Commentary / World

Incident in Germany raises issues over Thai king's security

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

At nightfall in a suburb of Munich on June 10, two German teens, age 13 and 14, fired shots at Thai King Vajiralongkorn and his entourage with an air pistol. The king and his bodyguards were riding bicycles when the teenagers, hidden in overgrown bushes, targeted them with plastic pellets. To date, there is no report of the king being injured in the attack.

The Bavarian state prosecutor in Landshut questioned the 14-year-old boy about a possible criminal assault against Thailand’s head of state. Meanwhile, the 13-year-old boy was set free as he is below the age of criminal responsibility. Vajiralongkorn never pressed charges. In fact, the police was only informed of the attack an hour later via a diplomatic channel.

Vajiralongkorn has lived a colorful, and indeed scandalous, life. He has become an object of great interest among Bavarian residents. In May, the king made sensational headlines in the German tabloid Bild for appearing in public in his skimpy tank top barely covering a massive, fake yakuza-style tattoo. He was spotted with one of his mistresses, Koi, who also sported a similar outfit replete with an artificial tattoo. But the air pistol incident stirred concern among royal watchers in Thailand about the safety of the king and his long-term vacation in Germany.

Perhaps the most famous assassination of royalty to date is that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, an event that quickly led to the outbreak of World War I. In the Thai context, executions or assassinations of Thai kings are not uncommon. The founder of Bangkok, Phra Phuttayotfa Chulalok, ordered the execution of the previous king, Taksin, in 1782. In more recent times, King Ananda, Vajiralongkorn’s uncle, was killed in mysterious circumstances by a gunshot in his own sleeping chamber in a Bangkok palace in 1946.

Although the two German boys have little in common with serious assassins, their attack raises pertinent safety issues. The monarchy has long been a fundamental pillar of Thai society, mainly thanks to the assertive role of the late king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, in politics. Throughout his long reign (1946-2016), Bhumibol worked closely with the military in reshaping the political landscape to successfully make the monarchy a symbol of national unity.

Vajiralongkorn is the opposite image of his father. He is obviously a less able king. Nonetheless, this does not mean that Vajiralongkorn’s life will be less significant to Thailand. On the contrary, exactly because he is such a controversial figure, and his reign has already created divisive opinions and thus a fragmented society, Vajiralongkorn’s personal security will dictate not just the future of the monarchy but the entire nation. At this critical juncture of the royal transition, Vajiralongkorn’s well-being is crucial to political stability.

But he has many enemies. There are some who have been direct targets of Vajiralongkorn in the past. They worked under him but were punished once they fell out of his favor. Some were sent to his personal jail within his palace Dhaveevattana. Some have fled. There are also those ordinary citizens who have been charged with lese majeste — the crime of causing injury to royalty. Some are serving lengthy prison terms. The latest case involving a Thai man accused of writing insulting comments about the king on Facebook demonstrates that the palace is willing to eliminate its enemies in an inhuman way. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison, reduced from 70 years.

The king’s other enemies include some anti-monarchist elements both in Thailand and in neighboring countries — the latter can be identified as hard-core Red Shirts living in exile. Some are campaigning for the abolition of the monarchy and to turn Thailand into a republic.

Finally, Vajiralongkorn’s enemies could derive from his own circle of power. Some quarters in the military and the upper class resent the fact that Vajiralongkorn was chosen as king rather than his more popular sister, Princess Sirindhorn. While they have shown no sign of rejecting Vajiralongkorn, talk has grown louder in Bangkok about a possible replacement should the king prove to be incapable of remaining in the position. In other words, getting rid of Vajiralongkorn, for them, would serve their interests better.

What happened to Vajiralongkorn in Germany points to a lack of necessary measures to protect the Thai king. Had this incident taken place in Thailand, both the culprits and the security guards would have faced dire consequences. Nobody knows why Vajiralongkorn cares little about his own safety while residing overseas. In late April, two Thai activists turned up at his new chateau in Germany, protesting the disappearance of a plaque that marks the 1932 revolution in Siam. They believe that Vajiralongkorn ordered its removal. Their act was perceived as intruding into his private space, yet no security guards were present at the time of protest.

Apart from the issue of personal safety, the Thai public is beginning to question the king’s long-term stay in Germany. It seems now that Thailand is a kingless nation. Since the death of his father, Vajiralongkorn has visited Germany multiple times. During his time away from Thailand, he also signed a number of legal documents, and this brings about the contentious issue of whether he exercised his sovereign power on German soil. If so, some lawyers question if these documents could become illegal.

For now, Vajiralongkorn is enjoying his indulgent life in the Bavarian region, away from the eyes of the Thai public and thus some royal responsibilities. News of him being attacked by the two teenagers was not reported in the Thai media, partly because it could alarm society about the threat against their monarch. Should anything terrible happen to him, it would further deepen the Thai crisis in which the monarchy has been a major factor.

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