Pope Urges Respect For Prostitutes At Crowded Bangkok Mass

Pope Francis (C) leads a Holy Mass at the National Stadium in Bangkok on November 21, 2019. Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

 

Pope Francis led an impassioned mass for tens of thousands of emotional worshippers at a packed Bangkok stadium Thursday, urging respect for prostitutes and trafficking victims in a part of the world where sex work is rampant.

The remarks came at the end of a whirlwind day of meetings for Pope Francis, who is on his first trip to Buddhist-majority Thailand where he is carrying a message of religious harmony and peace.

He heads to Japan next, visiting the twin atomic bombs sites of Nagasaki and Hiroshima where he will seek a ban on “immoral” nuclear weapons.

The 82-year-old arrived at the stadium in a golden robe woven for him from Thai silk, greeting crowds of flag-waving faithful, some wiping tears from their faces at the sight of the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.

An estimated 60,000 worshippers gathered for the mass, some pouring into a nearby stadium to watch the hymn-filled service on large screens.

Known for his down-to-earth style, the Pope did not shy away from difficult topics.

He focused on the importance of helping vulnerable children and women “who are victims of prostitution and human trafficking, humiliated in their essential human dignity”.

He also referred to drug addicts, migrants and “exploited sinners and bypassed beggars”.

“All of them are part of our family. They are our mothers, our brothers and sisters. Let us not deprive our communities of seeing their faces, their wounds, their smiles and their lives,” said the Pope, after leading prayers.

The remarks were delivered in a region beloved by tourists but infamous for a thriving sex trade and unchecked human trafficking.

Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, home to at least 300,000 sex workers — some four percent of whom are believed to be trafficked, according to official estimates.

Many women are drawn to the work because they can earn up to 10 times more than the minimum wage, and critics say some corrupt Thai authorities turn a blind eye to the thriving trade.

Earlier, the Pope praised Thailand’s efforts to stamp out the “scourge” of exploitation and enslavement of women and children, urging a “dignified” future for vulnerable youth.

The Catholic Church has been shaken by child sex abuse scandals itself in recent years, with many high-profile cases brought against clergy.

– ‘Gift from God’ –
Thailand has not had a visit from a pontiff since John Paul II in 1984, and the small but spirited Catholic community was thrilled ahead of the mass.

Just over 0.5 percent of the population is Catholic but the community has been here for centuries.

For Pimrapat Panyawattanatikul, the service was her second shot at seeing a pope after John Paul II touched her head some 35 years ago.

Now she’s hoping her mother will get a similar honour, with the pair sitting right on the track Francis was set to drive past in his Popemobile.

“It’s a miracle we got these seats. It’s my mom’s dream to see the pope and to go to Italy. This is a gift from God,” Pimrapat told AFP, her mother next to her clutching a rosary.

The Pope’s colourful mass capped a packed schedule on the first full day of Thailand where he was welcomed Wednesday by cheering worshippers in Bangkok eager for a glimpse of his motorcade.

On Thursday Francis followed in the footsteps of John Paul II, paying a visit to the supreme Buddhist patriarch Somdej Phra Maha Muneewong at one of Bangkok’s famed gilded temples.

The pair sat before a brilliant gold Buddha statue inside the ornate temple, built 150 years ago by the former Thai King — the supreme patriarch barefoot and draped in orange robes as they spoke.

The Pope reciprocated the gesture, removing his shoes for part of the tete-a-tete.

In an earlier speech, the Pope said the meeting was “a sign of the importance and urgency of promoting friendship and inter-religious dialogue”.

– Nuclear ban –
This visit coincides with the 350th anniversary of the founding of the “Mission de Siam”, marking the first papal mission from Europe in the 17th century.

Though Christianity’s first visitors were initially met with scepticism, today Thailand’s nearly 400,000 Catholics face little discrimination.

The Pope also paid a visit to Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha and King Maha Vajiralongkorn, gifting the top royal a colourful mosaic of a papal blessing in Vatican City’s Saint Peter’s Square.

On Friday the pontiff will host another mass, this one for young people, and meet with religious leaders in the city.

He jets to Japan Saturday, where he will visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both devastated when the US dropped atomic bombs at the end of World War II in 1945.

The pope, who years ago had hoped to be a missionary in Japan, has made strong calls for a ban on nuclear weapons.

AFP

15 Killed In Suspected Rebel Attacks In Thailand

 

At least fifteen people were gunned down in an ambush by suspected Muslim militants in Thailand’s violence-wracked south, an army spokesman said on Wednesday, one of the bloodiest days in the 15-year insurgency.

Thailand’s three southernmost provinces have been in the grip of a conflict that has killed more than 7,000 people, as Malay-Muslim militants fight for more autonomy from the Thai state.

Despite the high death toll, the highly localised unrest garners few international headlines.

The region is heavily controlled by the police and the military, with residents and rights groups accusing them of heavy-handed tactics.

Villagers trained and armed by security forces are also enlisted to monitor remote villages, though they are rarely targeted by the rebels.

READ ALSO: Lufthansa To Scrap 1,300 Flights Over Two-Day German Strike

This changed late Tuesday when militants struck two checkpoints in Yala province manned by civilian defence volunteers, opening fire on them as a group of villagers stopped to talk, southern army spokesman Pramote Prom-in told AFP.

In the largest death toll in years, “twelve were killed at the scene, two more (died) at the hospital, and one died this morning”, said Pramote, adding that five others were injured.

The attackers took M-16 rifles and shotguns from the checkpoints, he said. “These acts were by militants.”

Nails were also scattered on the roads in an apparent effort to slow the security forces, the army said in a separate statement.

A bomb squad was dispatched Wednesday morning to investigate and detonate an explosive device suspected to have been left by fleeing attackers about three kilometres (1.9 miles) from one checkpoint.

The southern army commander told reporters that the attackers were targeting “weak points”.

“This is just to gain the headlines and scare Thai people nationwide,” said Pornsak Poonsawasdi.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha said the perpetrators must “be brought to justice”, according to Defence Ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantravanich.

– Tit-for-tat attacks –
Rebels seeking autonomy for the culturally distinct region bordering Malaysia have been fighting the Buddhist-majority Thai state, which colonised the area over a century ago.

The conflict is characterised by tit-for-tat attacks that usually target symbols of the Thai state and its security forces but civilians from both Muslim and Buddhist communities often get caught in the crossfire.

The violence has bled into tourist destinations, like in 2012 when a series of car bombs in Songkhla province’s Hat Yai killed 13 people.

The incidents have been fewer in recent years, but the hits have become “more intense”, said Don Pathan, an expert on the so-called Deep South.

Tuesday’s attack marked the largest coordinated effort “in a very long time”, he added.

It comes days after Bangkok hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which brought head of states from all over the world — along with hundreds of foreign journalists.

“It (the attack) is a reminder that they are still here,” Pathan said.

Civilian defence volunteers rarely draw the rebels’ ire “unless if they cross the line and become part of the government security apparatus”, he added.

The rebels accuse the state of railroading their distinct culture as well as carrying out routine abuses which go unpunished.

The latest incident stoking outrage in the region was the death in August of Abdulloh Esormusor, a Muslim man who was detained by the military and left in a coma after being interrogated at a notorious Thai detention centre.

Suspects are routinely taken for interrogation and held under emergency laws in detention centres where rights groups have documented torture.

Days after Abdulloh’s detention, four people were killed in a late-night attack on a military outpost, fuelling speculation of a retaliatory operation.

A week later, several small bombs exploded in Bangkok, injuring four people as the city hosted a major summit attended by top diplomats, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Thailand has linked the bombs to southern insurgents — though no group ever claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Six Elephants Drown After Slipping Off Waterfall In Thai Park

This photo by Thai News Pix taken on October 5, 2019 shows two elephants (one behind the other) trapped on a small cliff at a waterfall at Khao Yai National Park in central Thailand as rescuers work to save them.  PANUPONG CHANGCHAI / THAI NEWS PIX / AFP

 

Six wild elephants drowned after slipping off a waterfall in northeast Thailand, authorities said Saturday, with two others saved after they became stranded while apparently trying to rescue one of those that fell into the current.

Officials in the northeastern Khao Yai national park were alerted to elephants “crying” for help at 3am, the Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation said in a statement.

Hours later they found six bodies at the bottom of the gushing Haew Narok (“Hell’s Abyss”) waterfall.

Two of the elephants had apparently attempted to save one of those that fell, but they found themselves trapped on a thin, slippery sliver of rock above the churning waters.

Video showed another of the hulking animals struggling desperately to get back up to where the pair stood.

Park officials tossed food laced with nutritional supplements in an attempt to boost their energy and give them the strength to climb back up into the forest.

They later said the two had been rescued but were extremely distressed.

Parks department spokesperson Sompoch Maneerat said it was unclear what caused the accident.

“No one knows for sure the real cause of why they fell, but there was heavy rain there last night,” he told AFP.

The waterfall was closed to tourists as the rescue took place.

Elephants are Thailand’s national animal and live in the wild in parts of the country, but their numbers have dwindled to only a few thousand.

Deforestation has pushed the wild population into closer contact with humans in recent decades and away from their natural habitats.

AFP

13 People Killed In Thailand Road Accident

Thirteen people, most of them students, were killed when a pick-up truck flipped over while trying to change lanes on Sunday in the Thai capital, police said.

Graphic CCTV footage shows passengers riding in the back being hurled out of the vehicle onto the road in Bangkok’s suburbs.

“Twelve people died instantly and one later died at the hospital,” police officer Samran Chaytao told AFP, adding that nine of them were college-age students finished mechanical training for a local company.

A total of 18 people were in the truck, which was coming from an evening out with students and company officials celebrating the end of their training, Samran said.

Two of the five survivors had severe injuries.

Deadly accidents are common in Thailand, which regularly tops lists of the world’s most lethal roads, with speeding, drunk driving and weak law enforcement all contributing factors.

Though many of the victims are motorcyclists, bus crashes involving groups of tourists and migrant labourers often grab headlines.

In March last year at least 18 people were killed and dozens wounded when a bus carrying people returning from holiday in northeastern Thailand swerved off the road and smashed into a tree.

The World Health Organisation’s most recent data showed Thailand with 32.7 road deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 12.4 in the United States.

AFP

Thai PM Under Fire For Omitting Oath During Inauguration

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha speaks during a meeting in Bangkok on September 9, 2019. Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

 

Thai opposition MPs demanded Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha resign following weeks of uproar over the ex-junta head’s omission of a vow to uphold the constitution during his inauguration, raising questions of his legitimacy.

The mastermind of a 2014 coup, Prayut headed the junta regime for five years before a disputed March election tilted to the military formally ushered him in as a civilian premier.

But the new government has struggled to maintain a foothold as it is dogged by scandals — from a cabinet member being accused of serving time in jail for drug-dealing in Australia to Thais angered by a slow response to floods in the rice bowl northeast.

Questions over his administration’s legitimacy have also been raised after it was revealed Prayut and his cabinet had pledged loyalty to the king but failed to recite allegiance to the constitution when he was sworn in as civilian premier in July.

The Constitutional Court last week had declined to deliberate on his omission.

But in parliament Wednesday, opposition lawmakers called for his resignation, saying the incomplete oath showed his “ignorance of the constitution”, and questioned whether he can be trusted to uphold the rule of law.

It has “destroyed public confidence as well as his credibility”, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, secretary general of the youth-driven Future Forward Party, said.

“Prayut’s incomplete oath-taking makes the public doubt whether he will uphold and comply with the constitution,” he said.

The omission could also mean that the ex-junta chief “may have thought of staging another coup”, said Thai Liberal Party leader Sereepisuth Temeeyaves.

Prayut was present for part of the parliament session, held only for one day without a vote before MPs go for recess on Thursday.

Speaking briefly after listening to MPs hammer him for several hours, Prayut proclaimed “respect for all the principles in the constitution”.

Coups and street protests have plagued Thailand’s politics for almost two decades, with the putsch-happy army pressing the reset button on previous administrations.

But political divisions remain deep as Thais in the latest March election have shown a weariness towards a conservative arch-royalist elite, choosing instead to vote in MPs vowing to remove the military from politics.

AFP

Newly-Crowned Thai King Carried In Elaborate Royal Procession

This framegrab from Thai TV Pool taken on May 5, 2019 shows Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn being carried in a golden palanquin as he begins the coronation procession from the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Thai TV Pool / AFP

Thailand’s newly-crowned King Maha Vajiralongkorn was carried by soldiers on a gilded palanquin through the streets of Bangkok Sunday, in front of crowds who craned to witness the historic event.

The king, Rama X of the Chakri dynasty, wore a bejewelled robe and broad-brimmed hat with a feather on the second of three days of pageantry and royal splendour.

The 7-kilometre procession brings the public into close proximity with the 66-year-old monarch for the first time, two years after he ascended the throne in an increasingly assertive reign.

It started around 5pm (1000 GMT) at the grand palace in Bangkok’s old quarter as trumpets blared, soldiers shouted commands and cannons fired a 21-gun salute.

Thais wearing yellow shirts — the royal colour — and carrying hats and umbrellas to protect against temperatures reaching 36 degrees Celsius filled the streets outside with many clutching portraits of Vajiralongkorn and shouting “Long live the King!

“It may be my first and last chance to see this,” 57-year-old street Nattriya Siripattana told AFP ahead of the first ceremony of its kind in 69 years.

The three-day coronation, which started Saturday, is the first since Vajiralongkorn’s adored and revered father was crowned in 1950.

The highlight of Saturday’s sombre ceremonies was the King’s anointment with holy water, before he placed the 7.3 kilogram (16 lbs) golden tiered crown on his head.

Early Sunday, the king bestowed royal titles on family members who crawled to his throne in a striking show of deference to the monarch, who was joined by his new Queen Suthida.

The queen, 40, was deputy commander of the king’s royal guard before her marriage to Vajiralongkorn, which was announced days before the coronation.

During the procession, she marched in red and black uniform next to the palanquin.

Thailand’s monarchy is swaddled in ritual, protocol and hierarchy all orbiting around the king, who is viewed as a demigod.

During the hours-long procession Thais will have the opportunity to “pay homage” to the king who will also stop at several major temples to pray before large gilded Buddha images.

On the ground authorities sprayed mists of water over the crowds whose numbers were bolstered by droves of “Jit Arsa” — or “Spirit Volunteers” — intended to project a show of devotion and fealty to the monarchy.

But soaring temperatures threatened to thin out the numbers.

Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne in 2016 after the death of his father Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The elaborate coronation ceremonies have been broadcast on live television and include a network of the powerful and influential in Thailand.

Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who seized power in a 2014 coup, took part in many of the key rituals, including the procession.

The king and queen stayed the previous night in the royal residence, where a Siamese cat and a white rooster were placed on a pillow as part of housewarming rituals intended to bring good tidings.

One of the family members to receive royal titles was 14-year-old Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, who knelt and prostrated in front of his father as he was anointed with water.

The teenager is the king’s son from his third marriage. He has six other children, including four sons from two previous wives.

– ‘Focus on politics’ –

Criticism or in-depth discussion of the royal family in Thailand is guarded by harsh lese-majeste rules that carry up to 15 years in prison.

All media must self-censor and the country’s lively social media platforms have been subdued.

But the dazzling display of the primacy of the monarchy in Thai life belies a simmering political crisis held over from elections in March.

The junta that seized power in 2014 and has vowed to defend the monarchy is aiming to return to power through the ballot box.

Its proxy party has claimed the popular vote. But a coalition of anti-military parties says it has shored up a majority in the lower house.

Full results are not expected until May 9, a delay that has frustrated many Thais.

“When the event (coronation) is finished we will have to focus on politics,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University.

Since ascending the throne the king has taken several assertive moves, including bringing the assets of the Crown Property Bureau under his direct control.

Though the royal family is nominally above politics, the king issued an election-eve message calling on Thais to vote for “good people” against those who create “chaos”.

And in February, he scuttled the prime ministerial bid of his older sister Princess Ubolratana with an anti-junta party.

At Least Two Killed As Fire Guts Shopping Mall In Bangkok

 

At least two people were killed and nearly a dozen injured after a fire broke out at one of Bangkok’s busiest and most popular shopping malls Wednesday evening, officials said.

The blaze at Central World broke out at around 6pm, a spokesperson for the Erawan Medical Emergency centre told reporters.

“One (person) died at the scene” and another at a nearby hospital, the spokesperson said.

Footage circulating on social media showed smoke billowing from the structure.

Employees of the mall stood outside as sirens blared.

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“Fire fighters are working to control a fire at Central World,” police spokesperson Krissana Pattanacharoen said.

He later added that the fatality toll was “likely two to three” and that one person had leapt to their death.

The area around Central World is a shopping haven and was chock-full of tourists and rush-hour traffic.

A company representative told reporters the fire appears to have started on the 8th floor, but had been contained and the building evacuated.

The mall is owned by Central Group, which is controlled by one of the wealthiest families in the country.

AFP

Thai Ex-PM Thaksin Alleges Election Marred By Irregularities

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra being interviewed by Agence France-presse in Hong Kong.  ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP

 

Thailand’s election was marred by “irregularities” and “rigged” to ensure the military retain their political grip on the kingdom, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra told AFP in an interview on Monday.

“Everyone knows in Thailand, everyone international that observed the election in Thailand, knows that (there) is irregularities,” he told AFP in English. “What we call, we should call, rigged elections is there. It’s not good for Thailand.”

The 69-year-old tycoon was ousted in a 2006 coup and has since chosen self-exile in Dubai, but has remained a towering figure in Thailand’s decade-long treadmill of protests and coups.

READ ALSO: 18 Killed As Floods Ravage Iran Provinces

In the months running up to Sunday’s vote Thaksin had remained tight-lipped.

But he hit out during an interview with AFP in Hong Kong on Monday, accusing the junta of stacking the deck in its favour ahead of the vote and using dirty tricks at the ballot box.

“Any game, if the rule and the referee is not fair, the result will not be respected,” he said.

Asked whether he thought the vote was rigged he replied: “Definitely”.

When pushed for evidence he listed reports of suspiciously high ballots cast for the pro-military party in key provinces as well as the large number of votes that were invalidated by election officials.

“If you look at the number of ballots and the number of voter turnout, the ballots much more exceed the number of voter turnout in many, many provinces,” he said.

AFP

Man Arrested For Throwing Baby Into Sea

 

Thai police arrested a Jordanian man who confessed to murdering his one-year-old son by strapping the child into a stroller and pushing him into the Gulf of Thailand, the country’s immigration head said Tuesday.

The alleged infanticide occurred in the seaside town of Pattaya, where 52-year-old Wael Nabil Salman Zureikat was holidaying with his wife and one-year-old son.

His arrest follows the discovery of the toddler’s body on Monday by fishermen off Pattaya’s main pier.

“Last night, he confessed that he tied his son to the stroller and pushed it into the sea,” immigration head Lieutenant General Surachate Hakparn said at a press conference Tuesday.

The couple had checked into a guest house on March 6, and the boy was taken two days later by the father — who told his wife he was under the care of others.

His wife filed a complaint to the authorities, which led to the man’s arrest.

“The father said he could not raise the boy and did not want to have children,” Surachate said. “It is a heartbreaking story.”

The Jordanian will be charged under Section 289 of Thailand’s penal code for “intentional killing” of a child.

If found guilty, the maximum punishment is the death penalty.

AFP

Thai Election Commission Plans Dissolving Party Linked To Princess

Thai Princess To Run For PM In Parliamentary Elections
(FILES) This file picture taken on March 24, 2010 shows Thai Princess Ubolratana visiting the Thailand pavilion at the Hong Kong Entertainment Expo. Mike CLARKE / AFP

Thailand’s election commission on Wednesday asked the constitutional court to dissolve a political party that put forward a princess as a candidate for prime minister, days after the move earned a royal rebuke from her brother, the king. 

Thailand has been mired in political drama since Friday when Princess Ubolratana’s name was submitted by Thai Raksa Chart, a party allied with the powerful Shinawatra clan.

Ubolratana’s unprecedented bid to enter frontline politics unravelled within hours after King Maha Vajiralongkorn decried the entry of a royal into the political fray as “highly inappropriate”.

Thailand’s monarchy is seen as above politics, although royals have intervened in public during times of political crisis.

The princess was disqualified as a candidate by the Election Commission, which then filed a request with the constitutional court to have Thai Raksa Chart disbanded for bringing a royal family member into politics.

READ ALSO: Thai King Orders Party To Block Princess PM Candidacy

“That action is considered hostile to the constitutional monarchy,” it said.

The monarchy in Thailand is considered sacred and revered by its people, and is under the protection of draconian lese majeste laws. The king’s word is considered final.

The scuttling of her candidacy and potential moves to dissolve the Thai Raksa Chart party is a blow to the political machine of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The party was set to add to the vote bank of the bigger Shinawatra electoral vehicle, Pheu Thai, in an election where secondary parties are targeting seats via the party list system.

Parties overseen by Thaksin have won all elections since 2001.

Thaksin and his sister Yingluck — who was overthrown in the 2014 coup — live abroad to avoid convictions they say are politically motivated.

 ‘I’m sorry’ 

In an Instagram post late Tuesday the 67-year-old princess apologised for her role in the drama, which has sent jitters across the politically febrile country just weeks before elections.

“I’m sorry that my genuine intention to help work for the country and fellow Thai people has created a problem that shouldn’t happen in this era,” she wrote.

It was tagged with a hashtag: “#howcomeitsthewayitis”.

Ubolratana is the first-born of former king Bhumibol Adulyadej, but she gave up her royal titles when she married an American in 1972.

After her divorce, she moved back to Thailand where she is regarded by the Thai public as a part of the royal family.

While she said she was exercising her rights as a commoner to stand for premier, the palace statement last week said she is “still a member of the House of Chakri”, referring to the name of the dynasty.

Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who toppled Yingluck’s government, is running for prime minister in the March 24 poll.

Analysts say the blocking of the princess’s candidacy could benefit Prayut, who has portrayed himself as a defender of the monarchy.

Party executives from Thai Raksa Chart have expressed contrition after the upheaval but said they would challenge any attempt to disband it.

A media organisation affiliated with the Shinawatras was also in the crosshairs this week.

Voice TV, owned by Thaksin’s son Ponthongtae, was ordered Tuesday by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to go off-air for 15 days after two of its programs caused “confusion and provocation”.

AFP

Thai Princess Disqualified From PM Race

Thai Princess To Run For PM In Parliamentary Elections
(FILES) This file picture taken on March 24, 2010 shows Thai Princess Ubolratana visiting the Thailand pavilion at the Hong Kong Entertainment Expo. Mike CLARKE / AFP

 

Thai Princess Ubolratana was on Monday formally disqualified for running for prime minister, ending her brief and ill-fated political union with a party allied to the powerful Shinawatra clan, just days after a stern royal command rebuking her candidacy was issued by her brother, the king.

Uncertainty and conjecture have coursed through Thailand since Friday when the Thai Raksa Chart party made the explosive announcement of Princess Ubolratana, King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s elder sister, as their candidate for premier after the March 24 election.

Her tilt appeared to some to be a masterstroke of back-room dealings by Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire self-exiled ex-premier, just weeks before the poll.

But just hours later it fell apart.

READ ALSO: Thai King Orders Party To Block Princess PM Candidacy

A royal command from the king put a pin in her unprecedented political aspirations, insisting the monarchy was above politics and describing his sister’s candidacy as “highly inappropriate”.

Thailand’s incredibly wealthy and powerful monarchy is revered by Thais and protected by a draconian lese majeste law. The king’s word is seen as final.

On Monday the Election Commission formally scratched her candidacy.

“The EC today has announced the name of candidates excluding Princess Ubolratana proposed by the Thai Raksa Chart party,” it said in a statement, explaining “all royal family members are above politics.”

Despite its brevity, the princess’s foray into politics has electrified the political landscape of the country, as speculation over who wins and loses from her tilt ricochets across the kingdom.

 Coups and plots 

The chatter of an impending coup against the ruling junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha and a major change in army top brass has billowed out, with the hashtag #coup trending in the top 10 on Thai Twitter.

On Monday junta chief Prayut on Monday was forced to dismiss rumours of an impending coup as “fake news”.

“Rumours…? We’re investigating. Fake news,” he told reporters at Government House.

The gruff former general, masterminded a putsch against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, in 2014.

Meanwhile, a chastened Thai Raksa Chart, a key pillar in Thaksin’s election strategy, agreed to comply with the royal command.

It may face censure by election authorities that could ultimately see it dissolved, although it was not clear if any ban could be in place before the election takes place.

Thailand’s generals have a penchant for coups, backroom plotting and factional struggles.

They have grabbed power 12 times since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, including against existing juntas seen to have over-stepped their mark.

Prayut has agreed to stand for premier after the election and is aided by an army-scripted constitution.

But critics say he has personalised power and outstayed his welcome with a public wearied by his finger-jabbing style.

The king appointed a new army chief, Apirat Kongsompong, last year from a rival faction of the army to Prayut and his junta allies.

Recent days have seeded unease, with the first election in eight years now seemingly dependent on behind-the-scenes power plays by the elite.

Meanwhile, the fate of Thai Raksa Chart hangs in the balance.

The party, a second to the Thaksin political powerhouse Pheu Thai, was expected to help the Shinawatra machine secure a majority in the 350-seat lower house.

But it is under intense pressure following its bid to bring in the princess.

“I think the party leader and board should take a responsibility by resigning,” said Srisuwan Janya of the Association for the Protection of the Constitution, a royalist activist group, who submitted a petition to election authorities Monday calling for the party’s censure.

burs-apj/je

Gunmen Shoot, Kill Two Monks In Thailand’s Deep South

A Thai soldier with an assault rifle takes position outside the Rattanaupap temple in Narathiwat province on January 19, 2019, following an attack by black-clad gunmen that killed two Buddhist monks. Madaree TOHLALA / AFP

 

Gunmen in Thailand’s deep south shot dead two Buddhist monks and wounded two others inside a temple, police said Saturday, capping a week of deadly violence as the prime minister vowed to “punish” those responsible.

Black-clad assailants carrying rifles crept into Rattanaupap temple in Narathiwat province near Malaysia’s border on Friday evening and started firing, local superintendent Pakdi Preechachon told AFP.

“The attack took place around 7:30 pm (1230 GMT) when an unknown number of gunmen dressed in black entered the temple through a rear area via a creek,” Pakdi said.

“Two monks were shot dead at the temple while two others were wounded.”

Since 2004 clashes between ethnic Malay-Muslim rebels and the Buddhist-majority Thai state that annexed the region a century ago have killed nearly 7,000 people, mostly civilians of both faiths.

The death toll in the south dropped to a record low last year as Thailand’s junta tightened its security web but violence has boiled over in recent days, raising concerns about soft targets at schools and religious institutions.

In the past, Buddhist monks have been targeted only infrequently.

But they have been told to suspend morning alms collection starting from Saturday in three southern provinces and the southern army commander has instructed security officials to step up safeguards of Islamic leaders who could also be at risk.

Junta leader and prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha condemned the temple shootings.

“The prime minister denounced such a brazen attack and instructed officials to investigate and find the assailants to punish them,” said government spokesman Buddhipongse Punnakanta.

Human Rights Watch, which said in a statement that at least 23 monks had been killed since the outbreak of the insurgency in 2004, called the assault “ghastly” and a war crime because gunmen went after civilians and a place of worship.

The Sheikhul Islam Office, a national representative of Muslim communities in Thailand, denounced the violence against the monks and expressed sorrow over the incident.

“There are no religions that teach people to kill innocent people, it’s the work of some group of people who want to create divisiveness,” it said in a statement Saturday.

Pictures taken in the aftermath show monks standing next to heavily armed Thai soldiers and an alms bowl inside the temple compound with bullet holes in it.

No one has claimed responsibility, but that is not unusual for the conflict.

Last week, an imam in the same province was shot dead but it was unclear if the temple attack was related.

Friday’s shooting came the same day as four security officials were wounded by two separate roadside bombs and an insurgent was shot dead in a clash near a school that sent students home for the day.

Four civil defence volunteers were also killed in a drive-by shooting outside a school on January 10 in the south’s Pattani province, with security forces injuring a boy as they gunned down rebels believed to be responsible.

In a rare public statement dated January 4 the main Malay-Muslim rebel group — the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) — which has command and control over most of the insurgent foot soldiers, swore to “keep fighting”.

“Siam (Thailand) can’t hold out,” the BRN wrote, signing off with a warning: “Do not help and support Siam.”

Security analyst Don Pathan said the uptick in violence was connected to efforts from Thai negotiators and Malaysian facilitators across the border to “pressure the BRN ruling council to come to the table without offering possible concessions.”