Why Thousands of Thai Protesters Are Marching to the German Embassy

The powerful Thai king lives most of the year in Germany, but for the first time his life there is coming under public scrutiny back home.
October 26, 2020, 8:49am
Thailand protests
Pro-democracy protesters hold up the three-finger salute during an anti-government rally in Bangkok on Oct. 25, 2020. PHOTO:  Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

Thousands of Thai pro-democracy protesters plan to descend on the German embassy in Bangkok on Monday evening in an attempt to shine a spotlight on their king's controversial residence abroad, as tensions rise between the new movement and royalist factions.

Powerful and wealthy Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn is protected by royal defamation laws that carry maximum jail terms of 15 years, but months-long demonstrations have chipped away at taboos surrounding discussion of the 68-year-old monarch, who spends most of the year in a village near Starnberger Lake in Bavaria.

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The youth-led movement in Thailand wants the political influence of the king to be reduced under a new constitution. They also want the royalist-aligned prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who led a coup in 2014 and won a tainted election in 2019, to quit but a three-day deadline set by protesters expired over the weekend.

Monday's march to the embassy will be the first that directly challenges and focuses on Vajiralongkorn's life abroad, which has until now been the preserve of tabloid magazines in Germany that trail the monarch on shopping trips and at airports. The stories are regularly blocked on the internet within Thailand.

"Another day, another protest," read a post on social media and messaging platforms run by one of the main organizing groups, which have kept police on their toes with last minute announcements and social media-driven tactics. It featured a picture of a massive crowd from recent gatherings and a small German flag. The embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment by VICE News.

Protesters are pushing the German government to investigate any political actions the king may have taken while residing there, which is not permitted under German law. Opponents have specifically highlighted an incident from 2019 when Vajiralongkorn blocked his elder sister's candidacy for prime minister with an opposition party. The palace also released a cryptic statement on the eve of the election telling Thais to vote for "good people," which analysts took as a sign of support for junta leaders.

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In Germany, a Change.org petition to declare Vajiralongkorn persona non grata there garnered 130,000 signatures online. It was blocked within Thailand.

Germany has said that Vajiralongkorn cannot rule from there. In a discussion in the German parliament earlier this month, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was grilled by lawmakers about the issue.

"We have made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil," Maas said in response. "If there are guests in our country that conduct their state business from our soil we would always want to act to counteract that."

There has been no clear statement on what, if anything, Germany plans to do about the king's residence.

In a strange twist, Vajiralongkorn and family have been in Thailand for several weeks. At a protest on Oct. 14, peaceful crowds chanted slogans and flashed the defiant three-fingered salute from the "Hunger Games" movies at a motorcade carrying Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn.

The presence of the royals has also led to an outpouring of support from rival protesters who demand loyalty to the monarchy. During the motorcade incident they scuffled with the pro-democracy side and on Monday they held their own event at the German embassy in Bangkok hours earlier.

This month dozens have been arrested and Thailand's turbulent political history of coups, street violence and government crackdowns have loomed over the demonstrations, but they have been largely peaceful.

A special session of the Thai parliament began on Monday with opposition lawmakers calling for resignation of the prime minister and the immediate release of activists and protesters arrested as a show of goodwill.