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The king of Thailand is facing domestic protests, legal questions abroad

The scion of one of the world’s most privileged families, he enveloped himself in the traps of royalty, wealth and a comfortable hiding place thousands of miles away from his subjects.

For the King of Thailand Maha Vajiralongkorn, the cocoon was recovered with remarkable speed.

Last week in Berlin, the German government faced questions in Parliament about the legal status of the king in Bavaria, where he lives. Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said that if the king decides to affect Thailand from German soil, “Obviously we will not stand by that.”


Then, visiting Thailand this week to mark the fourth anniversary of his father’s death, in front of the royal family are the democrats protesting for the limits of his power. At one point, demonstrators confronted the queen’s motorcade and stole insults at her Rolls-Royce cream.

In a country where the king or his family is criticized for being sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, dramatic scenes in Bangkok provide the worst portrayal of the crisis facing the constitutional monarchy of Thailand and the military-led government here.

“The bubble that protects them from reality explodes, without a doubt, and in a very graphic way,” said Pravit Rojanaphruk, senior staff writer of the Khaosod English news site.

Police are using water cannons to disperse pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok on Friday night.

Police are using water cannons to disperse pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok on Friday night.

(Sakchai Lalit / Associated Press)

After a motorcade altercation on Wednesday, authorities banned large gatherings, arrested more than 20 activists and charged two with violence against the queen, which could carry a possible life sentence. Thousands opposed the ban and rallied at a Bangkok intersection on Friday night until police wearing riot gear scattered most of the rocks and water cannons.

As a well-known protest movement continues, the long-held homage to the Thai monarchy is being undermined in both large and small ways. Thais have refused to stand for the royal anthem in theaters, place the royal lamp on Facebook groups and openly question excessive wealth and spending.

The scrutiny he now faces in Germany is an added nuisance for a 68-year-old king who has long treated his adoption as a playground.

As the only son of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who ruled for 70 years, Vajiralongkorn was destined to inherit the throne. But since 2007 he has spent most of his time in Germany, where the tabloid press follows his exploits with pleasure.

In the charming southern state of Bavaria, Vajiralongkorn, who has been married four times, is said to have bought a villa near the pristine Lake Starnberg in Tutzing town in 2016. He allegedly spent time there and in a four star Alpine hotel in Garmisch-Partenkirchen that he rented in full for his entourage, including what the newspaper described as “hundreds” of servants.

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung in Munich reported earlier this year that the king had “acquired an enduring love” for the rugged foothills of Bavaria.

“He would pick strawberries, ride a bike or visit one of the country’s inns after his tasters first tested everything and his guards found the place suitable and safe,” the newspaper wrote.

As crown prince, he was known in Bavaria especially for his eccentric tastes. He was pictured wearing a tight crop top with an otherwise naked body while riding in a ski lift, and was covered in temporary tattoos during a trip to a mall in Munich.

Since taking over the throne at the death of his father in 2016, King Vajiralongkorn’s stay in Germany has become more controversial.

He amended the Thai constitution to allow himself to rule from abroad without appointing a regent, as previous monarchs did in working long outside Thailand. After personally owning an estimated $ 70-billion crown jewel, he broke the norm by directly interfering in Thai politics – preventing his famous sister from running for office in the 2019 elections. , the first since a military coup in 2014.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn was taken to the royal palanquin during his coronation in 2019

Royal bearers took King Maha Vajiralongkorn to a palace during his coronation in 2019.

(Associated Press)

“His authority is greater than previous monarchs, and he has used it shamelessly since he ascended the throne,” said Junya Yimprasert, a Thai activist who was accused of insulting the monarchy in 2010 and exiled to Finland.

He staged several protests in Germany, including outside the hotel in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in September, when he said members of the royal entourage tailed the demonstrators in a car and took pictures of them.

When they reported the harassment to the local police, he told him that these officers said it was the king’s “common practice”.

Activists and local media asked about the royal tax status in Germany, as well as whether the government approved his stay at the hotel while the rest of Bavaria was closed to tourism in a COVID-19 lockdown in the spring.

Last week in the Bundestag, a member of the opposition Greens party asked Maas, the foreign minister, if the government approves the king who makes policy decisions about Thailand from Germany.

“Why did the German government allow for months so much extraordinary and, in my view, illegal behavior in Germany by a foreign head of state?” asked legislator Frithjof Schmidt.

Maas replied that “he is aware of many strange reports about what is happening there,” but the government’s position is firm.

“We have made it clear that the rules regarding Thailand should not be implemented on German soil,” he said.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his government would “not stand” for Vajiralongkorn to decide about Thailand from its Bavarian residence.

(Associated Press)

In an interview, a member of the Bavarian Parliament Greens, Tim Pargent, said the party’s questions were that the king was not in Germany as a diplomat, and therefore bound by German laws and codes in taxes.

“If he wants to live in Germany, that’s clearly his right,” Pargent said. “But what I want to avoid is [that] a despot who does not treat his own people well is getting some kind of special protection here in Germany. He should be treated like everyone else. “

In Thailand, where past democratic movements have been suppressed by bloody forces, the government is reluctant to use such tactics against most student-led protests. For months, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the government would consider calls to change the constitution, but warned that the monarchy should be respected.

But many demonstrators appear to believe that Thailand’s political system cannot be reformed without interrupting the monarchy’s voyages, seeing its share of the public budget worsen as economic inequalities worsen and the country is facing a slow slowdown of COVID-19.

Disappointment erupted on Wednesday afternoon when the king’s limousine – carrying Queen Suthida, the king’s fourth wife and a former flight attendant, and her son from a previous marriage, Prince Dipangkorn – turn onto a road near the Government House, prime minister’s office.

Pravit, the journalist, said that about 200 protesters had gathered there and did not expect the motorcade to take that route. In the video taken by Khaosod, a protest leader, college student Francis Bunkueanun Paothon was seen speaking to police through a megaphone when a phalanx of black-clad officers suddenly pushed against the crowd, cleaning the road.

Then the motorcade appeared. Many demonstrators flashed a three-finger salute that became a trademark of protest; others raised their middle fingers, shouted insults or shouted, “I tax it,” referring to the spending of royals.

No one was near the car, and no injuries were reported. But on Friday, Bunkueanun stood outside a police station in Bangkok and said he was accused of intent to harm the queen, the most serious allegation made against protesters since the demonstrations began.

Faced with the hope of living in prison, he wiped away the tears but vowed to continue fighting “even if I risked everything.”

Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thai education program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said protesters and the military are on a dangerous path of escalation. Prayuth told reporters on Friday that he would not resign and warned – “Do not challenge the Grim Reaper” – that some activists had interpreted it as a threat.

“It has become a real crisis,” Montesano said. “And the mechanisms for resolving the crisis, whether in terms of compromise or dialogue, do not seem to exist.”

Special correspondent Kirschbaum reports from Berlin and Times staff writer Bengali from Singapore.

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