King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Major General Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, the royal noble consort, at the Grand Palace in Bangkok
King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Major General Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, the royal noble consort, at the Grand Palace in Bangkok © REUTERS

Thailand’s royal family has amassed an airline-sized fleet of 38 jets and helicopters, a leading opposition figure has disclosed after undertaking an unprecedented probe into spending by King Maha Vajiralongkorn, his family and employees.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit made the revelation as Thailand battles a deep recession brought about by Covid-19, and a few days before a rally planned by student protesters who are breaking longstanding taboos by questioning royal spending. 

“People are getting furious about this, especially when you look at the macroeconomy,” Mr Thanathorn told the Financial Times. “Thailand’s GDP growth is projected to be negative 8 per cent at best this year, so we need all the resources we have to spend on the recovery.” 

Mr Thanathorn was leader of Future Forward, a youth-backed opposition party that became the third largest in parliament after last year’s election. But in February, it was ordered to disband after riling the royalist establishment.

The party’s MPs regrouped under the name Move Forward and began publicly probing royal spending at a parliamentary budgetary committee meeting last month. 

According to an inventory of royal aircraft presented to the party by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s office and seen by the FT, the fleet includes four Boeing and three Airbus commercial aircraft, three Russian-made Sukhoi Superjet 100s, four Northrop F5-E light fighter jets and 21 helicopters, including three that are due to enter service next month. 

Maintenance, fuel, ground support and other costs of the fleet total almost Bt2bn ($64m) for the coming fiscal year, according to the document. Thailand’s palace referred a request for comment to the foreign ministry, which did not respond.

The king, who lives in Germany but has flown back to Bangkok on brief holiday visits this year, is a trained pilot.

Since the death of his father King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016, the king has assumed command of two military units and control of billions of dollars’ worth of company shares and other royal property formerly held by the Crown Property Bureau, confirming his status as one of the world’s richest monarchs. 

King Vajiralongkorn also consolidated his privy council, office of the royal household and royal security office into a single royal office, which according to official figures has a budget of almost Bt9bn for the coming fiscal year — a figure that has increased more than 100 per cent since 2018.

Move Forward asked for details of this spending from the government’s budget office, but Mr Thanathorn said they had not responded. 

“It is taxpayers’ money, so it has to be transparent,” he said. “These things are not transparent.” 

Thai media have reported on Mr Thanathorn’s questioning of royal spending — including on aircraft — in parliament, but mostly avoided going into details. Thailand’s punitive lèse majesté and other laws shield the monarchy from perceived insults. 

Thailand’s youth protest movement is demanding the dissolution of parliament, an end to the harassment of political dissidents and the writing of a new constitution. The current constitution gives the military and royalist establishment an advantage in elections.

One faction of the students is also risking prosecution by making unprecedented demands for reforms of the monarchy, including a cut in spending on the palace and a separation of crown property from the king’s personal assets. Thai authorities have charged more than a dozen protest leaders with sedition and other crimes. 

The students are planning a mass rally at Thammasat university in Bangkok on Saturday. Mr Thanathorn said the protest would touch on royal spending. “They will talk about the royal budget on September 19, I am very certain of it,” he said.

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