Thailand’s next king, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, carries a son’s burden of living up to a great father.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died Thursday at the age of 88, reigned for 70 years with almost legendary rectitude and devotion to his country’s development.
The 64-year-old Vajiralongkorn, the second child and only son of Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, however, is dogged by a reputation that some fear could weaken respect for the monarchy.
Bhumibol designated Vajiralongkorn to be his successor more than 40 years ago. There were other possible candidates for succession — including his older sister — and there had been speculation one might be chosen. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha put such talk to rest Thursday when he said, without specifically naming the crown prince, that the king had designated his successor on Dec. 28, 1972. “We the government must proceed with the next steps in accordance with the law,” he said.
The public at large has long traded rumours about Vajiralongkorn’s finances, hot temper and other matters. Three stormy marriages are a matter of public record.
“When you are born into this position you have to accept it,” he told the women’s magazine Dichan in a rare interview in 1987. “Some people like me, some people don’t like me. It’s their right. … Wherever you go there is gossip. If you are busy with gossip you don’t have to work.”
Although he attends the requisite royal ceremonies and in recent years filled in for his father for some ceremonial and diplomatic duties, the prince is generally a private figure, visibly ill at ease in most public settings. His three sisters and first wife often appear on the nightly television broadcasts of royal news, attending social functions and carrying out good works that burnish the monarchy’s reputation.
Vajiralongkorn’s appearances are less frequent. While all the siblings travel abroad frequently, his sisters usually are promoting their homeland in one manner or another. The prince’s activities are usually personal and unpublicized, outside of the occasional tabloid story in the country he is visiting.
But in 2015, he made two high-profile public appearances in Thailand, leading thousands of people in mass bicycling events to mark the birthdays of his mother and his father. Many saw the events as an attempt to raise his profile in preparation for his eventual installation as king.
Some analysts have likened Vajiralongkorn’s situation to that of Britain’s Prince Charles, forced to tread water while Queen Elizabeth reigns for a seventh decade. A crucial difference is that while Charles and his family can be held to public account, particularly by the press, Thailand’s royal family is protected by an Asian tradition of reverence as well as harsh laws that mandate a prison term of three to 15 years for anyone found guilty of the loosely defined crime of insulting the monarchy.
Born on July 28, 1952, the prince was accorded the kind of smothering attention one would expect from growing up in a palace — in later life he told an interviewer that even at the age of 12 he was unable to tie his own shoes because courtiers had always done it for him.
“My parents tried to raise me normally, but around us there were too many people trying to gain favour,” he told Dichan.
Efforts to prepare the prince for the throne began in earnest in his early teens. He was commissioned as an officer in the three branches of Thailand’s armed forces and by age 14 was sent to boarding school in England. He continued his studies at a school in Sydney in preparation for Australia’s Royal Military College at Duntroon, which he entered in 1972 and graduated from in 1975, shortly after Thailand’s neighbours Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam fell to communist forces.
The prince took part in some military actions against Thailand’s homegrown communist insurgency, but began facing greater challenges on the personal front. In 1977, reportedly bowing to his mother’s wishes, he married a maternal first cousin, Soamsawali Kitiyakara. Their daughter, Princess Bajrakitiyabha, was born in 1978, even as the marriage was falling apart. When just nine months later the prince had a son by Yuvadhida Polpraserth, a commoner who was to become his second wife, it was clear that Vajiralongkorn felt free to steer his own course socially, regardless of royal propriety.
His own mother noted his reputation with women, telling reporters when she travelled to the United States in 1982: “My son the crown prince is a little bit of a Don Juan. He is a good student, a good boy, but women find him interesting and he finds women even more interesting.”
Speaking at a news conference in Dallas, but clearly addressing her son, she delivered a harsh warning. “If the people of Thailand do not approve of the behaviour of my son, then he would either have to change his behaviour or resign from the royal family,” she said.
Palace elders tried to encourage Vajiralongkorn’s enthusiasm for military duties with training stints abroad. A 1980 course of advanced military training in the United States whetted his appetite for flying, a passion carried on to this day, sometimes in the wide-bodied jets of national carrier Thai Airways.
Critics noted his pastime was expensive, citing for example, a $20 million F-16 jet fighter the military presented to him in 1992 for his personal use.
And unsavouryrumours continued to follow him. In 1992, he said his reputation was “upsetting” to him, especially because he felt unable to defend himself because of his royal position.
Speaking to reporters specially invited to his residence, he denied some long-standing rumours: that he owned nightclubs and discotheques that were profiting by flouting legal closing hours because of links to him, that he was a godfather of various financial scams, that he rigged the national lottery.
“The money I spend is acquired honestly. I don’t want to touch money earned illegally and through the suffering of others,” he told them.
Over time, some of the more outrageous allegations have faded. But the rumour mill has continued to feed on his personal life. All five of the children with the woman who became his second wife were born years before he was divorced from his first spouse. After winning grudging acceptance from the palace to treat his second wife as a royal, they had a spectacular bust-up in 1996 which saw her flee to England with their four sons and one daughter. The prince then flew there to grab his daughter back.
In 2001, he married another commoner, Srirasmi Koet-amphaeng, with whom he had a son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, in 2005. The prince then had the royal status of his sons by his second wife withdrawn.
However, Srirasmi also fell out of favour. Some of her close relatives were arrested in November 2014 on charges of abusing the crown prince’s name in collusion with corrupt police to run a massive extortion scheme. She was stripped of her royal title and the couple are divorced.
Also widely discussed, albeit privately, in Thailand is Vajiralongkorn’s relationship with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a military coup in 2006 after being accused of corruption and disrespect for the king.
Thaksin, a billionaire, was believed to have sought the prince’s favour with lavish gifts of cash and property. Thaksin — who lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid a jail term for corruption — also employed some awkward flattery.
Asked about the crown prince in an interview published online in 2009 by the Times of London, Thaksin said: “He’s not the king yet. He may not be shining (now)… but after he becomes the king I’m confident he can be shining … it’s not his time yet. But when the time comes I think he will be able to perform.”
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