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Turbulent Thailand

Germany floats asking Thai king to appoint regent for next visa

Bundestag divided as anti-monarchy protests rattle Berlin's hands-off approach

 The Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, has not formally investigated or debated the issue as yet, but its members are weighing the implications of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn feeling more at home in Bavaria than in his own kingdom.    © Reuters

HAMBURG, Germany -- King Maha Vajiralongkorn's unexplained preference for living in Germany's southwestern state of Bavaria is testing Berlin's longstanding hands-off approach to his almost constant presence, particularly as anti-monarchy sentiment increasingly dominates pro-democracy protests in Thailand.

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. Among other things, they wanted to know whether the king is conducting Thai state affairs on German soil, which would violate German law, and if he is liable for inheritance tax in Germany following the death of his father in October 2016.

Although the king has become a hot topic among members of the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, a German official told Nikkei Asia that the student petition from Bangkok would not be enough in itself to trigger a parliamentary investigation or debate -- developments that would certainly further stress relations between the two countries.

Thai protesters have alleged that members of the king's security detail in Germany may have been involved in the elimination of critics of the monarchy living in exile in Laos and Cambodia. There have also been questions about whether members of his harem in Bavaria are being kept there against their will.

The German government has said that it has no concrete evidence of any wrongdoing.

In late October, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said authorities will "permanently review the goings on and act immediately if things are found that we perceive to breach the law." Maas's use of the word "treiben" for goings on raised eyebrows because of its negative connotation and sexual innuendo.

Sevim Dagdelen of the Left party is one of King Vajiralongkorn's strongest critics in the Bundestag. She told Nikkei 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 legality of this unprecedented situation. A report was completed on Nov. 18, and confirmed that the king 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.

King Vajiralongkorn has been back in Thailand since early October and is expected to remain there until the end of December. The researchers concluded that serving him with a re-entry ban would amount to de facto expropriation of his Bavarian villa. It would thus be "questionable under humanitarian considerations."

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 is very 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 acquiescent, 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.

"The Bundestag's research service does not have detailed knowledge of what the Thai king does in Bavaria," the research report said. "Notable in this context is the fact that the Thai constitution of April 6, 2017, 'downgraded' ... the obligation for the king to assign a regent when residing abroad to become a mere discretionary provision," it said.

The Left party's Dagdelen argues that the lack of a regent means there can be no doubt the king is handling Thai state affairs from German soil, and that has serious implications given Thailand's present political turmoil.

"If the Thai king together with the military junta brutally crushes the pro-democracy movement, he must not be rewarded by the government with a visa for luxurious long-term stays in Germany," Dagdelen told Nikkei.

She also argued that Berlin should use its clout in Brussels to keep on ice negotiations between the European Union and Thailand for a free trade agreement. Negotiations were put on hold in 2014 following the military take-over in the country, but in late October both sides confirmed readiness to resume talks soon.

The Thai king has attracted considerable adverse publicity in Germany for maintaining a harem in the 21st century, reportedly breaching local COVID-19 regulations, possible inheritance tax evasion, and touch-and-go maneuvers in his personal jet at a small Hamburg airport.

Opposition lawmakers in the Greens and the Left party are lobbying for the king's visa to be reviewed for alleged breaches of German visa regulations, and any role he might play in crushing political dissent in his kingdom.

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.

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

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