Thais keep fighting for reform of the monarchy. Will Germany help?
© Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters People perform on a red carpet as part of a protest against the Thai government and in support of reforming the monarchy, in Bangkok on Thursday.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
On Monday, the German government issued a remarkable warning to the king of Thailand. “If there are things that we consider to be illegal, then that will have immediate consequences,” said Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. He was responding to a journalist’s question about King Vajiralongkorn. Since 2007, the Thai monarch has been spending large amounts of time in Bavaria — to the point that he is rarely seen in his home country. Yet Germany does not allow foreign governments to conduct their affairs from its soil — as Maas had already reiterated earlier this month.
The German rebuke came amid an extraordinary wave of anti-government protest in Thailand. On Monday evening, thousands of protesters gathered in front of the German embassy in Bangkok, where they presented a letter to the German ambassador urging his government to revoke the king’s residency status and declare him persona non grata. It cited what it described as the forced disappearance of members of the opposition from German soil — and it was backed up by a public petition signed by more than 210,000 people.
It’s worth recalling that all this is taking place in a country that carries out harsh punishments of anyone who dares to criticize the king.
A week ago, I had a long conversation with Frithjof Schmidt, a member of the German parliament for the Green Party. A few weeks ago, he asked the government to make a formal inquiry into the king’s status in Germany — specifically, whether Vajiralongkorn has violated German sovereignty by exercising royal authority during his stay. Schmidt told me that the Foreign Ministry is investigating the case and that the government could move quickly if it determines the king’s actions to be inappropriate.
Thai activists in Germany have offered to provide evidence that Vajiralongkorn has been conducting government business from German soil. They plan to submit a series of Royal Gazettes to the Foreign Ministry verifying that Vajiralongkorn approved, endorsed and ratified official documents during the time he has lived in Germany.
Aside from infringing German sovereignty, such activity also raises the question of whether the documents, signed in a foreign land, are valid under Thai law.
Schmidt told me that, regardless of his status, Vajiralongkorn is forbidden to carry out any political activities in Germany.
The political crisis in Thailand has spiraled out of control as its focus has shifted to the monarchy. Following the 2014 military coup, the European Union sanctioned the ruling junta, including the freezing of bilateral trade negotiations with Thailand. As it happens, Germany currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency. The growing controversy around Vajiralongkorn’s stay in Germany adds a new twist to Thai-E.U. relations. Schmidt, the German lawmaker, told me the E.U. will keep the trade talks on hold as long as the military blocks democratization. If the government decides to use violence against the protesters, Schmidt said, Germany will call upon the E.U. to impose new sanctions on Thailand.
Meanwhile, in Bangkok, the protests have gained considerable pace despite the absence of core leaders, most of whom are in custody. Despite the growing calls for reform of the monarchy, Vajiralongkorn has remained silent, signaling his disdain — aside from a moment on Oct. 23 when he was caught on camera praising a royalist who had publicly defied the protesters.
This is a critical juncture in Thai history. Never before have so many Thai protesters so openly defied the country’s most powerful institution. At one point, the demonstrators chanted, “the king is a murderer,” a reference to the abductions and killings of Thai dissidents overseas. Many of them hold the king responsible.
Inside parliament, opposition parties kicked off a special session to grill Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. They’re demanding his resignation. The simultaneous attacks, one against the monarchy on the streets and the other against the government in parliament, are putting immense pressure on the old establishment. The situation intensified as hard-core royalists, clad in yellow, took to the streets to defend the monarchy, often by force. Violent clashes took place in a number of locations.
This situation harks back to the tragic days in 1976, when students at Thammasat University were killed by ruthless monarchists. The difference this time is that Thai society is much better informed of the role of the monarchy in politics, including the extent to which it has long interfered in the political arena. The other difference is the importance of international actors. While the United States sided with the monarchy in the past, Germany is growing increasingly critical of the king.
The protesters want a constitutional monarchy. If that wish is thwarted, Thailand could head in a more radical direction. When protest leader Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul was recently arrested, she said, “If our ten points are thrown away, then I will demand just one.” What she meant was this: If the demonstrators’ current demands for reform are ignored, they will ask instead for Thailand to become a full republic.
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