Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn has reportedly flown to Germany in what is believed to be his first trip abroad since pro-democracy protests escalated last year, breaking long held taboos to call for reforms to the monarchy.
The German tabloid Bild reported that Vajiralongkorn arrived on Monday in Bavaria, where it said he and his entourage of 250 people and 30 royal poodles had booked an entire floor of the Hilton Munich airport hotel for 11 days.
His previous prolonged stay in Bavaria, in a villa on Lake Starnberg at the height of anti-government protests last year, became a diplomatic issue in Germany when the foreign minister, Heiko Maas, warned foreign affairs of state must not be conducted from German soil.
“We have made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil,” Maas told the Bundestag in October 2020. “If there are guests in our country that conduct their state business from our soil we would always want to act to counteract that.”
A spokesperson for the German foreign office later said it had been assured that affairs of state were being handled solely by the Thai prime minister while the king was staying in Germany on private business.
Protesters in Thailand had criticised the king for his extended trips abroad and called for changes to curb his powers and wealth. They argued that the king should relinquish control of the royal funds and of key army units that he had brought under his direct command. They also argued that the lese-majesty law, which bans criticism of the royal family, should be scrapped.
Since the protests, at least 156 people have been charged with lese-majesty, which carries a maximum 15-year sentence, including 12 minors. Twenty-four protesters have been denied bail and remain in pre-trial detention for their political activities.
On Wednesday, Thailand’s constitutional court ruled that protesters’ calls for monarchy reform amounted to an attempt to overthrow it. Their demands were an “abuse of the rights and freedoms and harmed the state’s security”, the court said, and ordered an end to them. Rights groups warned this could pave the way for treason charges for protest leaders.
Following the ruling, the website of the court was hacked, according to local media, and replaced with the music video for Guillotine by the hip hop group Death Grips, while text was changed to read “kangaroo court”.
Student groups from across 23 universities issued a joint statement rejecting the ruling, while images on social media showed some protesters holding signs in public calling for the lese-majesty law, also known as article 112, to be abolished. Some stuck signs on to the glass doors of the boutique fashion shop of Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya, daughter of the king, which read “reform does not equal overthrow” and “abolish 112”. Four people were later arrested over the signs, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
The monarchy reform protests were unprecedented in Thailand, a country where the constitution states the king “shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship”, and where portraits of the monarchy are displayed on the streets, in schools and many businesses.
In a sign of how attitudes have shifted among the Thai public, the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, on Thursday encouraged cinema-goers not to abandon the tradition of standing when the royal anthem is played before films. Prior to last year’s pro-democracy protests, it was rare for people to remain seated and in some cases individuals who chose not to stand were attacked.
Prayuth said some people were afraid to stand, fearing they might be bullied by pro-democracy activists. “We must be brave to stand up. This is not mandatory but we are in the same family,” he said in a speech on Thursday.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, who lives in exile due to his criticism of Thailand’s military and monarchy, said it appeared likely the king felt confident the protest movement was under control despite recent public debate over the lese-majesty law.
“Suddenly in the past two weeks the issue of abolition or reform of article 112 has come up, and that is linked directly to the issue of reforming the monarchy. The fact he decided to leave now in the middle of this debate in Thailand, that does show that he somehow is confident,” he said.
“If you ask me this question from an analyst [perspective], of course the confidence might be a miscalculation. It’s just like simmering water, boiling water, the lid can come off at any time,” said Pavin.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Ratcliffe