KYOTO – Inside the sprawling Dhaveevatthana Palace in Bangkok is a prison built to lock up those betraying the trust of the new Thai king, Vajiralongkorn. On March 27, 2012, during the Yingluck Shinawatra administration, the Ministry of Justice issued an order regarding the construction of a prison within Dhaveevatthana Palace on a 60-sq.-meter plot of land. Named Buddha Monthon Temporary Prison, it is under the authority of the Klong Prem Central Prison.
The Dhaveevatthana prison has been officially legalized, therefore permitting King Vajiralongkorn to imprison anyone under its roof legally. Some of his close confidants have been imprisoned there, from Suriyan Sucharitpolwong (better known as Moh Yong) to police Maj. Prakrom Warunprapha and Maj. Gen. Phisitsak Seniwongse na Ayutthaya. They were behind Vajiralongkorn’s “Bike for Mom” campaign in 2015, but were later found guilty of embezzling the project’s funds. All died in the Dhaveevatthana prison under mysterious circumstances.
The latest high-profile inmate was Police Gen. Jumpol Manmai, a former deputy national police chief. The palace branded him as an extremely evil official. Exactly how Jumpol managed to upset the king remains unknown.
Dhaveevatthana Palace was once a residence of Vajiralongkorn, his former consort, Princess Srirasmi and their son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, who is currently the heir presumptive to the throne. After his divorce from Srirasmi in December 2014, Vajiralongkorn has rarely returned to Dhaveevatthana Palace. He resides mostly in the outskirts of Munich, Germany, with Dipangkorn.
Meanwhile, Srirasmi has been stripped of all royal titles and placed under house arrest in a mansion in Ratchaburi. Her head has been shaved and she is forced to wear white like a nun. Her parents were charged with exploiting the name of Vajiralongkorn for personal gain. They were imprisoned but recently released.
Apart from serving as a residence of Vajiralongkorn, Dhaveevatthana Palace also houses a military school for young cadets registered under the Rachawallop Army. Vajiralongkorn has maintained a vast praetorian guard, known in Thai as the Rachawallop unit, since 1978. Supposedly in place to ensure his security and perform charitable works, the Rachawallop unit is often seen as a counter to the official military. Today, the Rachawallop unit consists of around 5,500 members. New recruits are trained in the school inside Dhaveevatthana Palace.
Officially, Dhaveevatthana Palace is known as a villa where Vajiralongkorn can relax, experiment with different kinds of plants and sponsor agricultural developmental projects along the lines of those seen within Chitralada Palace that were spearheaded by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. On the palace grounds there is a man-made lake and an area to park his private planes.
Behind the official description of Dhaveevatthana Palace, however, lie countless horror stories. In the past month I conducted email interviews with a number of individuals, including some who were once locked up inside the prison. Their accounts and experiences of having to serve time there were almost surreal.
Known among inmates as “hell on Earth,” the Dhaveevatthana prison can be a torture chamber. Military officers found to be disloyal to Vajiralongkorn have been instructed to retake their arduous military training. Both Jumpol and Disathorn Vajarodaya — the latter was King Bhumibol’s close assistant — re-entered military training at Dhaveevatthana Palace. Photos of them undergoing training were deliberately leaked to social media as part of their humiliation for betraying Vajiralongkorn.
It is difficult, or even impossible, for anyone to publicly reveal the dark reality of inside the Dhaveevatthana prison. Rumors thus play an important part in revealing just how ruthless King Vajiralongkorn can be to his enemies. Last December, The Telegraph published an account of Rupert Christiansen, who was a classmate of Vajiralongkorn back in the late 1960s at Millfield School in England. (The story can be found at jtim.es/NFUJ30cffAM .)
According to Christiansen, nobody wanted Vajiralongkorn as their friend. The matron “found him to be a bore and stared blankly into the middle distance as he prattled on.” Vajiralongkorn “wasn’t clever or in any teams. …” “But what marked him most was his enthusiasm for the Combined Cadet Force, a Friday afternoon misery that everyone else loathed.”
Christiansen emphasized that Vajiralongkorn became a vile bully. Anyone who showed signs of weakness or fear could be “mercilessly pounced on” by him. According to Christiansen, Vajiralongkorn picked on one student in particular. He would “pat him affably on the back and chortle cheerily at his fatuous attempts at jokes before savagely mocking, punching and pinching him.” His notorious past can now be used to explain his tendency toward violence in the present day.
Although upgraded as a legal temporary prison, Dhaveevatthana is not open to the public for visiting inmates. The lack of information about the prison could be a factor in allowing the torture and humiliation of prisoners to be condoned. Successive governments have dared not interfere in what is perceived as Vajiralongkorn’s private affairs. Human rights agencies and the media in the country have remained silent. Even the relatives of deceased inmates appear to be satisfied by the listed causes of death. Shortly after inmates are pronounced dead, they are normally cremated quickly.
After parading around in a skimpy tank top with a mistress in a Munich department store, Vajiralongkorn was furious when the video clip of him went viral on the internet. He demanded Facebook block certain pages that shared the video clip. After that effort failed, the Thai state is now instead going after individuals in Thailand who watched the video clip.
It is surreal to realize that a modern-day monarch can behave as if he is in the medieval era. The existence of the Dhaveevatthana prison has effectively become a symbol of Vajiralongkorn’s cruel reign.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.