BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA – Thailand’s much revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away Oct. 13. His death has heightened the anxiety felt by some members of the Thai public about the country’s uncertain future without the charismatic monarch. Increasingly many royalists are expressing their concerns through a series of witch-hunt operations against the supposed critics of the late king.
The royal cult cultivated during the reign of Bhumibol has intensified now that the sacredness of the royal institution has begun to decline with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn’s imminent accession to the throne. During this period of mourning, an army of royalists has embarked on witch hunts to eliminate those whom they perceive to be enemies of the monarchy.
There were cases in the southern provinces of Phuket, Phang-nga and Samui Island where royalists fiercely intimidated certain individuals accused of insulting the late king.
Some were even attacked in the presence of the police. A woman was slapped in the face because she spoke ill of the king. A man was forced to knee down in front of the portrait of the king to apologize for making sarcastic comments about his death. He was kicked by a royalist.
The mood in Bangkok is somber. Thais were told to wear black in memory of the king. The state is exploiting the death of the king to legitimize both the existence of the military government as well as the enthronement of Vajiralongkorn, who is unloved by the public. Outside Thailand, royalists were genuinely saddened by the loss of the country’s symbol of national unity. But their sorrow is turning to fear over the monarchy’s dim future.
Fueled by their fear, Thai royalists are venturing out to hunt down those who think differently regarding the position of the monarchy in politics. A Thai university student, Sarun Chuichai, who fled Thailand for France in the wake of the 2014 coup because she criticized the monarchy, is now living under threat following her derogatory remarks about the late king. Her message, broadcast on YouTube, was viewed by millions of Thais and stirred up fury among the monarchists.
Shortly after it was aired, an ultra-royalist vigilante group known as the “Rubbish Collection Organization” put out a call on social media for people to find Sarun, who is hiding in Paris. The leader of the organization, Maj. Gen. Rianthong Nanna, wrote on his Facebook page that he would send a gunman to kill Sarun in Paris if he could do so.
While Sarun is protected by the French, who have granted her refugee status, her family in Bangkok is being harassed by the royalists with the encouragement of the Thai state. It was reported that the parents of Sarun were taken to the police station for interrogation and their cell phones confiscated. They were told not to inform the media of their detention without charge.
In Sweden, a Thai woman named Wanpen, who openly criticized the monarchy on social media, was also hassled by fellow Thais, who came to her apartment in Stockholm with the idea of physically assualting her. Luckily she wasn’t home at the time and her Swedish husband later filed charges against the intruders.
I have also become a target of the royalists’ witch hunt. I am currently a fellow at the University of California at Berkeley and have been invited to give a number of lectures at various universities, mostly discussing the role of the monarchy in politics at this critical juncture of the royal succession. In my last two talks in Chicago and at Stanford University in California, more than 30 hard-core royalists camped outside the lecture rooms and demonstrated against me. They accused me of insulting the monarchy and yelled, “Pavin, you are scum of the earth. You are a traitor!”
Back in Bangkok, the absurdity continues to rule Thailand. A man wearing a colorful shirt was reproached by passers-by. A dress code is strictly prescribed for all visitors who wish to pay their last respects to the late king at the palace where his body is being kept. No entertainment programs are allowed on national television. This forced mourning has generated a massive impact of local businesses. Some have gone bankrupt.
In politics, talks on the upcoming elections and future governments are considered inappropriate during this time of national mourning. The sensitivity that accompanies the death of the beloved king is being exploited to punish political opponents.
Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinwatra was ordered to pay $1 billion compensation over a rice scheme. Her supporters refrained from protesting against what was perceived to be an unfair verdict, worried that they could be accused of creating conflict while the nation is mourning the king.
Witch hunts are nothing new in the Thai political context. Particularly at this sensitive moment, many Thais who are loyal to the monarchy feel obliged to protect the reputation of the late king even when they may appear to be irrational and aggressive. But their unreasonable behavior is counter-productive. It serves to erode the position of the monarchy, especially in the eyes of foreigners.
Most importantly, it also signals the last desperate attempt on the part of the royalists to hold onto an institution that will soon be considered increasingly irrelevant.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He is currently a visiting fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.