Controversy has swirled over bribes allegedly sought from contractors building the Hua Hin statue park

It was to have been a powerful public statement of the ultraroyalist credentials of Thailand’s ruling military: seven giant bronze statues of former kings, rising from an army compound near the seaside palace of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The towering monuments have attracted growing attention since being inaugurated by the country’s Crown Prince in September — but not for the reasons the generals intended.

A scandal over bribes allegedly sought from contractors on the project has dogged the 18-month-old junta and provided fresh impetus to the largely subdued critics of its stewardship of the country. That adds to an unsettling atmosphere created by the mysterious deaths in custody of at least two people held under an expanding crackdown on alleged breaches of the country’s draconian lese majesty law.

The timing is awkward for the generals, who have launched an anti-corruption drive and are trying to shore up power as they repeatedly delay elections. The problems are undermining efforts to boost public morale ahead of Saturday’s 88th birthday of King Bhumibol, whose poor health after almost 70 years on the throne is adding to a wider anxiety born of political instability and economic malaise.

“The junta is in a very difficult position,” said Puangthong Pawakapan, an academic at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “With the economic hardship, people are frustrated. And these other problems won’t create any positive feeling among the public at all.”

The statues affair has taken increasingly surreal turns since the allegations surfaced last month. Two high-profile opposition leaders were detained and later released this week after they tried to visit the site at the coastal resort of Hua Hin. The junta, which has banned public protests, said the pair’s trip to a project reported to have cost 1bn baht ($28m) was an “obvious political movement” and could incite disorder.

The park has been plagued by questions since Gen Udomdej Sitabutr, former head of the army and a senior junta figure, said there was an “element of truth” to allegations of bribes being sought from the foundries vying to cast the statues. The military initially said a probe had found no evidence of wrongdoing but then announced further investigations after some critics said the verdict was a whitewash.

The mystery follows another unfolding scandal, in which more than half a dozen people have been accused of falsely claiming close royal links to raise money. They claimed to be involved in the organisation of Bike for Dad, a mass cycling event due to be held in honour of the king next week and is seen as a vehicle for improving the image of the Crown Prince, his son and heir. Two of those charged — a famous fortune-teller known as Mor Yong and a senior police officer — died in custody, after which they were quickly cremated without an official autopsy.

The deaths come amid a widening crackdown under the lese majesty law, in which dozens of probes have been launched since the coup and jail sentences of 15 years and more handed down. When Glyn Davies, the new US ambassador, last week criticised the prison terms imposed, it sparked public demonstrations by ultra-royalists — none of which were stopped by the junta.

Even some traditionally conservative commentators are attacking the way the law is being wielded, saying it has gone far beyond its official aim of protecting an institution unable to take legal action to defend itself. “This is not deterrence,” said an editorial this week in pro-establishment newspaper The Nation. “It is incentive to disillusionment, from which stems rebellion, the very outcome the authorities fear most.”

The lese majesty clampdown is part of a wider nationalist push by the military to promote its guardianship role in the face of political divisions, sluggish economic growth and a royal succession to the only king most Thais have ever known. Nightly television broadcasts follow the national anthem by declaring Thailand “stronger together”, the message reinforced by presenters in yellow “bike for Dad” T-shirts.

The ageing king is rarely seen in public, and few see the generals as likely to loosen their grip — even if emerging stories of deaths and corruption claims undermine the image of the very system they seek to protect.

“It’s all happening in a much darker way now,” said David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based academic and politics specialist. “It seems to me absolutely counter-productive.”

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