Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn is facing fresh controversy in Germany as local investigators are reportedly looking into whether he has paid the correct property and inheritance taxes in Bavaria, where the Southeast Asian monarch spends much of his time.
King Vajiralongkorn, a controversial figure at home in Thailand, came under attack from Berlin in October 2020 when Germany's then-Foreign Minister Heiko Maas publicly warned the king that "politics concerning Thailand is not to be done from German soil." He added that Germany "would always oppose having guests in our country who run their state affairs from here."
Afterwards, the German government said it was satisfied by assurances that King Vajiralongkorn was not conducting official Thai business in Germany, and tempers were somewhat calmed as the monarch stayed away from Germany throughout much of 2021. But attention to the king's activity has been back on the table ever since was spotted in Germany last November.
Interest renewed after return to Germany
"It is simply naive for the German government to assume that King Vajiralongkorn, who spends much of the year in Germany, is not conducting political affairs from here," said Sevim Dagdelen, member of the Left Party and part of the German parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock must declare the Thai king a persona non grata if she wants to prevent him from continuing to order massive human rights violations in Thailand while in Germany," she told DW.
The Thai king owns a purported €10 million ($11.3 million) home in the lakeside town of Tutzing, and spends much of his time at the glitzy Sonnenbichl Hotel in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. His extended absences have been a source of much controversy back home.
In early 2020, mass pro-democracy protests against the country's government, composed of the military generals who took power in a 2014 coup, erupted in the capital Bangkok. Even through criticising the monarchy is punishable by decades in jail, demonstrators began to also call for reforms to the monarchy, breaking a very-old taboo.
Hundreds of people were arrested and Thailand's constitutional court said the protestors were attempting to overthrow the monarchy, whereas most were simply demanding limits on it.
Unlike his father — the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned from 1946 until his death in 2016 — Vajiralongkorn cuts a controversial figure. Since taking the throne, he has assumed greater powers for the monarchy, been far more engaged in politics, and has struggled to connect with ordinary Thais.
Photos of him scantily-clad have spread on social media, and some of the photos were taken of him while in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
'Things are pretty much the same'
"Thais are frustrated but the king doesn't care. Things are pretty much the same now as before the protests," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
"He simply rather stays in Germany; that's his personal liking," Pavin explained. "He can still travel as much as he wishes, and he has been in and out of Germany. Sometimes, he has just done a one-day visit to Bangkok and then returned to Germany."
King Vajiralongkorn was spotted back in Germany last November after a 13-month stint away from the country following the warning by the German foreign ministry. And yet, there are fresh controversies around the Thai monarch. "The German media has continued to hunt him down, reporting regularly on his activities in Germany," said Pavin.
Just this week, German media outlets reported on King Vajiralongkorn purchasing a new luxury $375 million (€332 million) aircraft, and Germany will reportedly be the destination for the maiden flight. Late last year, German tabloid Bild speculated that the king has sent many of his most prized and valuable possessions to Germany for safekeeping.
German Foreign Minister Baerbock, who took office last December, has echoed her predecessor by stating that Berlin expected the monarch not to conduct affairs relating to Thailand while in Germany.
'No decisions will be made on German soil'
"We have clearly communicated our position to the government of Thailand," an official source in the German foreign ministry told DW. "We assume that no decisions will be made on German soil by their representatives that contradict the German legal system, international law, or internationally guaranteed human rights."
"The Thai government has assured us that it will accept this requirement and act accordingly," they added.
However, another source in the German foreign ministry, who requested anonymity, said they are continually assessing the situation and could alter their stance if any new information was to come to light. Pressure from politicians and civil-society actors in Germany for a change of government policy continues.
Junya Yimprasert, a European-based Thai activist who runs the organization Act4Dem, has been campaigning for years for the Berlin government to get tough on King Vajiralongkorn. During the protests in Bangkok in 2020, Junya and her organization projected slogans critical of him across buildings in Germany, including the country's parliament and the Sonnenbichl Hotel.
"We would be grateful if the German government removed the immunity of the Thai King and opened the pathway for criminal procedure under the German law to proceed," she said.
It is believed that local investigators are now looking into the monarch's tax affairs on his second-home in Tutzing, which he reportedly purchased for €10 million several years ago. There are also questions over whether he should have paid inheritance tax in Germany following the death of his father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
King Vajiralongkorn reportedly received an estimated $10.6 billion in inheritance from his father. Under German law, inheritance tax is 30%, meaning the king could owe the German state nearly $3 billion.
The Bavarian state tax office refused to comment due to tax privacy laws.
"It is a scandal that a multi-billionaire apparently does not pay inheritance tax in Bavaria, although immunity under international law does not provide for any exemption from this," Dagdelen said. "The king's privileged treatment must end."
Edited by: Leah Carter