Thailand’s King Wears Out his Welcome

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The tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters taking to the streets in Bangkok, which have turned on the monarchy in dramatic fashion, are there in large measure because King Maha Vajiralongkorn has lost what the Chinese call the mandate of heaven. And now the Thai military, one of the most corrupt and incompetent in Asia, which has bet everything on maintaining the 68-year-old king’s image of royal invincibility, is stuck with him.

It is difficult to see, given the level of disrespect for a once-venerated monarchy, how they can get this genie back into the bottle. Where previously Vajiralongkorn’s behavior could once be covered up, his antics have spread unstoppably across social media, showing him cavorting in Germany in bizarre, cropped bra-like singlets and covered with fake tattoos. He has antagonized a large slice of his 70 million-odd subjects by rarely returning to the country, usually only for ceremonial commemorations. He famously rid himself of one consort, jailed her, then publicly brought her back as a general in his own private military.

For the first time in Thailand’s history, commoners are booing the king and his harem as they make their way through Bangkok’s streets. The protesters have called for reforms to curb the king’s powers, for the government to resign and for a new constitution to replace the one passed in 2016 to make military control bulletproof. The military since it took over the country in 2014 in a coup has steadily fostered a growing aura of divinity around the king, has now answered by intensifying a crackdown that they may well win, but at enormous cost to the country.

The student protests that have rocked cities for weeks have festered since a plainly rigged election last year that was billed as an end to military rule, but which returned junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha to office. Later, a manifestly engineered agreement culminated in a minority coalition headed by the junta returned to power. Then the Constitutional Court ordered the disbanding of the popular Future Forward Party headed by the young, charismatic Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who has consistently dared being imprisoned to continue the protest against the government.

But it is Vajiralongkorn who is facing unprecedented protest, a kind of demystification of royalty held in awe by prostrating subjects for decades. Although the administration has ordered curfews and arrested student lists, they are unable to reverse the growing disdain.

It has been a long time coming, from the time he was a youth who seemingly has never known any curbs on his behavior. As a Thai Air Force pilot, he repeatedly irritated other pilots while taxiing, endangering other planes by pulling in front of them for takeoff.

He married into royalty but quickly abandoned that wife and took on a long list of cocktail hostesses, actresses, flight attendants, and others as consorts as well as running the total to four legally married wives. The public was scandalized by the video of a birthday party for his dog – attended by his naked princess – as well as other misbehavior

But it is since he ascended to the throne previously held by his austere father, whose photo opportunities ran to wandering rice paddies with his adoring subjects, that the trouble has metastasized.

Almost immediately after gaining the throne, Vajiralongkorn set out to reverse the 1932 revolution that overthrew the government of King Prajadhipok, ending almost 800 years of absolute rule and implementing constitutional monarchy and an imperfect representative democracy that has been dominated by the military behind the scenes. A plaque commemorating the advent of democracy which had been installed at Sanam Luang Plaza in front of the Grand Palace was mysteriously ripped out at night in 2017.

In 2019, he assumed control of the huge Crown Property Bureau, which manages the vast properties and businesses of the monarchy, which is believed to be valued at as much as US$60 billion, making him arguably the world’s wealthiest king. He has steadily accrued a growing personal army, in 2019 ordering the transfer of two infantry units from the Thai Army command into his own royal corps. He has named two of his wives or consorts generals in his army, and once named his poodle, Foo Foo, an air chief marshal. He held four days of mourning when the dog died. Widespread sources say he maintains a deeply feared dungeon under his palace where those who irritate him have allegedly been imprisoned or disappeared for good.

Although the country has perhaps the world’s strictest lese majeste law against criticism of the monarchy, with sentences up to 15 years, and a cyber-crime act designed to restrict free speech, Thais have grown increasingly bold.

Now a People’s Party cloned from the disbanded Future Forward Party has expanded from its student base to include labor groups, high school students fed up with harsh discipline, gay, lesbian, and transgender youths and a growing number of common citizens is in the streets. Harsh crackdowns ostensibly to control the Covid-19 outbreak – which has largely been quelled, with only 3,660 cases and 58 death — are actually being used against the protesters.

Most recently, at a time when the economy is in dire straits because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the military’s economic mismanagement, it has become public that Vajiralongkorn allegedly built up a huge fleet of 38 jets of various designations and helicopters that are for the exclusive use of the royal family. He flies into the country periodically for royal ceremonies and leaves almost as quickly. In the face of that profligacy, the economy is expected to contract by 5 percent this year, among the worst performances in the East Asia and Pacific Region, according to the World Bank. Job losses are expected to be steep, particularly in tourism, as Asia Sentinel reported on October 14.

Key protesters continue to be arrested including human rights lawyers and student activists. The government declared a state of emergency on October 15, arresting at least 22 activists including several protest leaders, in front of Bangkok’s Government House. On the next day, police dispersed a demonstration of thousands of people, including many students, using water cannon laced with blue dye and an apparent teargas chemical to break up the protest in Bangkok’s Pathumwan shopping district.

Thousands of riot police armed with batons and shields, forcibly cleared protesters who had camped outside Government House. The emergency decree gives authorities power to impose broad censorship to curb freedom of expression and media freedom. And while the government appears reluctant for a full frontal attack, eventually, say a widespread collection of commentators, eventually with protesters ridiculing the king and booing his consorts, it’s questionable how long their forbearance will last.

But across the country, there is a growing belief that the royalty, who demand that even minor princelings and princesslings and their dogs be greeted with abject reverence, can no longer be guaranteed that kind of fealty.

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Source: Asia Sentinel
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