BANGKOK – Thailand commemorated on Monday the first anniversary of the crowning of King Maha Vajiralongkorn with muted celebrations due to restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, the government had announced the cancellation of all royal ceremonies scheduled in May due to the state of emergency – including a night curfew and closure of businesses – imposed to contain the disease, which has caused 53 deaths and infected nearly 3,000 people in the country so far.
The 67-year-old monarch, who spends a lot of his time in Germany, has made few public appearances in recent months.
The Thai constitution was amended in 2017 to do away with the need for appointing a regent when the King is abroad.
On Friday, the Royal Household released a series of undated photographs of Vajiralongkorn and his wife Suthida to mark their first wedding anniversary, with the Royal couple seen in sports clothing inspecting a factory producing masks.
The King and the Queen had briefly visited Thailand from Germany on April 6 to celebrate the anniversary of Vajiralongkorn’s Chakri dynasty – established in 1782 – and presided over ceremonies to pay tribute to his father, late King Bhumibol, who died four years ago.
The King’s absence in the times of crisis has led to unprecedented criticism in a country where the monarchy continues to play a major role and which has one of the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world, with sentences of up to 15 years in prison for criticizing the monarch.
In late March, thousands of Thai users flooded Twitter with the hashtag “#WhyDoWeNeedaKing,” many of them accusing Vajiralongkorn of not caring about those affected by the coronavirus, which has crippled the Thai economy.
The current monarch ascended to the throne in late 2016 – although he was formally crowned in 2019 – upon the death of his father, but has been unable to match the popularity of Bhumibol, who ruled for seven decades and attained an almost semi-divine status among his subjects.
Unlike his father, who was devoted to Queen Sirikit until her death, Vajiralongkorn has married four times and has seven children from these unions.
Moreover, he took the population by surprise by naming a former military hospital nurse as the “noble royal consort” (“Chao Khun Phra”), in July 2019 barely three months after he had married Suthida, 41, also without prior notice just before his coronation.
In a dramatic series of events that further tarnished the Royal Household’s image, in October, the consort, Niramon Ounprom, was ousted from the palace and stripped of her titles for allegedly conspiring to become the Queen.
Nirmaon has disappeared from public view after the Royal purge, which also extended to 10 other palace officials.
The King, who is officially considered “above politics,” has consolidated power, strengthening his influence over the military, one of the most powerful institutions in a country which has seen 13 military coups, the latest in 2014, and nine failed coup attempts since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932.
Since ascending to the throne, Vaijralongkorn has assumed control of five state agencies in charge of security and royal affairs, earlier under the purview of the prime minister’s office, the defense ministry and police.
Moreover, the chief of the armed forces appointed in 2018, Apirat Kongsompong, belongs to the King’s Guard, the military wing considered closest to the monarch.
In July 2018, a parliament virtually handpicked by the military junta which ruled Thailand between 2014-2019 handed over the control of the Crown Property Bureau to Vajiralongkorn.
The bureau is in charge of managing royal wealth worth at least $35 billion and was controlled by the finance ministry until then.