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Sunday, July 05, 2020

Explained: Why protests many in Germany are protesting against Thailand king’s sojourn in Alps

Many critics have denounced King Maha Vajiralongkorn for failing to show leadership and responsibility at a time when not only the country’s public health but also its economy has been hit hard.

Written by Neha Banka | Updated: May 29, 2020 9:04:02 am
Lèse-majesté law explained: Why ‘insulting’ Thai king can land you in jail Observers say that Thailand’s present monarch King Maha Vajiralongkorn is also not widely respected by many in the country, in part due to his conduct that many believe does not befit a monarch. (AP/File)

King Maha Vajiralongkorn of Thailand has been residing at a hotel in Germany’s Bavarian Alps since the COVID-19 outbreak spread to Thailand in March. However, the Thai monarch’s stay at luxury getaway is not the only reason why he is being criticised at home and in Germany.

According to reports in Thailand and major news publications in Germany, King Maha Vajiralongkorn has been isolating with an entourage of at least 100 people and a harem of 20 women, and has broken a string of public health laws concerning COVID-19 that ordinary citizens are expected to follow. While criticism of the Thai royal family is not permitted by law, the monarch’s long-standing inappropriate conduct has been a cause of embarrassment for many in Thailand and has been subjected to scrutiny. This latest escape is a part of the long list of Maha Vajiralongkorn’s many indiscretions.

Why are protests being held in Germany against Thailand’s monarch?

In March, exiled Thai historian and critic Somsak Jeamteerasakul tweeted a photo of the flight path taken by the king to Germany, with the caption “what do we need a king for?”. The photo circulated on Thai social media for weeks, with many criticising the monarch’s actions.

Many critics have denounced the king for failing to show leadership and responsibility at a time when not only the country’s public health but also its economy has been hit hard. COVID-19 has kept tourists away, given that the industry contributes to approximately 20 per cent of Thailand’s GDP.

In the first week of May, Thai and German activists protested against the Thai king outside the Grand Sonnenbichl Hotel in Bavaria where the monarch had been staying with his entourage. The activists also projected messages onto the exterior of the hotel. “Why does Thailand need a king who lives in Germany?”, asked one message. The protests were repeated days later outside Thailand’s embassy in Berlin.

These protests have generated much discussion in Thai social media users across various platforms. Although the hotel is not officially in operation, an exception was made for the king and his entourage. Local authorities justified the king’s stay by saying that it was a single group of people with “no fluctuations”.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Thai Airways, the country’s national airline, suspended all flights to Europe. Notable exceptions were those to Munich and Zurich, which critics say are the Thai king’s favoured destinations for his jaunts with his entourage that usually include women.

The king has been criticised for violating Thailand’s lockdown rules in early April when he briefly interrupted his vacation in Germany and returned to Bangkok for a trip that lasted only 24 hours. Observers believe that the king was obliged to return because he was required to attend an official ceremony to mark the founding of his dynasty.

The king flying back to Germany in 24 hours, prompted a flood of criticism on Thai social media with the hashtag #WhyDoWeNeedAKing becoming one of the top trends on the social media platform. In the latest development, the king was pictured on a bicycle near the hotel with an unknown woman on another bicycle near him.

What does Thailand’s law say about criticising Thai royalty?

Thailand’s lèse majesté laws make it a criminal offence to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen and heir-apparent. However, the laws are more broadly used to include other members of the Thai royal family. Critics say these laws have also been misused by the royal family to silence criticism and calls for accountability. The laws have also been used to arrest and bring criminal charges against foreign nationals who have been critical of the Thai royal family.

Despite these harsh laws, there had been increasing discontent among the younger generation in Thailand who do not look at the royal family with the same deference as their parents or grandparents. They are also quick to call out the royal family for conduct that they believe is inappropriate and social media is a popular channel for venting this criticism.

What started out as criticism against the king for his actions during COVID-19, evolved into criticism of the royal family at large. Although the royal family did not release any statements on the issue, soon after the issue blew up on social media, Thailand’s Minister of Digital Economy and Society Puttipong Punnakanta implied in a tweet that posting content that endangered Thailand’s national security would have consequences.

Why are there criticisms against Thailand’s monarch?

Observers say that Thailand’s present monarch King Maha Vajiralongkorn is also not widely respected by many in the country, in part due to his conduct that many believe does not befit a monarch. There have been a string of controversies that have chased Maha Vajiralongkorn even before he ascended the throne in 2016.

The king’s indolent lifestyle and his treatment of his many wives and their families is well-known and is a subject of ridicule, if not openly discussed in Thailand due to laws in force. Foreign newspapers that report on these stories find access to their publications blocked in Thailand. Anti-monarchists have been reportedly killed in other countries in Southeast Asia where they had been in hiding.

Observers say that Maha Vajiralongkorn’s consolidation of power and influence over the military, police and the judiciary in Thailand, particularly since he ascended the throne has been a move to remove the little accountability that may have existed in the country, leaving the royal family to carry on without any serious repercussions.

Observers also believe that though Maha Vajiralongkorn doesn’t enjoy the same popularity that his father King Bhumibol Adulyadej did, it appears that the present king doesn’t care about public opinion. As far as the criticism is concerned, for any that particularly rankles, the lèse majesté laws exist.

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