Commentary / World

Land of fear, under Vajiralongkorn

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

On April 29, six individuals in Thailand, among them a prominent lawyer and a university lecturer, were charged with lese-majeste. Defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, lese-majeste, or the crime of injury to royalty, is an act of defamation against the king, queen and regent and is punishable by three to 15 years in prison. The mounting cases of lese-majeste indicate that “fear” has become an instrument under the new reign of King Vajiralongkorn in controlling public opinion regarding the monarchy.

For a long time, Thais envisaged their king to be benevolent. King Bhumibol Adulyadej was widely extolled because of his divinity and moral authority. But the Bhumibol era ended and Vajiralongkorn is simply the mirror image of his father. Loathed by the public, Vajiralongkorn is now seeking to win over his subjects not by reverence, but fear.

Vajiralongkorn has exercised fear to command those serving him instead of trusting or convincing them to work for him based on respect. He has used fear to build order, perhaps similar to the way in which mafias operate their empire. Fear is a tool to threaten his subordinates and keep them compliant, docile and in line with unnecessary yet rigid rules, ranging from a cropped hair style to a tough fitness regime.

Even prior to the death of Bhumibol, Vajiralongkorn relied on fear for his own power rearrangement. He employed ruthless means to purge those perceived to be disloyal to him. The cases of Suriyan Sucharitpolwong, or Moh Yong, Police Maj. Prakorm Warunprapha, and Maj. Gen. Phisitsak Seniwongse na Ayutthaya — all of whom worked for Vajiralongkorn, most visibly in the “Bike for Mum” project — reiterated that death became a reward for those who breached his trust.

Within Vajiralongkorn’s palace, Dhaveevatthana, a prison was built. The Ministry of Justice, during the Yingluck administration, announced on March 27, 2013, that a 60-sq.-meter plot of land within Dhaveevathana was allocated for the building of what is now called the Bhudha Monthon Temporary Prison. It allowed the king to detain anyone under its roof legally. Adjacent to the prison is a crematorium. Maj. Gen. Phisitsak died in the prison and was cremated there too.

His former consort, Srirasmi, has been put under house arrest in a Rachaburi house, had her head shaved and is dressed as a nun. She has been banned from seeing her son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, the supposed heir presumptive to the throne. Her family members and relatives were imprisoned on dubious charges. Pongpat Chayaphan, a former Royal Thai Police officer who was the head of the country’s Central Investigation Bureau, was convicted in 2015 from profiting from a gambling den, violating a forestry-related law, and money laundering. Srirasmi is his niece. Earlier in 2014, Police Gen. Akrawut Limrat, a close aide to Pongpat, was found dead following a mysterious fall from a building.

Vajiralongkorn’s estranged sons, Juthavachara, Vacharaesorn, Chakriwat and Vatcharawee — who live in exile in the United States with their mother, Sujarinee Vivachawonsge, nee Yuvathida Polpraserth — have been prohibited from coming home. These extreme punitive measures suggested that fear functions as a domineering device over his subjects, even those with royal blood.

Not long ago, he punished one of his close confidants, Police Gen. Jumpol Manmai, a former deputy national police chief, labeling him as an extremely evil official to justify the humiliation caused to him. Jumpol was arrested and imprisoned. His head was shaved, like Moh Yong and Prakorm, and he was sent to undergo military training within the Dhaweevattana Palace. Like Pongpat, he was found guilty of forest encroachment.

Meanwhile, some have been promoted, some demoted. Speedy promotions in the military and the police were enjoyed by the king’s new favorites. Those irritating him were thrown out — but before that, they were humiliated in the pages of the newspapers. Vajiralongkorn purged the entire Vajarodaya clan, one of the most prominent families of palace officials serving under Bhumibol. Disathorn Vajarodaya was stripped of his power in the palace, forced to re-enter military training at the age of 53, and is now working as a house maid who serves drinks to guests of the new king.

Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayutthaya, a former Thai Airways air crew woman, was promoted to the rank of general. She is currently the main mistress of Vajiralongkorn. But the life of Suthida is not without competition. Col. Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, aka Koi, who is a nurse, is reportedly becoming his No. 1 favorite. A video clip of Vajiralongkorn and Koi, both wearing skimpy crop tops barely covering fake tattoos wandering a Munich mall, went viral on the internet.

Fear — for one’s own freedom, or one’s own personal safety — is a key weapon of Vajiralongkorn’s in keeping people around him in check, alongside the long-standing use of the lese-majeste law to curb public discontentment against him. For instance, the military government chose to punish Jatupat “Phai” Boonpattararaksa for sharing a BBC article on the biography of Vajiralongkorn, underscoring the use of fear to warn the public to stay away from his private life. Jatupat is the only person to be imprisoned for sharing the article. The lawyer and the lecturer arrested last month could serve a lengthy jail terms like Phai.

Recently, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society released an announcement to forbid the public from following, befriending and sharing content of three critics of the monarchy: myself, the exiled historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, and former reporter Andrew MacGregor Marshall. Fear is now utilized at a national level, in cyberspace, to frighten ordinary social media users.

But fear can fall away. Overused and frequently exploited, fear will eventually lose its spell. Exactly how long Vajiralongkorn will continue to count on fear to build up his power remains uncertain. What is certain today is the fact that the climate of fear is becoming the new norm in Thai society.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.