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Turbulent Thailand

Thai king's visa-free stay breaks German law: Bundestag research

Parliamentary researchers say Berlin foreign ministry on weak legal ground

King Maha Vajiralongkorn greets royalists at a candlelight vigil to mark the birthday of his late revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok on Dec. 5.    © Reuters

HAMBURG, Germany -- The research service of the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, has taken issue with the foreign ministry after it hinted earlier this month that it will not make any moves against Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn with regard to his preference in recent years for residing in the southwestern state of Bavaria.

The two main issues have been the nature of the king's visa for Germany and the question of whether he was conducting Thai state affairs from German soil, which would be in breach of German law.

King Vajiralongkorn was almost permanently resident in Bavaria until October, when he returned to Thailand to mark the fourth anniversary of his father's death. The visit coincided with escalating demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha that became increasingly anti-monarchy in tone.

In a written response in January to Wolfgang Schaeuble, president of the Bundestag, the ministry stated that the Thai monarch does not need a visa when entering the country, and that authorities could therefore not influence the duration of his stays or pressure him to appoint a regent in Thailand while he was in Germany.

It also said there were no concrete indicators that the king conducted Thai state affairs from Germany.

In a new document that has been seen by Nikkei Asia, the parliamentary researchers accused the foreign ministry of effectively creating a "lex regis thailandia" -- a Latin term to describe creating a special law for the Thai king.

In other words, existing laws were either being broken or strongly bent to accommodate the king. They argued that visa-free entry and diplomatic immunity are given to members of foreign diplomatic delegations, military contingents, representatives of international organizations or foreigners who are formally invited by the German government. The king does not fall under any of these categories and was residing in Germany without a formal invitation.

In the letter sent to Schaeuble, the foreign ministry said King Vajiralongkorn needed a visa when he was still crown prince but not after he became head of state.

"The granting of visa-free entry for the Thai king's private visits in Germany cannot be justified through utilization and interpretation of the relevant laws," the parliamentary researchers said in the latest document. "At best, one can assume the existence of a legal loophole," they added.

The king has caused some negative reactions in Germany. He was once photographed by a member of the public visiting a furniture shop wearing a crop top, and spent the first COVID-19 lockdown at a luxury hotel in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen with an alleged harem. Tourism was prohibited at the time.

The Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl in Garmisch-Partenkirchen where King Vajiralongkorn and his entourage have stayed a number of times.     © AP

Local media coverage has been intense. The press asked if the king was liable for German inheritance tax following the death of his revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in October 2016. It even looked into whether the correct dog license fees had been paid for his beloved poodle Fu Fu. The pet dog died in 2015, and held a number of high military ranks in Thailand.

On Oct. 26, thousands of young protesters descended on the German embassy in Bangkok, demanding an investigation into the king's activities in Germany. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas then said authorities will "permanently review the goings-on and act immediately if things are found that we perceive to breach the law."

In early-December, weeks after the king had left for Thailand, reporters still roamed about outside the Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. They interviewed staff at local stores about the shopping preferences of the king's entourage. A local butcher said the Thai visitors bought meat products across the range, including lamb kebabs, sausages and steaks.

At the king's own villa in nearby Tutzing, the lights are always switched off. German daily Die Zeit found the name on the doorbell to be Max Mustermann, which is the German-language equivalent of John Q. Public, and means the general public personified.

Sevim Dagdelen, the Left Party's representative on the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee who initiated the parliamentary researchers, welcomed the latest clarification.

"The Federal Government must stop pretending its hands are tied and start to use the immigration law's leeway to stop the Thai king from continuing his despotic governing from Germany," Dagdelen told Nikkei.

Should King Vajiralongkorn return to Germany, the government's reaction will depend on the intensity of media coverage, a well-informed source in the Bundestag who is not authorized to speak to the press told Nikkei.

"I take it that the newest interpretation by the parliamentary researchers will lead to the government being confronted with a new parliamentary inquiry into the matter," the source said.

Margarete Bause, the Greens' spokesperson on human rights, said that the latest Bundestag research is a slap in the face for the German government.

"The foreign ministry has for months been wiggling around the issue and uses any possible legal grey zone to avoid positioning itself clearly," said Bause.

"Especially in view of the increasingly harsh crackdown against the Thai opposition, it is irresponsible that the German government effectively grants the Thai king permanent special rights," she said.

As this article went online, government spokespeople in Bangkok had not replied to Nikkei Asia questions concerning King Vajiralongkorn's activities in Germany.

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