Thailand's king takes personal control of two key army units

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn has ordered the transfer of two army units to the direct command of the palace, a royal decree taking effect on Tuesday showed, the latest move by the constitutional monarch to consolidate his personal authority.

The king’s order, signed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, cited article 172 of the constitution, which allows for the issuing of a royal decree in an emergency that threatens national security and the monarchy.

It did not specify what emergency required such a move.

The decree transfers command of the Bangkok-based 1st and 11th Infantry Regiments from the military chain of command to the Royal Security Command, including responsibility personnel and operations budget.

Technically, the king is commander-in-chief of all Thailand’s armed forces, but the new decree bypasses the usual military chain of command.

The two units, formerly part of the First Army region that oversees security in Bangkok and central Thailand, will now report directly to the king, who heads the Royal Security Command, and the unit’s deputy commander, Queen Suthida.

The royal order was published in the Royal Gazette on Monday and became law the next day without the need to go through parliament.

King Vajiralongkorn, 67, succeeded his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016 and has since consolidated the authority of the monarchy and the royal household with help from a military government that came to power in a 2014 coup led by then-army chief Prayuth.

In July 2017, the military-appointed legislative assembly amended a 1936 law to give the king full control of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the crown’s multi-billion dollar holdings and was previously under the supervision of the Finance Ministry.

In the same year, the king also introduced changes to the military, including a new salute and haircut, modeled after those used by the king’s own bodyguard.

Public criticism of the king or his family is illegal, with insults to the monarchy punishable by up to 15 years in prison under Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws.

Former junta leader Prayuth this year took office as a civilian prime minister, after his pro-army party was declared winner in an election held under junta-written regulations.

Prayuth’s party ran under the banner of promoting traditional Thai values of devotion to the monarchy, often casting opposition opponents as disloyal to the king.

Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Alex Richardson