BANGKOK – An old commercial dispute has turned into a new diplomatic row between Germany and Thailand, putting the southeast Asian country’s monarchy in the spotlight as Thailand’s newly-elected parliament is inaugurated today.
A Boeing 737 owned by Thailand’s Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was impounded at Munich Airport on July 12 on the orders of a German court. The row goes back two decades, when a now-defunct German firm invested in a toll road to Bangkok’s old airport. The company’s liquidator was awarded €36m in damages by an international arbitration court in 2009 after successfully arguing that Bangkok breached the contract. Germany says the aircraft is Thai Government property, while Thailand says it belongs to the Crown Prince.
According to outgoing Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva, “the German government has no right to pressure Thailand to pay compensation in its dispute with a German contractor”, a brusque response to the impounding, which was followed by a demand by the Germany’s embassy in Bangkok that Thailand pay up and a warning that putative foreign investors might look elsewhere in southeast Asia. The prince has since said he would use his personal assets to settle the dispute, as he does not want to see Thai-German relations deteriorate.
The prince is the heir to Thailand’s King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has reigned since 1946, making him the world’s longest-sitting monarch. Thai media reporting of the ‘plane affair has been circumspect, with some publications refraining from naming the prince. Direct criticism of the King, Queen or Crown Prince is taboo, as Thailand has possibly the world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws. The King has said he is not above criticism, but the law has not changed, allowing any person accuse another of lèse-majesté, which critics say enables charges be made to silence opponents or settle scores.
Last week, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, former editor-in-chief of two ‘redshirt’ magazines, was charged with offending the monarchy, meaning he could be jailed for thirty years if found guilty. Another case is that of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of current affairs website Prachatai. She did not write anything offensive, but merely failed to quickly-enough remove third-party comments from the website and faces up to 60 years in jail.
According to scholar David Streckfuss, author of Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, treason, and lese-majeste, it is difficult to know exactly how many people have been accused of insulting the King. He says “2010 statistics from the Office of the Judiciary report that 478 “charges” or offenses were received by the Court of First Instance, and decisions were handed down on 83 offenses”, but adds that this does not account for the number of people accused.
The prospect of a royal succession has played into Thailand’s fractious politics. Last year street clashes between ‘redshirt’ protestors – some of whom made anti-royal and republican statements – and Thailand’s army saw large areas of central Bangkok a no-go zone for almost two months. Over 90 people died in the violence, which saw shopping centres torched, temporarily-dulling the country’s appeal to tourists.
For the most part, redshirts are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in a 2006 coup and now a fugitive, or exile – depending one’s political viewpoint – in Dubai. Thaksin’s parties – either those led by him or later controlled from abroad by the former telecoms entrepreneur – won three successive elections between 2001-2007, but were removed from office by the 2006 putsch and later by a combination of royalist ‘yellowshirt’ protests and controversial court rulings in 2008.
Yellow is the colour of Thailand’s monarchy and those protestors took to the streets against what they saw as Thaksin’s heavy-handed style of governing, deemed by some as a threat to what some Thais euphemistically-call “the institution”, code for the monarchy.
Now, after five years of on-off protests and violence, Thailand’s new parliament opens today after July 3 elections. These saw a decisive victory for Peau Thai (For Thais), led by none other than Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s 44 year old younger sister.
“Thaksin thinks, Peau Thai does’, was one of the party’s campaign trail slogans, and despite the attempts by Abhisit’s Democrat Party – which has a love-hate relationship with the country’s royalists – to campaign against Yingluck as her brother’s ‘clone’ and representative of groups that allegedly ‘burned Bangkok’, a Thaksin-run electoral machine again won, prompting speculation that another coup is possible, particularly if moves are made to amnesty Thaksin from the corruption conviction that prompted him to flee.
Yingluck and her new government will also have to address the issue of the impounded aircraft sitting in a Munich airport. This could well be seen by royalists – which include the powerful army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha – as a litmus test of how the Thaksin-backed government will deal with the monarchy. Speaking in July 26, Gen. Prayuth said “Thailand has faced many hurdles which prevent us from moving forward. Only one thing which can unite us all is the monarchy.”
The Crown Prince will preside over today’s opening ceremony at Thailand’s parliament, and how Yingluck responds to calls from some supporters to revise or eliminate the lèse=majesté laws, could, according to Prof. Suchit Bunbongkarn, who was speaking at a recent post-election forum at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, “be another decisive factor in how the new government fares”.Show