Thursday, December 16, 2010

Thailand and the WikiLeaks Cables

References to the crown prince’s womanizing and other issues are too hot for Thailand’s press

The latest round of WikiLeaks cables, released earlier this week by The Guardian in London, have raised a firestorm in Thailand, raising the distinct possibility that three of the officials closest to the palace may have committed lese majeste, or insulting the royal family.

In particular, according to the Guardian stories, a cable written by the US ambassador, Eric John, in January reported conversations with General Prem Tinsulanonda, the head of the Privy Council and a former prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, another former prime minister, and Air Chief Marshall Siddhi Savetsila. The documents are so sensitive that blogs quoting them verbatim leave out any references to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, Queen Sirikit or Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, or even pronouns referring to them, using a series of XXXXs instead.

The cables, from late 2009 and early 2010, indicate that the three harbor grave misgivings about the ability of the crown prince, Vajiralongkorn, to become king because of his links for fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and because of his reputation as a womanizer. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, now 83, is in poor health and has been confined to a hospital for months. Given the months of turmoil beginning in 2006 when a royalist-backed coup brought down former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the king’s influence across the country has slowly been seeping away.

Despite one of the most draconian crackdowns in Asia on the internet, unflattering and occasionally scandalous pictures of Vajiralongkorn have made their way into widespread circulation in Bangkok, particularly one of his giving a birthday party for his dog. There is growing concern that his antics have badly tarnished loyalty to the crown, perhaps the country’s most important social institution.

Increasingly since the 2006 coup, Thai authorities have been using the country’s stiff lese majeste law to crack down on protest, disabling thousands of websites and jailing people on the slightest provocation of insulting the royalty. On Aug. 26, a court sentenced Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul, 46, to 18 years in prison for making a speech deemed to have insulted the king and queen. Another protester was given 10 years in April for posting a satirical image on the internet. Protests in May, which left 91 people dead and hundreds injured, have left authorities concerned about keeping control of the country. Human rights organizations have widely criticized the authorities’ actions.

According to the cable on Jan. 25, 2010, John paid a series of visits to Prem, Anand and Siddhi to discuss the performance of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the difficulties dealing with Cambodia’s leader Hun Sen, and other issues.

“On the two most difficult and sensitive issues of the day in Thailand -- Thaksin and the monarchy -- the Thai elite appear as unsure about the future as any other sector of society,” John wrote. “The stakes are significant for all sides, and resolution of the political divide and royal succession could still be far over the horizon. Elite concerns about Abhisit in office appear to reflect less on his performance than on general worries about the ultimate resolution of issues.”

“Regarding King Bhumibol's health, Prem indicated that the King was exercising 30 minutes a day on a stationary bicycle at Siriraj Hospital and passing a medicine ball with a physical therapist to build up strength and regain weight. Prem acknowledged that he had not seen the King since the hospitalization, but that the Queen and Princess Sirindhorn saw the King daily. When Ambassador asked about the Crown Prince's involvement, Prem repeated: the Queen and Sirindhorn visit him daily.”

Prem, the cable continues, “acknowledged Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn probably maintained some sort of relationship with fugitive former PM Thaksin, ‘seeing him from time to time.’ Prem, clearly no fan of either man, cautioned that Thaksin ran the risk of self-delusion if he thought that the Crown Prince would act as his friend/supporter in the future merely because of Thaksin's monetary support; ‘he does not enjoy that sort of relationship.’

When Ambassador asked where the Crown Prince was currently, in Thailand or Europe, Prem replied dismissively: "You know his social life, how he is." (Note: a presumed reference to Vajiralongkorn's preference to spend time based out of Munich with his main mistress, rather than in Thailand with his wife and son).

Siddhi, “in a similar vein, noted that the Crown Prince frequently slipped away from Thailand, and that information about his air hostess mistresses was widely available on websites; he lamented how his former aide, now Thai Ambassador to Germany, was forced to leave Berlin for Munich often to receive Vajiralongkorn.” Siddhi also speculated that that Vajiralongkorn would be ready to welcome Thaksin back to Thailand once he became King.
Siddhi added that the succession to the ailing king ”would be a difficult transition time for Thailand. According to Palace Law, the Crown Prince would succeed his father, but added after a pause, almost hopefully: "if the Crown Prince were to die, anything could happen, and maybe Prathep (Sirindhorn) could succeed."

When John raised the question of the Crown Prince's more confident demeanor with former PM Anand in late December 2009. “Anand's response was similar to Siddhi's, but more detailed and blunt. Anand said that he had always believed that the Crown Prince would succeed his father, according to law. However, there could be complicating factors -- if Vajiralongkohn proved unable to stay out of politics, or avoid embarrassing financial transactions.

“After a pause, Anand added that the consensus view among many Thai was that the Crown Prince could not stop either, nor would he be able, at age 57, to rectify his behavior. After another pause, Anand added that someone really should raise the matter with the King, before adding with regret that there really was no one who could raise such a delicate topic (note: implied was the need for an alternative to Vajiralongkorn).”

Another cable by John in October 2008 reports complaints by Samak Sundaravej, a former prime minister, that Queen Sirikit encouraged the coup that overthrew Thaksin, the Guardian reports.

"He showed disdain for Queen Sirikit," John writes, "claiming that she had been responsible for the 2006 coup d'etat as well as the ongoing turmoil generated by PAD [People's Alliance for Democracy] protests. He alleged the Queen operated through privy council president Prem Tinsulanonda who, along with others presenting themselves as royalists, worked with the PAD and other agitators. Citing his own regular meetings with King Bhumibol, Samak claimed he – rather than his opponents – was sincerely loyal to the king and enjoyed the king's support." Asia Sentinel

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