still investigating the incident. But the authorities have been moving cautiously, aware that the case could rock Japanese-Thai relations.
Of course, there is no evidence linking Vajiralongkorn with any of these cases. Yet critics worry that the king has established an unprecedented degree of control over the military, the police and the judiciary that raises serious questions about palace accountability and the rule of law. The king’s personal aide, Gen. Jakrapob Phiridej, has tremendous personal power. His brother Jirapob serves in the Crime Suppression Bureau, a powerful branch of the police now under the influence of the palace. Vajiralongkorn has also appointed Paiboon Kumchaya, a general-turned-minister of justice, as privy councilor. Paiboon plays a key role in the judiciary; in the past he has provided legitimacy in the legal process against critics of the monarchy. Put all the pieces together, and you have a network that makes security forces and judges answerable only to the king. Under such conditions, it is impossible to imagine anyone providing evidence in crimes against dissidents.
The popularity of the Thai monarchy is at an all-time low. Vajiralongkorn shows no interest in responding to the problem, apparently confident in his own power and the continuing support of powerful institutions. Yet world history shows us that apparently impregnable leaders can fall with surprising speed when their backers lose faith.