Thai police seek royal official on lese majeste charges

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thai police said Wednesday they plan to arrest a senior palace official who is linked to the Crown Prince's ex-wife, under a controversial royal defamation law.

Montri Sotangkul, 53, was part of the household staff of Princess Srirasmi, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn's former wife. She fell dramatically from grace when a corruption scandal enveloped her family late last year.

Montri, who remained at the palace following Srirasmi's downfall, is accused of defaming the monarchy by improperly using his royal connections to make financial gains, police said.

"Montri has claimed that he is close to members of the royal family to make profit for himself" in land and business deals, national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung told reporters.

"The former princess recruited him to work for her and he has nothing to do with the Crown Prince," he added.

It is highly unusual for palace officials to face police investigations, let alone on lese majeste charges.

But Somyot said he had written to the Royal Household Bureau, telling it to hand Montri over to police custody on Thursday.

Thailand's monarchy is protected by a highly controversial lese majeste law, one of the world's strictest.

Anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.

But reporting royal defamation cases is fraught with difficulty and media must heavily self-censor. Even repeating details of the charges could mean breaking the law.

Critics of the law say it is frequently used to pursue political opponents of the royalist elite and their military allies.

In recent months it has also been wielded with spectacular effect against many members of Srirasmi's family.

At least eight of the former princess's family members have now been jailed for lese majeste - including her elderly parents, her elder sister and brother-in-law, two brothers and a nephew.

Most were accused of using their royal connections to make money. All pleaded guilty at trials behind closed doors.

Her family's downfall began in November when a series of senior police officers, including a distant relative of Srirasmi, were arrested and jailed for running a criminal enterprise.

Srirasmi has not been arrested and local media report that she has returned to her hometown of Ratchaburi.

But she has not been seen in public since December, shortly before it was announced that she had relinquished her royal title and that Vajiralongkorn had divorced her.

Vajiralongkorn is the only son and the heir of 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest serving monarch.

While his father is widely adored by Thais, many of whom see him as a semi-divine figure, Vajiralongkorn has yet to attain such popularity.

Thailand has been beset by a near-decade of political turbulence - partly fuelled, analysts say, by unease over the country's future as Bhumibol's reign enters its twilight years.