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Thai Palace Officials Ousted Following Demotion Of Royal Consort

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Thailand. We're following a royal scandal that really seems more appropriate for a TV mini-series than real life. King Vajiralongkorn brought back an old tradition and appointed a royal consort for himself - a woman - in the palace in addition to the queen. And then just months later, he stripped her of her title, calling her too ambitious and disloyal. I'll let Cornell University professor Tamara Loos take it from here. She focuses on Southeast Asia.

TAMARA LOOS: The king's consort was a woman named Sineenat, and she had been appointed the first royal noble consort since the 1920s.

GREENE: And in theory, also in a relationship with the king? Is that what we assume?

LOOS: Of course. Yes.

GREENE: You're a history professor. Having a consort and then stripping her of her duties for misbehaving - I mean, this sounds like the kind of stuff that belongs in history.

LOOS: It's a stunning moment in Thai history. I will say that. One of the things I find very interesting about his appointment of her and then less than two months later - about two months later - his demotion of her is just how public that appointment and demotion was. Kind of is making a statement about not just supporting an outdated form of marriage, but he's supporting one that values inequality and hierarchy. Those are values that don't align with the notions of human rights and democracy.

GREENE: What does this say about this king's rule?

LOOS: That Thailand's in danger of reverting to an absolute monarchy. King Vajiralongkorn is systematically arrogating power exclusively to himself. And one of the first things that he did soon after he officially ascended the throne is he took control over the Crown Property Bureau. And that was worth about $30 billion and has made him one of the richest royals in the world.

GREENE: But Thailand, we should say, is a constitutional monarchy, right? I mean, there are lawmakers who are elected by the people. Do they not have any control here to rein in this king?

LOOS: It has a Senate and House representatives. But the Senate is completely appointed by the military. And the House is subject to elections by popular vote. But in an environment in which you have strictly enforced lese majeste laws, where criticism of the king - and by extension, anyone associated with him, including the military - makes it very difficult for people to exercise a kind of free vote.

GREENE: Lese majeste. That sounds like a term we should understand.

LOOS: Lese majeste is a set of laws that are very strictly enforced in Thailand. Basically, they forbid anyone criticizing the royal family.

GREENE: What has been the response from people in Thailand as they've watched this play out so publicly?

LOOS: Impossible to tell. The degree of surveillance of media, including social media, is very high. This is not the kind of question that you can just simply email and ask your friends about in Thailand because they all feel like they're being watched.

GREENE: Is this part of a trend we're seeing elsewhere in the world? Or is this very focused on one country here, Thailand?

LOOS: In a way, you might want to think about King Vajiralongkorn as part of a kind of authoritarian trend that we see. We have Putin in Russia, Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Trump in the United States. But one thing that's a little bit different about him is that he's not a populist. I mean, he's not particularly popular. And one might make that argument about Duterte and others.

GREENE: Professor, thank you so much.

LOOS: Thank you.

GREENE: Tamara Loos is the chair of the history department at Cornell University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.