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The Thai king is facing protests at home, legal issues abroad

Descendant of one of the most privileged families in the world, he wrapped himself in the attributes of royalty, wealth and a comfortable hiding place thousands of miles from his subjects.

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

Last week in Berlin, the German government faced questions in parliament about the king’s legal status in Bavaria, where he resides. Foreign Minister Heiko Mas said that if the king made decisions affecting Thailand from German soil, “we obviously would not support that.

Then, visiting Thailand this week to mark the fourth anniversary of his father̵

7;s death, the king’s family came face to face with pro-democracy protesters campaigning for restrictions on his power. At one point, protesters collided with the queen’s motorcade and insulted her cream-colored Rolls-Royce.

In a country where criticizing the king or his family is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, the dramatic scenes in Bangkok are the clearest illustration of the crisis facing Thailand’s Constitutional Monarchy and the military-backed government that supports it.

“The bubble that protected them from reality is, without a doubt, bursting in a very graphic way,” said Pravit Rojanafruk, a senior staff writer at the Khaosod English news site.

Police used water cannons to disperse Democratic protesters in Bangkok on Friday night.

Police used water cannons to disperse Democratic protesters in Bangkok on Friday night.

(Sakchai Lalit / Associated Press)

Authorities banned large rallies, arrested more than 20 activists and charged two with violence against the queen, which could result in a possible life sentence, following a clash with the motorcade on Wednesday. Thousands opposed the ban and gathered at a crossroads in Bangkok on Friday night as riot police dispersed the crowd with batons and water cannons.

With the length of the monthly protest movement, the veneration long demanded of the Thai monarchy is falling apart in large and small ways. The Thais refused to stand up for the royal anthem in cinemas, lamped the king in groups on Facebook and openly questioned his enormous wealth and expenses.

The inspection he is now facing in Germany is an additional nuisance for the 68-year-old king, who has long treated his adopted home as a playground.

As the only son of King Bumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for 70 years, Vajiralongkorn was destined to inherit the throne. But since about 2007, he has spent most of his time in Germany, where the tabloid press enjoys following his exploits.

In the picturesque southern province of Bavaria, Vajiralongkorn, who has been married four times, is said to have bought a villa near the pristine Lake Starnberg in the town of Tutzing in 2016. He also spent time there at a four-star alpine hotel in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. hires entirely for his entourage, including what a newspaper describes as “hundreds” of servants.

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung in Munich announced earlier this year that the king had “acquired a permanent attachment” to the harsh Bavarian foothills.

“He likes to pick strawberries, ride bicycles or visit one of the village inns after his tasters have first tested everything and his bodyguards have found the premises suitable and safe,” the newspaper said.

As heir to the throne, he is known in Bavaria primarily for his eccentric tastes. He was depicted with a tight-fitting crop on top of an otherwise naked torso as he boarded a ski lift, and covered with temporary tattoos during a trip to a mall in Munich.

Since he took the throne after his father’s death in 2016, King Vajiralongkorn’s stay in Germany has become more controversial.

He amended Thailand’s constitution to allow himself to rule from abroad without appointing a regent, as past monarchs did during long stays outside Thailand. After taking personal ownership of the expected $ 70 billion fortune, he broke with custom by interfering directly in Thai politics – banning his popular sister from running in the 2019 election, the first since the 2014 military coup. .

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

The royal bearers wear King Maha Vajiralongkorn on a palanquin during his coronation in 2019.

(Associated Press)

“His authority is much greater than previous monarchs, and he has exercised it very shamelessly since ascending the throne,” said Junya Yimprasert, a Thai activist who was accused of insulting the monarchy in 2010 and went into exile in Finland.

She organized several protests in Germany, including in front of the hotel in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in September, when she said members of the king’s entourage had surrounded the protesters in a car and photographed them.

When the harassment was reported to local police, she said officers told her it was “the king’s normal practice.”

Activists and local media raised questions about the king’s tax status in Germany and whether the government had approved his stay at the hotel, while the rest of Bavaria was closed to tourism during the COVID-19 blockade in the spring.

Last week in the Bundestag, a member of the opposition Green Party asked Foreign Minister Maas if the government approved the king to make political decisions for Thailand from Germany.

“Why has the German government tolerated this extremely unusual and, in my opinion, illegal behavior in Germany by a foreign head of state for many months?” MP Frithjof Schmidt asked.

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

“We have made it clear that policies on Thailand should not be pursued on German soil,” he said.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his government would “not insist” that Vajiralongkorn make decisions about Thailand from his residence in Bavaria.

(Associated Press)

In an interview with Bavarian Greens MP Tim Pargent, the party’s inquiries revealed that the king had not been to Germany as a diplomat and was therefore bound by German laws and tax codes.

“If he likes living 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 very well receives any special protection here in Germany. He must be treated like everyone else. ”

In Thailand, where past democratic movements have been suppressed by blood, the government has been reluctant to use such tactics against student-led protests. For months, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha said the government would consider calls for an amendment to the constitution, but warned that the monarchy must be respected.

But many demonstrators seem to believe that Thailand’s political system cannot be reformed without cutting the canvas of a monarchy that has seen its share of the public budget grow as economic inequalities worsen and the country faces a sharp slowdown in COVID. -19.

Frustration erupted Wednesday afternoon as the royal limousine – carrying Queen Sutida, the king’s fourth wife and former flight attendant, and his son from a previous marriage, Prince Deepangkorn – turned onto the Government House, the prime minister’s office.

The Pravit journalist said that about 200 protesters gathered there did not expect the motorcade to take this route. In a video taken by Khaosod, a protest leader, college student Francis Bunkuanun Paoton, was seen speaking to police through a megaphone as a phalanx of black-clad officers suddenly pushed against the crowd, clearing the way.

Then the motorcade appeared. Many demonstrators flashed three fingers, which became a protest mark; others raised their middle fingers, shouted insults, or chanted “This is my tax,” referring to royal expenses.

No one approached the car and there was no damage. But on Friday, Bunqueanun stood in front of a Bangkok police station and said he was accused of intending to harm the queen – the most serious charge against protesters since the beginning of the demonstrations.

Faced with the prospect of living in prison, he wiped away tears, but promised to keep fighting, “even if I have to risk everything.”

Michael Montesano, program coordinator for Thailand at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said protesters and the military were embarking on a dangerous escalation path. Prayut told reporters Friday that he would not resign and issued a warning – “Do not challenge the gloomy reaper” – which some activists interpreted as a threat.

“This 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 is a Times Bengali staff writer from Singapore.

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