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

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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.

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