Royal dilemma: turmoil reigning in Thailand
Thailand’s royal family is in turmoil after the recent death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. With his unpopular playboy son Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn anointed as the next King, many are speculating whether he could spell the end of the monarchy, writes
Late at night, in the moist, spicy heart of Bangkok, Thailand’s feuding royal family gathered around the bedside of the ailing 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Outside, a crowd of well-wishers chanted prayers for the long-serving ruler’s soul, but his heirs and their hard-nosed courtiers had more earthly matters to consider.
Such as who should be taking over, what would become of the family’s colossal fortune and whether the 800-year-old monarchy could survive the fall-out from the old King’s death.
Bhumibol had been on the throne for so long – an astonishing 70 years – hardly anyone in Thailand had ever known or could imagine life without him. Yet his cultish popularity concealed an unsightly backlog of scandals, follies and embarrassments which, with his death on
October 13, now appear impossible to contain.
“The royal family is facing serious difficulties,” says Andrew MacGregor Marshall, author of a recent book about Thailand which was banned by the country’s military government. “Their support is not as strong as it looks and there is a lot of turmoil beneath the surface.”
Foremost in the firing line is the Australianeducated Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn,
64, a clownish playboy and prodigious womaniser, who ascended to the throne on December 1. Many Thais feel he should have been disqualified from the succession – not least because he seems to prefer living almost anywhere but Thailand.
For the past year, thrice-married Maha’s favoured location has been 9000km away in
southern Germany, where he shares a magnificent lakeside villa near the sleepy village of Tutzing with a 35-year-old former airline stewardess, Nui Suthida. Local real estate broker Andreas Botas recently told a German newspaper that Maha had turned up at his offices in a white Porsche convertible, wearing tight jeans and a midriffbaring T-shirt, asked to see the vacant villa and paid $20 million in cash for it.
“There were about 20 people following after him in eight minibuses,” says Andreas. “But he was very polite and not at all pretentious.”
Maha’s reputation for eccentric behaviour was already well-established. In 2007, it was revealed he had made his pet poodle, Foo Foo, an Air Chief Marshal in the Thai Air Force. A leaked diplomatic cable from Ralph Boyce, the US Ambassador to Thailand, described Foo Foo attending a state dinner, “in full formal attire, complete with white paw mitts”. When the dog died in 2015, Maha ordered four days of national mourning.
As long as the deity-like Bhumibol was alive and Maha, who has spent the bulk of his life in Europe and the US, was off the scene, most Thais felt able to tolerate his erratic antics. Their patience began to fray in 2007 when a shocking video emerged of the Crown Prince’s third wife, Princess Srirasmi, naked but for a black thong, kneeling before Foo Foo singing “Happy Birthday”. Allegedly leaked by the Crown Prince’s enemies, the video was immediately denounced by the court as a forgery, but to ordinary Thais it confirmed the worst fears about their king-in-waiting. Srirasmi, a former cocktail waitress, was later divorced by Maha, with whom she had a son, and stripped of royal titles.
Thais tend to have a relaxed approach to sex, but a tougher one towards double standards. Some years ago, Maha was treated to an unprecedented dressing down by his mother, Queen Sirikit, who likened him to Don Juan, the legendary Spanish seducer, saying, “Women find him interesting and he finds them even more interesting… If the people of Thailand do not approve of the behaviour of my son, then he would either have to change, or resign from the royal family.”
The Queen later declined, apparently on moral grounds, to attend Maha’s second marriage.
Yet one of Thailand’s greatest royal scandals arose from the Queen’s own barely concealed infatuation with her military aide, Colonel
There is a lot of turmoil beneath the surface.
Narongdej Nanda-photidej, in the mid-1980s. Embarrassed and distressed, the King arranged to have Narongdej posted to the US, where he died a few months later, aged 38, supposedly of a heart attack. The suspicion he was murdered has never gone away.
The Queen’s grief was reportedly so intense, she suffered a breakdown and her marriage never recovered. While Sirikit and Bhumibol remained a couple, they lived separate lives. The Queen, now 84 and in poor health, has barely been seen publicly in recent years.
Whatever the unseemliness of royal behaviour, little of it is discussed in public. Thailand’s 67 million people are aware of the perils of criticising their royal family.
A law of lèse majesté – an antiquated term meaning “injured majesty” – imposes severe penalties for any behaviour deemed insulting to the monarchy. Thais have been prosecuted under the law for reasons such as “liking” a Facebook site critical of the King, singing satirical songs about the royals and posting images of the King’s dog online which were seen as critical of the monarch. Nor are foreigners exempt. In January 2009, Australian former hotel concierge Harry Nicolaides, 41, was jailed for three years after being accused of insulting the royal family in a brief passage of an obscure novel he had written. Harry was released one month later, after pressure from the Australian government. The details of most cases remain unknown, as the Thai media feel constrained from publishing the allegations.
The image of the monarch is everywhere. Virtually all shops, bars, restaurants and most homes have a portrait of the King on display. Huge billboards showing the monarch dominate city squares and the royal anthem is played each morning and evening in public places, where passers-by are expected to sing along.
The doubts about Maha’s merits go beyond a sceptical, if outwardly deferential, public. “Much of the aristocracy and the elite class are opposed to him,” says Andrew Marshall. “They know that he is headstrong and a bit crazy, but their real worry is that they might not be able to control him in the way they controlled the old King.”
Partly because of the lèse majesté laws, the inner workings of the Thai court are extraordinarily hard to unravel, even for experts. According to US journalist Paul Handley, who worked for several years in Bangkok, “The palace lives on gossip and rumour. In the early 1990s, for example, there were stories the King drove around incognito to experience the hell of Bangkok’s traffic. Everyone heard the stories and everyone believed the King was suffering just like they were. No one I met ever had first-hand information on this, it was just rumour that benefited the monarchy. There are countless examples like this, which shape the image – and image is crucial.”
Yet it is no secret that the doubts about Maha are shared by many of his fellow royals. Even his father, Bhumibol, appears to have agonised over whether to give his son the top job. “The Crown Prince was a huge disappointment to the King,” says Andrew Marshall, “and he tried several tactics to make him shape up. He restricted his money to stop him partying. He even suggested that if the Prince didn’t improve, he’d break tradition and give the throne to his daughter, Princess Sirindhorn. But it
was all a game. He thought his son would be a poor king, but he was a conservative man and he thought a man should succeed him.”
The record suggests the King made a mistake. Known as “Phra Thep” – Princess Angel – Sirindhorn, 61, is the opposite of her high-living brother. Unglamorous, hard-working, scandalfree and wildly popular with the public, she has never married or had children and has devoted her life to good causes. Her relations with her brother are strained and in the aftermath of their father’s death, she seized control of the funeral arrangements, fearing the Crown Prince might play down Bhumibol’s legacy.
Her plan is to build an enormous shrine to the old King, which observers believe will also serve as a reminder of Maha’s shortcomings. “If you were allowed to hold polls on such things,” says a seasoned Bangkok hand, “you certainly find a majority of the public preferring Sirindhorn taking over. The off-the-record steer you get from the Palace is Maha will grow into the job, but who is going to believe that? He’s 64 and just gets more immature.”
Sirindhorn is also known as a shrewd political operator, with close links both to the military junta, which seized power two years ago, and to various opposition groups. Foreign analysts have suggested she would be the ideal candidate to guide Thailand back to democracy, but since the junta is in no hurry for this to happen, the Crown Prince – for now – enjoys the approval of the military.
If not the approval of his family. Among the siblings jostling for advantage are the King’s eldest child, Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, 65, who married American businessman Peter Jensen in 1972, and now works as a film actress. After her divorce in 1998, Ubolratana returned to Thailand to rebuild her royal power-base. Also hovering is fearsomely smart Princess Chulabhorn, 59, the king’s youngest child, a scientist, who reportedly believes the royal family should be like its Western counterparts.
An entire year of mourning has been declared for King Bhumibol, during which time Thais are expected to wear black and refrain from any kind of “boisterous behaviour”. Tourists have been warned that festivals and concerts are likely to be cancelled, and are urged not to cause offence. On government orders, TV schedules have been scrapped indefinitely, with networks expected to concentrate almost entirely on broadcasting tributes to the late King.
The newly anointed King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, to be known as King Rama X, will not be crowned until after his late father’s cremation in October 2017. This leaves time to sort out his family’s tangled affairs. With an estimated fortune of more than $40 billion, the Thai monarchy is the world’s wealthiest. Their assets include swathes of Bangkok real estate, hotels, a bank, an international equity portfolio and the Golden Jubilee Diamond – the world’s largest – given to Bhumibol to mark his 50th year on the throne. Yet the riches are locked into a structure known as the Crown Property Bureau and no one seems sure who truly controls it.
If the Crown Prince is to square his squabbling siblings and their allies, he will have to be generous. And more careful about the company he keeps.
He’s 64 and just gets more immature.
ABOVE: Then Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn on a lavish royal barge during a ceremony in 2012 to mark the King’s 85th birthday.
ABOVE: A blanket of flowers from his mourning subjects flanks a portrait of the late King Bhumibol in Bangkok.
FROM TOP: Princesses Sirindhorn, Ubolratana and Chulabhorn are vying for power and influence.
FROM FAR LEFT: The royal family at their residence in Berkshire, UK, in 1966; then Crown Prince Maha, dressed in a crop top, arrives at Munich Airport with his mistress, Nui Suthida, and a poodle; his luxury villa in Tutzing, Germany; Maha holding his mother’s hand flanked by his two sisters in 2010. BELOW: Maha is greeted by Queen Elizabeth II during her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.