A famous Thai fortune teller charged with royal defamation has died in military custody, officials said Monday, the second time in weeks a person caught up in a shadowy palace intrigue probe has been found dead while in detention.

Thai fortune teller Suriyan Sucharitpolwong is escorted by commando police during his arrival at a military court in Bangkok on Oct. 21
Thai fortune teller Suriyan Sucharitpolwong is escorted by commando police during his arrival at a military court in Bangkok on Oct. 21

Thai authorities said Suriyan Sucharitpolwong, better known by his soothsayer name “Mor Yong”, died of a blood infection on Saturday evening just hours after he was found unconscious in his cell at a Bangkok army barracks.

Thailand’s Corrections Department said the 53-year-old soothsayer was taken to hospital after he was discovered by guards.

“A hospital tried to revive him for about an hour but they were unsuccessful,” the statement said, adding that an autopsy carried out the following day showed he had succumbed to blood poisoning.

Suriyan’s death raises questions over the military’s role in a royal defamation probe that has swept up a string of high profile figures and captivated local media.

But Justice Minister Paiboon Khumchaya, himself a former general, told reporters Monday there was no need to change procedures at the barracks, despite the deaths.

“Sometimes prisoners die in prison,” he told reporters, adding that a fraud suspect had recently passed away in detention.

“But there was no report (by media) because he was not a man in the news,” Paiboon said.

Suriyan was arrested last month alongside his assistant and Police Major Prakrom Warunprapa, who authorities later announced had “hanged” himself while in military custody.

The police officer’s body was swiftly cremated in yet to be clearly explained circumstances.

The trio were last seen in public on 21 October being led, hands bound and heads shaved, into a military courthouse where they were charged with a string of offences including royal defamation.

Major Prakrom was dead two days later.

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, is protected by one of the world’s toughest royal defamation laws and prosecutions under it have skyrocketed since a military coup in May 2014.

The majority of those prosecuted for royal defamation are punished for expressing views critical of the monarchy, and many have been given decades-long jail sentences.

But a dozen or so recent cases have involved palace or establishment figures charged in secrecy-shrouded investigations of improperly using their connections with the monarchy to make money.

Suriyan and his co-accused belonged to the latter category.

Competing elites

Among others accused of using connections with the monarchy to make money are more than half a dozen relatives of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn’s former wife, Princess Srirasmi, who have been jailed in closed court proceedings.

The prince divorced Srirasmi late last year and she gave up her royal titles following allegations some of her relatives, including a senior police officer, had run a corrupt patronage network.

A Thai police officer accused of involvement in that case also died in police custody.

Details of the ongoing investigation against Suriyan are scant, as is common in royal defamation cases.

Even when the allegations are known, journalists must self-censor in order to avoid falling foul of the draconian law.

But on Monday Thai authorities confirmed a senior military official with the rank of colonel was also being investigated in the same probe as the soothsayer, but he had run away.

Thailand’s coup prone military portray themselves as the ultimate defender of the monarchy and it is very rare for soldiers to be caught up in lese majeste probes.

Ultraroyalist junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha seized power in a coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra after months of political chaos and street protests.

Prayut says his coup was needed to restore order to the politically turbulent nation, while critics say it was the another move orchestrated by the country’s elite to grab power and prevent democracy from taking root in the kingdom.

The military takeover came as fears mount among competing elites over the kingdom’s future as Bhumibol’s reign enters its twilight years — seen as a motivating factor behind the last decade of political turmoil.

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