Whispers from the Throne

In Thailand's restive politics, it's the royals who have the power to soothe the country -- or destabilize it.

BANGKOK, Thailand — On Sunday, Feb. 2, Thais will vote in a snap general election, the fifth in nine years, after three months of increasingly violent anti-government protests. The opposition Democrat Party, popular among the elite and in the south, has boycotted the election, all but guaranteeing victory for the incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party, who are confident of their support in Thailand's populous and impoverished north.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a 64-year-old rubber tycoon and former Democrat MP, said he won't end rallies until Thailand is rid of the influence of Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a popular-yet-polarizing billionaire and former prime minister. Thaksin has lived in self-exile in Dubai since 2008 when he was convicted on corruption charges. Protests began in the fall after Yingluck proposed a bill that would have offered amnesty for Thaksin, who many see as ruling the country via his sister.

"What we ask for is reform before elections," says Ekanat Prompan, a protest leader and son-in-law of Suthep. "The reforms are really aimed to prevent ... families like the Shinawatras abusing the system so they can't come back to haunt Thailand again." The Democrats say they want voting suspended for at least a year to end alleged vote-buying and corruption. But efforts to block candidate registrations and advance voting have only escalated tensions with Shinawatra supporters, known as "Red Shirts," who say they are being denied the chance to vote. But while tensions rise on the streets of the capital, the views of the royal family -- which will eventually decide which side will govern Thailand -- remain unspoken.

The family is helmed by the beloved-but-ailing 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest reigning monarch, who on Sunday will preside over the 21st general election of his 67 years on the throne. But his influence appears to be waning: After spending four years in a hospital with a lung infection, his public appearances have become increasingly rare. And his 81-year-old wife, Queen Sirikit, has not been seen in public at all since suffering a stroke in July 2012.

With the king and queen fading from view, there are increasing signs of a vacuum at the top of Thailand's power structure, with control increasingly exercised by people and organizations orbiting the throne. "Now you've got a network monarchy without an active monarch," said Andrew M. Marshall, a journalist who has written extensively on Thailand. According to the country's succession laws, 61-year-old Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, a jet-setting father of seven children (borne of three different women), is first in line to the throne. Although the widely-disliked Vajiralongkorn is still believed to be the king's preference, rumors have escalated that the third child, Crown Princess Sirindhorn -- who many Thais affectionately refer to as "Phrap Thep" or "princess angel" -- is a serious contender.

The succession issue is crucial to Thailand's future. But few dare discuss it openly. Strict lèse majesté laws muzzle the media and prohibit detailed discussion of the monarchy, increasing doubt about who will succeed Bhumibol. Known as Article 112, Thailand's lèse majesté law states that "no person shall expose the king to any sort of accusation or action" -- in other words, commenting on the monarchy can be punished with up to 15 years in prison. Although the king admitted in a 2005 birthday speech that even he "can do wrong," a gentle acknowledgment that seemed to open the door to more dialogue, the use of lèse majesté has risen sharply -- from about five cases that year to more than 400 in 2010. Cases can drag on for years; many are deterred from writing or discussing the monarchy at all.

Yet criticism of the Thai monarchy is growing, and social media discussion of the monarchy and its involvement in politics is in some cases surprisingly matter-of-fact. This is partly due to wider Internet access, but also because of the increasingly bitter nature of the conflict, says David Streckfuss, a scholar at Khon Kaen University in northeast Thailand and a leading researcher on lèse majesté. Traditionally, the royal family has strained to show neutrality when it comes to Thai politics, at least publicly. Yet, the youngest of the king's four children, the 56-year-old Princess Chulabhorn, has appeared on Instagram with her dogs dressed in the Thai tricolor, an enduring symbol of Suthep's protest movement, prompting extensive comment on Facebook and Twitter. And while Sirindhorn is keeping quiet, it's clear she's on the same side as her younger sister, Marshall said. The prince, on the other hand, is linked to Thaksin, according to a source close to the exiled former prime minister, who asked to speak anonymously, and in U.S. cables released by Wikileaks.  (Representatives of the royal family could not be reached for comment.)

So far, Bhumibol has not publicly taken sides, calling only for calm in two rare recent speeches since the protests began: one on his 86th birthday on Dec. 5, and another on New Year's Day. "Our nation has always been in peace for a very long time because there is unity in our nation. Each of us performs our duties in a harmonious manner for the sake of our country," the king said in a halting voice during a televised birthday address from the royal family's seaside palace in Hua Hin.

The Privy Council, an influential 18-member body of royal advisors led by 94-year-old former general Prem Tinsulanonda, remains staunchly loyal to King Bhumibol, and opposed to Thaksin. (On Jan. 1, Yingluck met Prem and discussed Thailand's political crisis for one hour but no details have emerged.) The commander of the army, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has declared his neutrality in the conflict, amid persistent rumors of him planning a military coup. But he is definitely anti-Thaksin, said Paul Chambers, a specialist on Thailand's military at Chiang Mai University. "And he would lead a coup against Yingluck" should those in the palace network "give him a green light," he said.

Since the abolishment of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has witnessed at least 18 military coups. There's a long-standing tension in Thailand between two sources of legitimacy: the elected government, and the army and the palace, said Matthew Wheeler, International Crisis Group's Bangkok-based analyst, adding that there is now "a real risk of a serious violent conflict in Thailand." So far, at least 11 people have been killed, most of them anti-government protesters, including a man shot dead on Jan. 28 in Bangkok, who may have been tortured. On Jan. 26, a protest leader was also shot dead while giving a speech in the capital; police investigations of the murders are ongoing. Both sides have warned of more violence on polling day. But whatever may play out on the streets, the real battle for power seems to be behind palace walls.




A deadly surge of revenge violence has seized the Central African Republic -- and peacekeepers seem powerless to stop it. 

BANGUI, Central African Republic — The death records at the Bangui morgue read like a chapter out of Dante's Inferno, page after page of people killed by machetes, torture, lynching, shooting, explosions, and burning. The overwhelming stench of the dead makes it impossible to remain for long. On really bad days, the records of names and causes of death just stop; only the number of dead is documented before the bodies are buried in mass graves.

The morgue only hints at the deadly toll of communal violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) that has raged for months, claiming an unknown number of lives*, and displacing masses of people. Recently, the Seleka, a predominately Muslim group of fighters that seized Bangui, the capital, and toppled the CAR's government in early 2013, has lost strength and some ground, though the group continues to terrorize wherever possible. In response, Christian forces known as anti-balaka ("machete" in Sango, the local language) have stepped up attacks against Muslim civilians in places where the Seleka fighters no longer hold the sway they did just a few months ago.

[Editor's Note: See Marcus Bleasdale's photos of the brutal violence in CAR in his FP photo essay, "Bangui's Inferno"]

In hopes of quelling the situation, international peacekeeping forces are now in the country. A new president, Catherine Samba-Panza -- a former mayor of Bangui, nicknamed "Madame Courage" -- was also installed in mid-January, in what must be one of the most unwanted jobs on Earth. But the violence continues unabated. On Jan. 29, two Muslim men were hacked to death and their bodies brutally mutilated near Bangui's international airport as onlookers cheered and filmed the scene.

The story of Boyali, a small town roughly 200 miles northwest of the capital, illustrates the horrific developments in the CAR. On Jan. 14, Fatimatu Yamsa, a Muslim woman, was in a truck that was stopped by Christian militia members at a checkpoint in Boyali. Knowing she was about to die, she handed her 7-month-old baby to a Christian woman next to her. The baby was saved, but Yamsa was killed with machetes along with two other Muslim women and their four children on the steps of a mosque. When I visited the mosque, dried pools of blood outside marked where they had died.

This massacre was just the latest chapter in a series of awful tit-for-tat violence in Boyali. A few days prior, hundreds of anti-balaka had captured Boyali from the Seleka and began to slaughter the town's Muslim residents. When I arrived in the town not long after, Red Cross volunteers were burying bodies and filling in wells where corpses had been dumped, leaving the water unusable for drinking.

In a camp for displaced Muslims on the outskirts of Bangui, I found Dairu Soba, 25, with a festering gunshot wound to his knee. He told me he had been shot when a few hundred anti-balaka fighters had attacked Boyali on the morning of Jan. 8. Dairu's older brother, Dibrila, had saved him by dragging him into a house. As Dairu watched, Dibrila, along with his father and uncle, were hacked to death outside. Thirty-four Muslims were killed that day, including the village chief.

The same day, Seleka fighters returned to Boyali to retaliate and wreak havoc on the Christian population. Some victims were executed on the spot; others were shot while fleeing. The Seleka captured the Protestant pastor of the village, Gabriel Yambassa, and cut his throat. The Seleka burned 961 homes in the town.

At one burned house, surviving residents said, Seleka fighters had found Claudine Serefei, 28, a pregnant, physically disabled woman unable to flee. They had tied her hands and feet and thrown her into a fire. Now she lay before us, her hands burned to stumps, and she was shivering from pain.

The massacres in Boyali are indicative of the Seleka's waning power; the group is on the defensive more than ever before, its attacks increasingly ones of terrible retaliation. The tide began to turn against the Seleka in September, when anti-balaka started attacking poorly protected Seleka positions in smaller trading towns in the CAR's northeast, indiscriminately killing Muslim residents. The French intervened in early December, just as the country descended into even greater bloodshed, with up to 1,000 killed in Bangui over the course of just a few days. One month later, the Seleka's self-appointed president, Michel Djotodia, was forced from power by regional and international powers.

Djotodia fled to exile in Benin, and once-strutting Seleka generals now fear for their lives; they want to escape unscathed, while also avoiding justice for their crimes. In some cases, they are rushing into exile, some reportedly with the help of African peacekeepers. As one Seleka official told me, "Now, it is every officer for himself. We are all trying to find our own way out of here."

* * *

Meanwhile, Muslim communities are left behind to face the wrath of the anti-balaka, and the anger of some Christian civilians. Since December, in particular, in community after community, Muslim men, women, and children have been mercilessly killed. In an interview, Col. Dieudonné Oranti, one of the founders of the anti-balaka movement, claimed his men don't kill civilians. He then launched into a long tirade against Muslims, saying that they had betrayed their country and sold it to terrorists, so they no longer belonged in its borders.

In Bangui, entire Muslim neighborhoods face threats to their existence. On Jan. 28, residents fled or were chased out of the PK13 neighborhood by hundreds of anti-balaka fighters. Homes were systematically looted and dismantled. The main mosque was destroyed by a crowd of machete-wielding fighters, declaring things like, "We do not want any more Muslims in our country. We will finish them all off. This country belongs to the Christians."

In another Muslim neighborhood, PK12, many residents who have survived massacres are preparing for the long, hazardous journey to refuge; their destination is Chad -- hundreds of miles to the north. For those who have chosen to stay, tensions are at a boiling point. After a Muslim man was recently lynched, anti-balaka fighters opened fire on his funeral with automatic weapons. French troops arrived, belatedly, and the mass of enraged Muslims then began protesting against them. One of the Muslims was killed by the French soldiers; another was wounded. Then the anger turned on those of us documenting the scene. A menacing crowd shouted that it was whites who had done the killing and it was time for us to leave. As we made our way out, a Christian worker ran for his life past us, chased by a Muslim mob.

The arrival of French forces in late 2013 was initially met with optimism. They joined African troops already on the ground, some of whom view what is happening in the Central African Republic as deeply personal. A commander of Rwandan troops representing the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force told me recently, "What we see here reminds us of what we experienced in Rwanda in 1994, and we are absolutely determined not to let 1994 happen again."

Yet the wave of anti-Muslim violence unleashed by the anti-balaka -- and the Seleka's responses -- has proved difficult to contain. Simply put, the underequipped AU troops and the 1,600 French troops are insufficient in number to halt the bloodshed. Only a U.N. peacekeeping mission with some 6,000 to 10,000 soldiers would have a chance to stop the killings and stabilize the country. Such a mission would also bring police to patrol the streets, human rights monitors to report on the situation, and a political component that could help re-establish order. But whether that will come soon, or at all, is unclear.

* * *

Pastor Koudougeret, a Baptist church leader, is now looking after the orphaned baby of Yamsa, the woman killed at a mosque in Boyali. He vigorously shook his head when I asked him whether there was a religious war unfolding in the country. "The ultimate cause of our instability is not religious but political, because whoever comes to power makes his entourage commit abuses to stay in power," he said, "They treat the country as their private money-making business. We need a real democracy with politicians who have a vision to look after the needs of everyone."

In the face of devastation, there are small signs of hope. For some in the majority-Christian population, the decline of the Seleka has meant a winding down of the terror that forced them to flee their homes in 2013. Villages that were completely abandoned in December are slowly returning to life. Destroyed homes are being rebuilt.

Unexpected bonds are also being formed, with people showing courage amid the carnage. Father Xavier-Arnauld Fagba brought more than 700 Muslims who were under attack to safety at his Catholic Church in mid-January. He held Sunday Mass, surrounded by the belongings of Muslims, including Qurans he had brought inside for safekeeping. He led his followers outside to extend handshakes of peace with their Muslim neighbors.

"We cannot be silent and cower in the face of injustice, but must have courage," he preached. "To be a Christian is not just about being baptized, and true Christians live a life of love and reconciliation, not bloodshed."

*Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect the difficulty of reporting accurate casualty figures in the CAR.

Photo: Marcus Bleasdale/VII