Thailand celebrated the 68th birthday of King Maha Vajiralongkorn on Tuesday with official religious ceremonies and public displays of loyalty throughout the country. The king himself, however, was absent from his own festivities. As anti-government protests gain momentum and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic grip the country, the monarch and his entourage have sought refuge in a luxurious hotel in the Bavarian Alps. The Thai king is known to reside in Germany for long periods of time.
On the morning of the king’s birthday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha led an annual oath-swearing ceremony with his cabinet members and 69 Buddhist monks in Bangkok’s Sanam Luang Square — vowing to be loyal civil servants to the king, also known as Rama X.
“We solemnly swear that we will do good work and be the strength of the country. We will follow in His Majesty’s footsteps to solve the problems of the nation and the people,” said Prayut and his cabinet. For Thais who revere the monarchy, Vajiralongkorn’s birthday is an important time of year. For others, it is a reminder of outdated traditions and the mass inequality that exists in the country. Vajiralongkorn’s passivity during the pandemic has also made him the target of unprecedented criticism in a country where the regime plays an important role for many.
Coverage of the king’s lavish life abroad circulating in foreign media outlets cannot be reported in Thailand due to its strict lese majeste law, which prohibits any disparaging statements or opinions about the king and the royal family. Failing to adhere to Article 112 is a crime punishable by three to 15 years in prison.
In June, the prime minister said the king, in his “compassion,” had instructed the government not to enforce Article 112 for persecutions but warned that anyone who criticizes the monarchy risks their livelihood.
Exiled activist Junya Yimprasert told DW: “Article 112 is still a threat as long as it exists because it’s used periodically and systematically.”
Despite draconian laws on speaking out against the regime, Thais have taken to the streets and social media platforms to vocalize their frustrations. Student-led anti-government protests have been spotted, with demonstrators brandishing placards and banners with messages critical of the king. The slogans, however, were disguised with slang and sarcasm.
The Free Youth movement staged a political rally in Bangkok on July 18 to demand the dissolution of parliament and an end to crackdowns on anyone opposing the government and constitutional reforms. They carried signs reading “Lost faith is definitely not a crime” and “We didn’t lose faith because we never had faith,” referring to political and human rights activist Tiwagorn Withiton.
‘I lost faith in the system’
Withiton was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in early July against his will after he spoke out against the forced disappearance of Thai dissident Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Cambodia. Satsaksit had been critical of Thailand’s military and monarchy.
Withiton had posted a photo on Facebook in which he was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “I lost faith in the monarchy.” Security officers paid him a visit and tried to convince him to stop wearing the T-shirt, citing that it could cause division in Thailand. After continuing to wear the T-shirt in public, the activist was taken forcibly from his home in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen.
“It’s a medical issue,” Major General Puttiphong Musikun, provincial police chief for Khon Kaen, told DW, without giving further details.
Withiton’s alleged abduction sparked an online uproar, with netizens demanding answers under the hashtags #SaveWanchalearm and #Abolish112. After two weeks in hospital, Withiton was unexpectedly freed on July 22. He said ongoing protests calling for his release were the catalyst for his freedom.
— This article has been provided by Deutsche Welle