Thousands of civil servants, police and teachers in Thailand are being sent to a military camp for intensive training in community service and loyalty to the monarchy, according to the royal palace and interviews with trainees and organizers.
The program, established last year, highlights the way in which Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 67, is asserting his will on the government and society to a greater extent than any sovereign since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, some experts have said.
Seven program graduates who participated in the “Volunteer Spirit 904” training told reporters that they woke at 5am for light group exercise, then lined up to practice military-style salutes before classes on the history of Thai kings and training for community service.
Illustration: Mountain People
At the end of the training program, which lasts from 15 days to six weeks, they are declared “Karatchakan Suan Pra-ong” (officials in his majesty’s service) and tasked with promoting the monarchy, with their efforts tracked through messaging apps, the graduates said.
The 904 courses are coordinated by Permanent Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister Theerapat Prayurasiddhi. The palace directed all questions to his office.
“The king has the royal policy to create unity among the people,” Theerapat said. “Then everything will lead to the people’s happiness and a secure nation.”
About 3,000 people have completed the courses in groups of 500 since March last year, he said, adding that the program is “strictly voluntary.”
The goal of the 904 program — named after the king’s security call sign — is to create a corps of influential people to “develop and defend the country, and create people who are loyal to the monarchy,” the palace Web site said.
Reverence for the monarchy has long been part of traditional Thai culture, but the king, a career military officer, is formalizing and organizing public devotion in a way that has not been seen since the end of absolute monarchy, Joshua Kurlantzick of US-based Council on Foreign Relations said.
“It builds on the past, but it’s much, much clearer with this king and much more assertive,” Kurlantzick said.
Few details have been made public about the program, which is linked to the palace-sponsored “Volunteer Spirit” community service corps of nearly 6 million volunteers.
The training is run by officials linked to the palace and military officers, according to the seven graduates, a lecturer and an organizer who spoke to reporters.
Live-in courses are held at the Bangkok headquarters of the First Infantry Regiment, which has been transferred to the king’s personal command.
“There must be discipline and there must be rules,” said Sumet Tantivejkul, 80, who teaches the courses about Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king’s widely revered father.
“Participants live together, eat together, sleep together... Old people stay with young people, so the young learn from the experience of the old and the old can also learn about the young,” Sumet said.
Program graduates said that along with training for community service, a main focus of the lessons is that the monarchy is an ultimate solution to Thailand’s problems at a time of political division, which broadly pits military-royalist conservatives against supporters of populist parties.
Over the past 15 years, street protests led by conservatives have led to the eventual removal of four populist prime ministers by court rulings or military action.
Tensions have spilled into violent protests by both camps over the past few years and two military coups — in 2006 and 2014. An election in March did not heal divisions.
The most recent coup leader, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, remains in office, despite allegations of cheating from opposition parties, who were in turn branded as disloyal to the monarchy by Prayuth’s pro-military party.
No Thai party says that it opposes the monarchy.
Sinchai Chaojaroenrat, an independent academic who has written books on Thai culture and religions, describes the 904 program as part of a “strategy in merging the monarchy with every government agency.”
Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since a 1932 coup, but the king has never been a mere figurehead. To some Thais, he is an infallible demigod.
Following the seven-decade reign of his father, Vajiralongkorn has asserted his personal authority in several ways, analysts observing his public actions have said.
In July 2017, the military-appointed Thai National Legislative Assembly amended a 1936 law to give the king full control of the Thai Crown Property Bureau, which manages the crown’s holdings estimated at more than US$30 billion.
They previously had been managed by the Thai Ministry of Finance.
The king last month took over direct command of two Bangkok-based army units, citing emergency provisions of the constitution.
Such changes have met little open criticism in a country where insulting the king can mean 15 years in jail.
Since they were first established, the 904 courses have been expanded from palace officials, soldiers, police and civil servants to include university lecturers and students.
Among those proud to be part of the program is Phunyawee Suwanleela, 38, who recently helped lead royal volunteers in cleaning up Bangkok’s iconic Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) — after first saluting a portrait of the king.
“We are trained to spread the word to make others more conscious, so they will love the country like we do,” said Phunyawee, who works in the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand’s equivalent of the FBI.
Graduates are divided into groups of 30 and they use instant messaging chat groups to share their progress in spreading the message, 34-year-old civil servant Nattaporn Rathasilapin said.
“Our group was given a target of 8,900 people to reach out to over several months,” Nattaporn said.
However, one man in his 40s from outside Bangkok, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, said that despite being a strong royalist, he found certain aspects of the program too manipulative.
Specifically, he said that he is now expected to spread the message to schoolchildren and to prove that they had been affected.
“There must be at least some photographs that show our audience teared up with gratitude,” he said. “We have to find someone who cried.”
Theerapat confirmed that the 904 graduates are encouraged to give public talks to share their knowledge.
“On the training activities, each group has to take photographs to report on what they have done,” he said. “But there is no specific goal to make people cry. Whoever might be inspired to tears, that is up to them.”
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