Thailand's king to have 1,600-strong royal police security force

File photo of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn presiding over the annual royal ploughing ceremony outside Bangkok's royal palace on May 14, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - More than 1,600 police have been assigned to protect Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his family, the head of the royal police security unit said on Friday (Oct 5), quadrupling the force as the new monarch continues to reorganise palace affairs.

Thailand's monarchy is considered sacred and untouchable in Thai society, and is protected by some of the strictest royal defamation laws in the world.

But the King - who ascended to the throne following the death of his much beloved father Bhumibol - will now also enjoy the protection of an upgraded royal security police unit.

Torsak Sukvimol, the newly-appointed chief of the so-called Special Service Division, told AFP it currently has 400 personnel from the Crime Suppression Division - which has long been tasked with protecting the royal family.

"But the allocated staff will be 1,617 in total," Torsak said, adding that recruiting and training the officers could take up to five years.

The beefed-up security detail will oversee 10 sub-divisions, including units that "conduct intelligence" and "police patrolling" as the King visits different parts of the country.

"After the King's coronation, there is going to be more royal activities," Torsak said. "Four hundred people is not enough."

No date has been set for King Vajiralongkorn's coronation.

The unit has not been tasked with scouring the public for violations of the kingdom's royal defamation law, referred to as 112 for its code in the criminal statute.

"We will not be aimed at monitoring people for 112 prosecutions. The 112 charge will not be wielded repetitiously," Torsak told AFP.

Thailand has to date been policing aggressively for any perceived slight to the monarchy, and a single lese majeste charge carries up to 15 years in jail.

Critics say the law is highly politicised, stifling discussion and imposing self-censorship on Thais as well as all media based in the country.

While lese majeste cases shot up under the ruling junta that seized power in Thailand in 2014, convictions have declined in recent months.

Pawinee Chumsri of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights confirmed that there has been "no new cases" this year.

"The court tends to acquit the accused of the lese majeste charge and sentence them on other charges instead," Pawinee told AFP.

"Before, the laws were interpreted so broadly, which is the government's policy against those who have opinions about the monarchy," she said.

"This year, the court's verdicts are more according to the intention of the law."

In late September, six young Thais accused of setting portraits of the royal family on fire were granted rare acquittals when it came to the royal defamation charge.

However, they still face jail terms of three to nine years for vandalising the ceremonial arches.

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