Germany drawn into Thai political conflict

Pro-democracy protesters read out a prepared statement outside the German embassy in Bangkok on Oct 26, 2020.
Pro-democracy protesters read out a prepared statement outside the German embassy in Bangkok on Oct 26, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - Germany found itself embroiled in Thailand's political turmoil on Monday (Oct 26) as both royalists and pro-democracy protesters made contrasting appeals to the European country, where King Maha Vajiralongkorn spends much of his time.

Supporters from both sides rallied at the German embassy in Bangkok as Thailand opened a special parliamentary sitting on Monday to find a way out of the current crisis, where months of street protests by young demonstrators demanding political change and monarchy reform have triggered an increasingly threatening pushback from royalists.

Royalist Nitithorn Lamlua led dozens of supporters early afternoon to hand over a letter for Germany's ambassador to Thailand, Mr Georg Schmidt.

"I am concerned some groups are trying to pull Germany into Thailand's affairs," Mr Nitithorn told The Straits Times. "I want them to listen to the voices of Thai people from all sides to get information that is correct and complete."

In the evening, young pro-democracy protesters marched to the German embassy to submit another appeal, asking Berlin to clarify if King Vajiralongkorn had paid inheritance tax to Germany since he ascended the throne, and whether he had actually conducted Thai politics from German soil.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday that Germany is continuing to look into the behaviour of the King.

"We are monitoring this long term," Mr Maas said. "It will have immediate consequences if there are things that we assess to be illegal."

King Vajiralongkorn, 68, took personal ownership of the multi-billion-dollar assets of Thailand's Crown Property Bureau two years ago, and also controls two army units.

His status in Germany came under scrutiny in the Bundestag earlier this month when, in response to a query from a lawmaker, Mr Maas said guests in Germany were not allowed to conduct state business from German soil.

King Vajiralongkorn's power and spending have been a source of resentment to the young people driving the months-long street protest movement, which wants the military-backed Constitution amended, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to resign, and the monarchy reformed.

Protesters want the king’s powers to be trimmed in line with his official status as a constitutional monarch, a sensitive issue in a country where insulting the king is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The protests escalated after Mr Prayut declared a serious emergency in Bangkok on Oct 15 and police unleashed water cannons on the largely peaceful demonstrators. Last week, he was forced to revoke the emergency to lower tensions.

Yet several key protest leaders have been denied bail after arrest. They include Thammasat University students Parit Chiwarak and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul who have been most vocal about monarchy reform.

In their absence, more and younger faces have sprung up to drive the movement, which massed thousands of supporters in downtown Bangkok's Ratchaprasong intersection on Sunday night.

Royalists have also started trying to mobilise supporters to demonstrate loyalty to the King, who last week publicly praised a man for standing up to pro-democracy protesters.

It is unclear what the parliamentary sitting, which continues on Tuesday, will achieve, as few lawmakers were in the mood for compromise on Monday.

Mr Prayut said at its opening on Monday: "I'm confident that today, regardless of our different political views, everyone still loves the country."

Parliamentarians allied with the coalition government dismissed calls for both his resignation and monarchy reform.

Appointed senator Somchai Sawaengkarn said: "The Prime Minister should not resign and I want to give him my support. Stay and fight."

He alleged that politicians were masterminding the street protests.

"The cause of these problems are not the Constitution, the Prime Minister, nor the monarchy," he said.