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Turbulent Thailand

Germany doubts Thailand's king will return to Bavaria

Jewelers and gourmet food shops miss spending of his female companions

Unprecedented open criticism of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn has prompted a public relations campaign by the palace to rehabilitate his image and make him appear less remote, but there have been no official announcements about whether he will in future reside in Thailand.    © Reuters

HAMBURG, Germany -- German media that took a close interest in Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn while he was residing in a Bavarian mansion, the Villa Stolberg in Tutzing, have reported that he may not be coming back.

The king has spent virtually all his time as a resident of the large southeast German state since he acceded in 2016 following the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

King Vajiralongkorn returned to Thailand for a longer than normal visit to mark the fourth anniversary of his widely revered father's passing on Oct. 13, but ran into regular student-led street protests calling for a new government, amendments to the constitution and reform of the monarchy.

As Germany went into another round of COVID-19 lockdown, there were reports that the king would postpone his return to Germany until the end of December, but there has been no official comment on the matter.

The palace has meanwhile launched an unprecedented public relations campaign to make the king appear less remote from his subjects. He has walked through crowds of royalists, and even posed for selfies with supporters.

Holger Sabinsky-Wolf, a journalist for the Augsburger Allgemeine, a local daily, has closely followed King Vajiralongkorn. He recently reported that diplomatic sources have told him they do not expect the king to return to Germany.

The sources noted a significant development on Oct. 12 when an Airbus 345 of the Royal Thai Air Force departed from Munich for Bangkok with Prince Dipangkorn Rajismoti, the king's 15-year-old son, on board. The prince is the king's fifth son by his third wife, and was enrolled in a school in the Bavarian town of Geretsried that catered to his educational needs. 

Berliner Morgenpost, another daily, ran a story on Dec. 9 headlined: "Thai king has left Bavaria - will he ever be back?" It quoted officials who said the king had not previously been away from Bavaria for such a prolonged period. The article reported that local jewelers and gourmet food shops regretted his absence since "twenty accompanying business women" had also left and the significant revenues they generated had dried up.

The district office in Garmisch-Partenkirchen county, where the king and his entourage stayed in a luxury hotel during Germany's first COVID-19 lockdown earlier this year, reportedly asked the German foreign ministry in mid-November if the king would be returning, and how local authorities should handle matters if he did. According to Berliner Morgenpost, there has been no response.

King Vajiralongkorn has attracted considerable adverse publicity in Germany for maintaining an apparent harem in the 21st century, reportedly breaching COVID-19 regulations, possible inheritance tax evasion, and touch-and-go maneuvers in one of his personal aircraft at a small Hamburg airport.

Thousands of young protesters descended on the German embassy in Bangkok on Oct. 26 and delivered a letter personally to Georg Schmidt, the German ambassador, requesting an investigation of the king's life in Bavaria. Among other things, they wanted to know whether the king has been conducting Thai state affairs on German soil, which would violate German law, and if he is liable for inheritance tax in Germany.

The affair has triggered debate among German politicians, mostly Green and left wing. Answering questions in the Bundestag, the federal parliament, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said authorities would "permanently review the goings-on and act immediately if things are found that we perceive to breach the law."

Sevim Dagdelen of the Left party is one of King Vajiralongkorn's strongest critics in the Bundestag. She told Nikkei Asia last month that the German government should stop accommodating the Thai head of state.

Dagdelen represents her party on the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee, and in that capacity asked parliamentary researchers to look into the legal ramifications of an unprecedented situation: a head of state residing virtually permanently in another country through personal choice. A report was completed on Nov. 18, and confirmed that King Vajiralongkorn has been residing in Germany on a private visa -- not a visa for state guests. That places matters in a legal grey area.

The researchers concluded that the sort of measures hinted at by Maas, including surveillance and administrative fines, would breach international law. The head of state personifies a country's dignity, they noted, and therefore enjoys diplomatic immunity -- even when traveling on a private visa.

As to the prohibition against conducting Thai state affairs on German soil, the researchers concluded that the German government could choose to tie the king's visa issuance to an explicit requirement that he appoint a regent in Thailand to act in his place there whenever he is absent in Germany.

That solution would be unlikely to appeal to King Vajiralongkorn who had the regency sections in the constitution modified after his accession. The changes were very controversially rubber stamped by an accommodating, military-appointed legislative assembly after Thailand's 20th constitution had been approved by national referendum in 2016. The revised constitution only received the necessary royal assent -- the king's signature -- in 2017. The changes made appointing a regent when he was abroad an option for the king -- and no longer a constitutional requirement.

However, lawmakers in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union remain more comfortable with the longstanding hands-off approach.

"I don't see why the issuing of a visa for the Thai king should be linked to Thailand's domestic affairs, and I think the foreign ministry has gone out on a limb," Mark Hauptmann, a lawmaker from the ruling Christian Democratic Union regarded as an 'Asia hand,' told Nikkei last month.

"The foreign ministry should keep a low profile on this issue," Hauptmann said.

Government spokespeople in Bangkok had not responded to Nikkei by the time this article was posted.

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