When Thailand recorded its first case of coronavirus, the King was nowhere to be seen in his kingdom.
As cases escalated in April and May, King Vajiralongkorn – along with an entourage of about 100 staff – was in a hotel in Germany’s Bavarian Alps that was closed to the public.
This is another bad look for a ruler who has long been criticized for the significant time he has spent in Germany.
This is one of many triggering factors youth-led protests against the Thai ruling class in recent months, with demonstrators calling for broad social and political reform.
Demands include constitutional changes, greater transparency of royal finances and power, and the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former military general who rose to power following the country’s 2014 coup.
The German government has also been embroiled in the fray, with Thai protesters pressuring Berlin to investigate whether the king has violated German law.
But since October, the king and his entourage have returned to Thailand, a move widely believed to be a response to protests and to shore up support among loyalists.
So how did King Vajiralongkorn’s relationship with Germany begin? And what about the view from inside Germany?
Why did the King spend so much time in Germany?
No one knows for sure.
He spent most of his childhood in England attending school and was eventually sent to Australia’s Royal Military College, Duntroon, where he graduated with an arts degree as a corporal.
After that, the Crown Prince developed a reputation as a hedonistic jet-setter, in contrast to his father’s hardworking and polite style.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai foreign policy scholar at Kyoto University, told the ABC much of what has been said about the life of the German king, who he says began in 2007, is in rumor.
But he said that from the rumors, three main themes kept coming back: health, hedonism and escape.
Dr Chachavalpongpun said one speculation was that King Vajiralongkorn had to be in Germany because of health complications.
Another reason is allegedly related to its hedonistic reputation, which he said could be shrouded in Germany due to perceptions of the country’s “calmer” media landscape.
However, Dr Chachavalpong notes that this is not the case in practice, given that he is a figure of interest to the German tabloids.
Meanwhile, King Vajiralongkorn’s desire to pilot the plane was also cited as the reason for Germany’s life, as Dr Chachavalpong said there were fewer obstacles for him to fly.
Since coming to power, the King has continued to spend most of his year in the region, usually in a lakeside villa in Tutzing – a city that has long been a playground for the rich, about an hour’s drive south of Munich.
The King’s 15-year-old son, Dipangkorn Rasmijoti – who is also the Crown Prince of Thailand – is also studying at the Bavarian international school.
Who ran Thailand when King was in Germany?
When he took the throne in 2017, the King made constitutional changes that outlined what Thai sovereignty can and cannot do.
This includes removing the old provisions relating to district head elections, which are terms that describe someone who rules on behalf of sovereignty if they are abroad or are powerless.
Under the previous Thai constitution, the former King Bhumipol appointed a regent whenever he and the Queen paid a state visit, which was conducted in consultation with the Thai Advisory Council, which is the kingdom’s powerful advisory body.
Then, the regent is usually another member of the royal family, such as the Princess’s mother, or the president of the Advisory Council.
But since King Vajiralongkorn’s ascension to the throne, the powers of the Advisory Council have declined, while the King has instead made concerted efforts to increase military power.
Shortly after his coronation, for example, the King took direct command of two infantry regiments based in Bangkok.
Paul Chambers, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for ASEAN Community Studies at Thailand’s Naresuan University, told the ABC that the military was neutralizing the threat of a military-led coup while King Vajiralongkorn was abroad.
He added that the King is ultimately trying to remove the powers of the Advisory Council and the royal family, “so it depends on him and the army”.
Dr Chambers said this would cumulatively result in “the relationship between the monarchy and the army becoming the fulcrum of power in Thailand”.
For Dr Chachavalpong too, this is just another example of the King’s deep centralization of personal power, which could keep him away from Thailand “as long as he wants”.
What did Berlin say about Vajiralongkorn’s time in Germany?
Running Thailand from Bavaria has caused significant concern among some German politicians in recent months.
While the King’s activities in Germany have largely gone unnoticed by the country’s ruling class, there is closer scrutiny of him due to the advocacy of the German Green Party.
In October, Green MP Frithjof Schmidt questioned why Berlin would tolerate the “very unusual” behavior of a foreign head of state conducting internal affairs from German territory.
In response, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told lawmakers that King Vajiralongkorn should not rule from his country in Europe.
“If there are guests in our country who run their state business from our land, we will always want to act to counter that.”
This week in the German Parliament, Maas was once again asked about the King and confirmed that he does not need a visa to travel to and from Germany since becoming head of state.
Sevim Dagdelen, the opposition lawmaker who raised the question, also suggested Berlin could declare the King as persona non grata (an unwanted person).
According to Dr Chambers, what happened was Berlin’s admission that the host to King Vajiralongkorn might tarnish Germany’s international image.
“There is [German] considerations about the Thai demonstrators, because they could influence German international opinion, “said Dr Chambers.
Dr. Chambers also suggested that the King’s host in Germany would be in trouble if he was found to have violated local laws, despite the fact that the King was cannot be prosecuted because he holds diplomatic immunity as head of state.
In November, the German Government issued a statement confirming that King Vajiralongkorn had not done anything illegal during his stay in the country, in response to a letter from protesters sent to the German embassy in Bangkok.
The letter asked Germany to investigate protesters’ allegations of King Vajiralongkorn’s involvement in the torture and disappearance of dissidents, and to decide whether he violated German law.
Andrew MacGregor Marshall, former bureau chief for Reuters Bangkok who has been banned from Thailand since 2011 for violating the state the laws of lese-majeste are strict, wrote on Twitter that it was “wonderful” to see this issue discussed so openly.
“Neither of these issues could be discussed at all in Thailand just a few weeks ago, and it is wonderful to see them being publicly picked up by protesters in Bangkok and included in their open letter to German authorities,” wrote MacGregor Marshall.
“They have tried for years to cover up the King’s destructive behavior, but now it’s front page news around the world.”
What happened from here?
In Dr Chachavalpongpun’s view, the protesters’ methods of influencing the King’s behavior through pressure from the German Government may have been ultimately futile.
“I don’t think so [German] The government wants to go the extra mile, “said Dr Chachavalpongpun.
“Because in the end it’s about bilateral relations.