King Maha Vajiralongkorn, after just a few years on the throne, seems to have inherited his father’s practice of overriding formal limits on royal power, but not his spiritual aura, nor his ways.
King Bhumibol usually pursued his political objectives by acting at a slight remove, typically through the monarchy’s vast influence network, such as via the Privy Council. More problematically, he at times called on the judiciary, including in 2006, to annul the results of a democratic election.
But King Maha Vajiralongkorn has tended to intervene directly, without proxies.
Soon after he ascended to the throne in late 2016, he requested amendments to a new Constitution — which was essentially drafted by the military and approved in a nationwide referendum — so that he could rule Thailand from Germany, where he had been residing. Last year, he ordered by royal decree that two army units be placed under his direct command.
In the lead-up to the last elections in March 2019, the Thai Raksa Chart Party, a splinter group from the party of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (who was deposed in a military coup in 2006) nominated Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Varnavadi, the king’s older sister, as its candidate for prime minister. The king issued a royal order prohibiting her candidacy, while accusing Mr. Thaksin of jeopardizing the monarchy’s supposed apolitical position. The Constitutional Court then disbanded the party.
Last year, too, King Maha Vajiralongkorn elevated Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, a former bodyguard of his, to the status of “royal noble consort” — a practice last exercised a century ago. Months later he summarily stripped her of her rank and titles; a royal statement claimed that she had been disloyal and had tried to compete with Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya, the king’s wife. Ms. Sineenat disappeared from public view, sparking rumors that she had been imprisoned or even killed. Then in September the king ordered her privileges reinstated, now calling her “flawless.”
By my count, based on announcements in the royal gazette, more than 200 people have been dismissed, demoted or imprisoned since 2016, without access to proper legal process, presumably on the personal orders of the king.
The country’s punishing lèse-majesté laws were not applied in recent years, at the king’s request. But with the protests of the past months becoming more and more daring, the government has redeployed them recently.