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Thai royalists target stock-market analysts over rumors of king's health

In the past week, Thai authorities have arrested three people on charges of disseminating false data. The arrests have sparked complaints of a witch hunt.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 2009

Bangkok, Thalland

When Thailand's stock market swooned last month, analysts put the blame on widespread rumors over the deteriorating health of the country's revered monarch, who had been hospitalized with the flu. The next day, Oct. 15, brought more rumors and an even sharper sell-off, capping a two-day 7 percent drop in the benchmark stock index.

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Now Thai authorities are targeting citizens they allege spread rumors about the king's health in order to profit from the selloff.

Over the past week, Thai authorities have arrested three people on charges of disseminating false data. Police say that further arrests may follow and government officials warn that "national security" is at stake in the case.

The arrests have sparked complaints of a witch-hunt by arch-royalists using the sensitive issue of the monarchy to suppress free speech. Two of the suspects, who are former stock-market analysts, have been charged under a controversial and wide-ranging computer crimes law.

The case has highlighted deep-seated fears among Thais over the eventual passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, who turns 82 in December. He is still in the hospital after being admitted on Sept. 19.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told Reuters on Saturday that the king had recovered from his illness and would soon be discharged from hospital, in line with the advice of doctors.

In a bid to calm the nation's nerves, King Bhumibol has made several public appearances at the hospital, including one after the stock market selloff. On Nov. 2, he was shown on TV taking part in a Thai holiday ritual of setting a candlelit float on water.

Monarchy and politics intertwined

As a constitutional monarch, Bhumibol is said to be above politics. But the symbolic power and status of the monarchy has long been a crucial element in a political system that runs on personal networks and patronage.

The monarchy is deeply revered in Thailand and though it has limited powers, it has served as the crucial guarantor of national unity. King Bhumibol's positions on Thailand's political upheaval over the years (the country has had ten coups since 1971) have often proved decisive, ensuring generally peaceful transfers of power even when carried out by extra-constitutional means.

Many Thais fear that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the king's designated successor, lacks his father's stature and could usher in a period of protracted political instability.

For Thais, the monarchy has been an axis around which a half-century of socioeconomic transformation has turned, says Michael Montesano, a Thai scholar in Singapore.

"Soon … they are going to need to work harder to resolve social, economic, and political problems. And the possibility of failure leaves many (Thais) deeply pessimistic," he says.

The debate over succession is largely conducted in private for fear of breaking strict lese-majeste laws, the use of which has spiked in recent years. The computer-crimes law has been used to prosecute internet users over royal slurs, including an engineer sentenced in April to 10 years in prison for posting anti-monarchy videos on YouTube.