BANGKOK (TNS) — The commander of Thailand's ruling junta said Tuesday that the military was not responsible for the deaths of two detainees suspected of insulting the monarch — including the crown prince's former personal fortune-teller — who were being held at a controversial army detention site.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters that the Thai military was "kind, not cruel" and rejected concerns over possible human rights violations at the detention facility, which is being used to house terrorism suspects and those accused under a draconian law against defaming Thailand's royal family.
The Southeast Asian nation has been swirling with questions over the mysterious deaths of the detainees, who were arrested last month on charges that they exploited connections with the monarchy to extort money.
Few details of the charges have been released, but authorities said the suspects were accused of skimming funds from a bicycling event held by Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn in honor of his ailing father, whom he is widely expected to succeed as king.
Authorities disclosed Monday that Suriyan Sucharitpolwong, a prominent astrologer who had been one of the prince's advisers, had died over the weekend of natural causes while in custody at a military barracks in Bangkok. The astrologer, better known as Mor Yong, was one of the organizers of the event but reportedly had a falling out with the prince.
Two weeks earlier, another suspect in the investigation, police Maj. Prakrom Warunprapa, died after being found hanging by his shirt in his temporary cell at the barracks.
They were among a growing number of people prosecuted for violating the lese-majeste law, which protects the monarchy and carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. It is one of the harshest such laws in the world, say human rights groups, and is being used with growing frequency under the junta that took power in a coup last year.
In a country otherwise known for Bangkok's chaos and an almost-anything-goes tourist industry, Thailand's royal family is a severely protected subject. The topic has become even more sensitive in recent years because the revered 87-year-old king's health is failing and the royals — and the military — want to ensure an orderly succession.
Critics of the monarchy — including some outspoken Thai academics who have left the country to escape prosecution under lese-majeste — say the investigation renews questions about whether the law is being used to punish anyone who runs afoul of the would-be king.
"I find it shocking on many levels, and one is the extent to which the law is being used more than any time in Thailand's modern history," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan's Kyoto University.
"If this is about corruption alone, as the authorities say, you can deal with it like a normal case. You don't have to use Article 112," the section of the Thai criminal code that deals with insulting the monarchy.
Thai news media and websites heavily self-censor when reporting on the royals, but the circumstances of the astrologer Suriyan's death have been the subject of hushed conversations in Bangkok. Corrections officials said Monday that he had died Saturday of "a blood infection," reportedly septicemia, but did not explain why they waited two days to make the announcement.
Officials described it as a pre-existing condition that deteriorated due to the stress of his arrest and said Suriyan's family did not suspect foul play.
Suriyan was one of the more colorful fortune-tellers in Thailand, telling his tens of thousands of followers that a monk came to him in a dream when he was 7 and granted him the power to predict the future. He had a powerful patron in the crown prince, who made him an adviser to his annual "Bike for Dad" race, an event widely seen as an attempt by the playboy royal — best known for his multiple divorces — to burnish his image before succeeding his father, whom many Thais revere as a deity.