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International relations

Thailand king's visa comes under scrutiny of German Greens

Student inquisition collides with Berlin's official ambivalence over royal guest

Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, is preoccupied with the COVID-19 crisis -- but also mulling one of the longest visits of an uninvited head of state in history.     © Reuters

HAMBURG, Germany -- A letter submitted by Thai pro-democracy protesters to the German Embassy in Bangkok on Oct. 26 that requested the German government disclose King Maha Vajiralongkorn's arrival and departure records has raised difficult questions for the Berlin government.

The Thai king has almost permanently resided in Germany since he acceded to the Thai throne in 2016. The students have been attempting to determine whether the king was involved in Thai affairs of state while living on German soil -- in violation of the law. The issue has also been raised in the German parliament, and the government's hands-off stance questioned.

Margarete Bause, human rights spokesperson for the Greens, told Nikkei Asia that her party is preparing a parliamentary request for disclosure of the king's comings and goings in Germany, and whether his entourage has included Thai security officials.

"The king has a private visa, not a state visa, and if proven to have conducted state business, the visa should be withdrawn," said Bause. "He would then be free to apply for a new visa, which should have explicit stipulations that he must not engage in Thailand's political business while staying in Germany."

The king's immigration records may also be of interest to local tax authorities. In the open letter, the students have asked if the king owes more than 2.7 billion euros ($3.2 billion) under German inheritance laws. The number is based on 10 billion euros supposedly bequeathed by his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016.

Since his accession, King Vajiralongkorn has spent most of his time in the southeast German state of Bavaria, attracting considerable adverse publicity for, among other things, an alleged harem, breaching local COVID-19 regulations, and touch-and-go maneuvers in his personal jet at a small downtown Hamburg airport.

Although the Greens party is the smallest in the Bundestag, the German parliament, its members are riding high in public opinion polls. The party looks set to become a coalition partner with the Christian Democratic Union in elections next year. In Germany, coalition partners are traditionally given the foreign ministry.

Bause acknowledged that an absence of precedence makes it difficult for Germany's foreign ministry to strike a balance between upholding the rule of law and avoiding a serious diplomatic incident involving affront to a foreign head of state.

Wolfram Schaffar, an expert on Thailand at the University of Tuebingen, told Nikkei that a diplomatic spat between Germany and Turkey in 2017 does offer a precedent of sorts. After politicians loyal to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan campaigned among Turkish communities in Germany, the constitutional court ruled that foreign heads of state and government officials do not have any automatic right to enter the country and conduct official business.

"The brouhaha back then led to Erdogan canceling his planned Germany visit," said Schaffar.

"The inheritance tax issue is similarly tricky, and needs to be clarified given that it is in fact not possible for the German side to establish whether the money is owned by him or the Thai state," Schaffar said.

Schaffar recalled that this problem arose in 2011 when a Boeing 737 believed to belong to Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, as the king was titled then, was impounded by a German court during a long-running commercial dispute between a German construction company and Thai authorities. According to Schaffar, a 38-million-euro ($54.3 million) surety was paid quickly by the crown prince to avoid any further investigation into his personal property.

Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, has said in parliament that the king's activities are "permanently" under review, and if anything was deemed illegal, there would be "immediate" consequences.

This apparent bullishness might have weakened. Reuters reported on a briefing by the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee on Oct. 29 the German government view that the king is permitted to make occasional decisions on German soil providing he does not continuously conduct affairs of state from there.

"The German government has taken the view that it is not yet of the opinion that the Thai king has continuously conducted business," a member of the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee told Reuters. The unidentified source also told the news agency that the king "has a visa that allows him to stay in Germany for several years as a private person and [he] also enjoys diplomatic immunity as a head of state."

Felix Heiduk, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Nikkei that even though the incendiary letter sent by the young Thai pro-democracy protesters carries no legal weight in Germany, the negative exposure has created considerable informal pressure.

"At the end of the day, the German government's position will depend on developments in Thailand," said Heiduk. "Any violent crackdown on the pro-democracy protests by monarchist forces will certainly increase enormously the pressure to act."

Heiduk said the issue goes well beyond the king's almost constant presence in Germany. Negotiation of a European Union-Thailand free trade agreement was suspended in 2014 after the military toppled an elected government, but was resumed after Thailand's general elections last year. "Germany is currently holding the presidency of the EU Council, and is thus in a key position," Heiduk said.

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