Officially, Thailand has a constitutional monarchy. Yet the king has long dominated the country, sometimes intervening directly in politics. Along the way, the royal family has enjoyed persistent support from the army. Together, they have woven a formidable alliance that undermined elected governments, mostly through military coups.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016 after 70 years on the throne, enjoyed tremendous prestige. Yet over the past four years, his son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, has been steadily amassing power, both political and financial.
He commands his own military unit. He controls the government. He rules Thailand from Germany by remote control — as permitted by the constitution, which was amended at his behest. He transferred all assets from the Crown Property Bureau to his sole ownership, assets with an estimated value of between $50 billion and $60 billion. He is also protected by the harsh lèse-majesté law that forbids any insult to the royal family. Thailand abolished the absolute monarchy in 1932, but in reality the country has moved back toward the old days of royal absolutism.
Any discussion of the monarchy’s role was taboo under Bhumibol, mainly because his accumulated moral authority prevented the public from scrutinizing his political role. But Vajiralongkorn lacks his father’s charisma. His self-indulgent lifestyle has greatly damaged the divine image of the monarchy. Thais were stunned to see their god-king in a tiny tank top with fake tattoos on the streets of Munich a few years ago.
All this has moved some Thais to question the role of the king. But the proximate cause of the latest protests was the abduction of a young Thai activist, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, in exile in Cambodia. He was kidnapped in broad daylight on June 4. While there is no solid evidence linking the palace with his abduction, his case is the latest in a number of mysterious disappearances of anti-monarchist dissidents living outside of Thailand. Since 2016, at least nine exiles have been either killed or abducted without a trace. The students are firmly convinced of the king’s involvement.
The “ten commandments” proposed by the students are revolutionary. Others have aired the same concerns in the past. But this time the students are taking care to issue their demands in a very formal way, hoping not only to inspire public debate but also to offer a set of proposals that can be debated in parliament.
First, the students want the king to refrain from interfering in politics — and especially his cultivation of intimate ties with the military. The crown’s stability is underpinned by the army, which, in turn, has exploited the defense of the monarchy to guarantee its position in politics.
For that reason, the students are also demanding annulment of the order that permits the transfer of a military unit to the direct command of Vajiralongkorn. His private regiment bolsters the strength of the palace, a supplementary royalist force alongside the national army.
Vajiralongkorn is employing a carrot-and-stick tactic to rule his kingdom. He can decide virtually any fate at his whim. Hiring and firing are carried out outside the legal framework. He punished his former royal noble consort, Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, by imprisoning her. He condemned her on the pages of the Royal Gazette for her “extremely evil conduct.” She was afforded no opportunity to rebut the accusations. Nobody knows where she is imprisoned, for how long or if she can be visited by her family.
The students are calling for the end of state propaganda and glorification of the monarchy, the norm in Thai society since the Bhumibol days. Broadcasts of “royal news” are an integral part of the evening news. Audiences have to stand up before the royal anthem in the cinema. Posters and pavilions with images of the royal family are ubiquitous — and all of it is funded by taxpayers. The students want all this abolished.
The demonstrators are also criticizing the wealth of the king, who is estimated to be the world’s richest monarch.
Finally, they are also demanding independent investigations into the abductions and killings of Thai dissidents overseas. This is one of the most dangerous points for the monarchy, because it implies the entanglement of Vajiralongkorn in heinous crimes.
The government has already arrested several key leaders. It has also filed a complaint against me for creating a private Facebook group, Royalists Marketplace, that serves as a forum for serious discussion of the monarchy. Set up in mid-April, the group now has more than a million members.
Thailand has arrived at a critical crossroads in which both sides of the political divide — the people vs. the king — test the other’s tolerance. For those who have followed Vajiralongkorn’s career over the years, pessimism appears justified. For an eccentric king who happens to be immensely powerful, compromise is not an option. A crackdown is in the offing.