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A royal bubble bursts: Thailand's king faces trouble on 2 continents

By Shashank Bengali and Erik Kirschbaum, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SINGAPORE - The scion of one of the world's most privileged families, he wrapped himself in the trappings of royalty, wealth and a comfortable hideaway thousands of miles from his subjects.

For Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn, the cocoon has come undone with remarkable speed.

Last week in Berlin, the German government faced questions in Parliament over the king's legal status in Bavaria, where he resides. Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said that if the king were making decisions affecting Thailand from German soil, "We would quite clearly not stand for that."

Then, visiting Thailand this week to mark the fourth anniversary of his father's death, the king's family came face-to-face with pro-democracy protesters agitating for limits on his power. At one point, demonstrators confronted the queen's motorcade and hurled insults at her cream-colored Rolls-Royce.

In a country where criticizing the king or his family is punishable by up to 15 years in prison, the dramatic scenes in Bangkok provided the starkest illustration yet of the crisis facing Thailand's constitutional monarchy and the military-led government that supports it.

"The bubble that protected them from reality is bursting, without a doubt, and in a very graphic way," said Pravit Rojanaphruk, senior staff writer with the Khaosod English news site.

 

Since the skirmish with the motorcade Wednesday, authorities have banned large gatherings, arrested dozens of activists and charged two with violence against the queen, which carries a possible life sentence. Thousands defied the ban and rallied at a Bangkok intersection Friday evening until police in riot gear dispersed the crowd with batons and water cannons.

As the monthslong protest movement continues, the reverence long demanded of Thailand's monarchy is breaking down in ways big and small. Thais are refusing to stand for the royal anthem in movie theaters, lampooning the king in Facebook groups and openly questioning his immense wealth and spending.

The scrutiny he is now facing in Germany is an added nuisance for a 68-year-old king who has long treated his adopted home as a playground.

As the only son of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for 70 years, Vajiralongkorn was destined to inherit the throne. But since about 2007 he has spent most of his time in Germany, where the tabloid press has followed his exploits with relish.

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