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State control in Thailand intensifies under new King

Royal Central reported early last month that Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society had banned people from contacting three critics of the new King and government. Since then, CNBC has reported that state control in the country has strengthened, leading Thailand toward becoming a dictatorship rather than a democracy with the monarch having more power than ever before.

Thailand has been under military rule since a coup in 2014; the Prime Minister manages all government affairs. However, the presence of the monarchy is heavily felt. Every home and public establishment have at least one image of the King on its walls.

The country’s lèse-majesté laws state that any person who makes a “perceived insult or defamation of the monarchy” can receive a 15-year prison sentence. If a person criticises the military rule? They could be charged with sedition and be sent to jail for seven years.

The three banned individuals in question are journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul and academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun. All fled Thailand to continue their critique of the government without fear of arrest or imprisonment. The letter issued by the department stated that any Thai citizen who contacts, follows, or shares social media content from them will be breaking the Computer Crime Act.

Despite this warning, all three men, who are well-respected internationally, have received a spike in their social media following, but they do worry for the safety of their families still living in Thailand.

As they should, it seems. Christian Lewis, Asia associate at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, told CNBC: “The recent ban is even more heavy-handed than usual and reflects discomfort with criticism of the monarch.” Other experts agree that the public targeting of the three men is “unusually aggressive,” because in their combined writings they criticise Thailand’s Privy Council which handles and oversees key military and judiciary appointments. This hand-picked advisory body strictly looks after royal interests. The three also oppose the lack of transparency of the wealth of the Thai Royal Family.

The King has sole control over the Crown Property Bureau, the body that handles the family’s investments, which according to media reports range from $37-$53 billion.

Many in the international community believe that King Maha Vajiralongkorn (or King Rama X) is responsible for bringing down the iron fist on the three men. Before signing the new constitution into law on 6 April, the monarch made many changes that gives him “enhanced power.” Mainly, led arbiter in times of political unrest and disputes, which Thailand is no stranger to.

“The new reality in Thailand is a move toward enhanced state absolutism, likely reflecting the preferences of the new sovereign, as implemented by the junta,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University in the Thai province of Phitsanulok to CNBC.

Marshall, who is from the UK, told CNBC of the new King’s alleged actions: “The real danger is from the new King, much more than the junta. Attempts to control information are now the most oppressive and extreme they have ever been in Thailand.”

“The situation does not help when [King Rama X] himself wishes to play politics. His eagerness only boosts the confidence of the military in its crackdown on critics,” echoed Chachavalpongpun.

Another move causing significant concern within the international community, and in particular with Human Rights Watch, is the removal of a commemorative plaque that marked the beginning of democracy in the country in 1932; this signals to many that Thailand is heading toward becoming a dictatorship. The square in Central Bangkok now has a plaque stressing the importance of the monarchy.

Though general elections in Thailand have been pushed back to late 2018, it remains uncertain whether they will bring about much, if any change. The domestic economy, which has been likened to ‘Teflon’ might also take a tumble if the situation in the Asian country continues to turn.

“Because of the content in the new constitution, we will not have a truly democratic government. The new government, if civilian, will be weak and vulnerable, allowing itself to be dominated by the old establishment,” said Chachavalpongpun to CNBC.