Thai Protesters Direct Ire at King’s Massive Wealth

Thai Protesters Direct Ire at King’s Massive Wealth
Photo Credit: Reuters

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Protesters demanded public oversight of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s vast wealth on Wednesday outside the headquarters of Siam Commercial bank. He is said to hold a 23.5% stake in the bank worth an estimated US$2.3 billion.

BANGKOK - Pro-democracy activists demanded public oversight of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s vast wealth during a protest on Wednesday outside the headquarters of a major bank in which he is the largest shareholder. The demonstration amounted to a show of defiance after police summoned a dozen protest leaders over alleged royal defamation.

Several months since they started near-daily anti-government rallies, the pro-democracy movement called Ratsadorn, or “The People,” shows no sign of losing steam, despite the mounting risk of clashes with ultra-royalists and a wave of charges under a draconian lese majeste law — which provides for up to 15 years in jail per charge.

Police summoned at least 12 protest leaders overnight from across the country to hear charges of lese majeste — known by its criminal code number 112. They are the first such cases to be brought in several years as authorities move to quash the rampant anti-monarchy graffiti, banners and speeches that now accompany every protest.

Several thousand demonstrators massed around the headquarters of Siam Commercial bank, one of Thailand’s largest lenders. The king is named as holding a 23.5% stake worth an estimated US$2.3 billion based on Wednesday’s share price.

The demonstrators swarmed across gardens outside the bank as evening fell, holding signs saying, “We the people reclaim our property from the king.” Many wore rubber ducks in their hair or glued to hard hats — the latest symbol of meme-making young activists who fended off police water cannon and tear gas earlier in the month with giant inflatable yellow ducks.

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Protesters inflate rubber ducks at a pro-democracy rally demanding Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn hands back royal assets to the people and reforms on the monarchy, in Bangkok, Thailand, November 25, 2020.

“We should be able to look at the king’s finances as they come from taxpayers’ money,” said one 24-year-old protester who identified himself only as “Jim.” “At least rubber ducks protect the people, unlike the soldiers,” he said.

Army targeted by protesters

The protest movement also wants to permanently remove the military from politics in a country that has had 13 coups in less than 100 years.

The starting point, they say, must be the resignation of ex-army chief turned Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha and his government, along with a rewriting of a constitution which has gifted the army a backdoor into power through a fully appointed senate.

But it is the role of the Thai monarchy which now motivates them, with protesters calling for the king’s wealth and power to be constrained within the constitution — as established by a peaceful 1932 revolution — and for the palace to remain firmly beyond politics.

Vajiralongkorn is perhaps the world’s richest monarch, enjoying an annual palace budget of around US$1 billion. He holds controlling stakes in banks and construction companies in his own name as well as untold billions of dollars in prime Bangkok real estate under the Crown Property Bureau (CBP).

The value of the CBP, which was established to manage palace wealth for the good of the kingdom, is estimated at anywhere between US$30-60 billion. But it does not publish its accounts and experts say it effectively morphed into a private piggy bank after it was moved in 2018 directly under Vajiralongkorn’s control from the finance ministry.

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida greet royalists during their appearance in Bangkok, Thailand, November 25, 2020.

Initially, protesters had vowed to mass around the CBP offices in the historic heart of Bangkok. But in a sign of the sensitivity of any attack on the king’s wealth, all roads to the bureau were blocked before dawn on Wednesday by shipping containers stacked on top of each other and fronted by curls of razor wire. Behind them stood thousands of police and military conscripts.

“The objective is not only to stop the protesters today but also to send a message to them to refrain from protesting in the future or face the consequences of violent arrest and other harsh action using the rationale of Criminal Code Section 112,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer and special adviser on international affairs at Naresuan University.

Gap widening

Thailand is a kingdom divided. The split runs between young and old, rich and poor — it is one of the Asia’s least equal societies — and between voices for reform and arch-royalist conservatives who support the army-shaped status quo.

As the Thai protesters — known locally as “the mob” — settled in for an evening outside the king’s favorite bank, the monarch himself rubbed shoulders with royalists in a downtown park.

Many royalists see the palace as untouchable and the monarch beyond reproach by virtue of his position at the head of Thai society.

“These kids are deluded if they think the crown assets belong to the country,” said Warong Dechgitvigrom, leader of ultra-royalist Thai Pakdee (Loyal Thai) group. “They belong solely to the king.”

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
A woman holds a portrait of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida, during the appearance of the royal couple, in Bangkok, Thailand, November 25, 2020.

Critics accuse the king of living an opulent lifestyle, much of it overseas in Germany with a large retinue, creating an image that has played particularly badly at home with the coronavirus-hit economy expected to contract at least 6% this year.

But arch-royalists say the king is merely asserting control over possessions that were the sole property of the palace before the 1932 revolution ended absolute rule.

“I think King Vajiralongkorn recognizes his assets must return to where they belong,” said Nopadol Prompasit, who receives complaints of alleged lese majeste violations and files cases to the police. “He has every right to move money or spend it however he deems fit.”

With the gap widening between the pro-democracy protesters and royalists, experts fear an escalation of the violence which marred a parliamentary debate on the constitution on November 17.

Scores were wounded in the fighting, including six by gunshots, marking a dangerous escalation in a country awash with guns.

Prime Minister Prayuth, on the backfoot as never before in the six years since he seized power as army chief in a 2014 coup, has so far refused to resign and on Wednesday batted away reports he may consider martial law to control the protests.

“In a democracy ... I can’t make everyone agree with me,” he told reporters.

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Voice of America.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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