05.19.10

The Playboy Prince of Thailand

An ailing king and his unpopular heir-apparent. Lewis M. Simons on why Thailand may be headed for even more trouble.

Even as gunshots reverberate through the streets of central Bangkok and the city’s glittering buildings are gutted by fire, the people of Thailand have a new cause for worry. Their beloved but ailing king may soon be replaced by his son, the eccentric crown prince, who has given his pet poodle military status and had his wife filmed in a G-string, feeding birthday cake to the dog.

Although few Thais will speak openly about their dislike of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the prospect of his ascension to the throne looms in the background of this bloody rebellion.

“It is apparent that…the throne is wobbling,” a longtime observer of Thai politics said on the condition of anonymity, citing fears of arrest under Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws.

Westerners may have grown accustomed to lurid tales of European royals, but not so the Thais.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who unlike his son is widely revered, has ruled Thailand for more than six decades. During previous government crises, including several of the 18 coups that have wracked Thailand since it became, nominally, a constitutional monarchy in 1932, Bhumibol has intervened to stabilize the country. But, incapable or unwilling, he has failed to step into the current conflict between his worshipful subjects and his loyal armed forces, which has scarred the capital and left scores of people dead. Since last September, the king has been confined to Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital; doctors say he is suffering from “exhaustion and respiratory problems.” At 82, he is the world’s longest-serving monarch.

While Bhumibol has devoted his adult life to a well-choreographed campaign of winning the hearts and minds of his people through good works and generous handouts, the crown prince has offended Thais with his seeming arrogance and vulgar ways. Many were scandalized last November when a video appeared on the Internet, showing the prince frolicking by a swimming pool with his wife. While the prince appears in a sports shirt and smoking a pipe, his wife is naked but for a fringed G-string, serving birthday cake to the couple’s miniature poodle, Fu-Fu, as white-gloved servants wait on the royal couple. The pampered Fu-Fu has been assigned the rank of “captain” by the crown prince and sometimes accompanies its royal master to formal state dinners.

Vajiralongkorn, 57, a military pilot by training, has long stood out in the otherwise restrained royal family. His relationships with women have been numerous, complex, and particularly offensive to the public. While married to his first wife, a cousin with whom he had a daughter in 1978, he had five other children with a live-in girlfriend, a would-be actress. After divorcing his wife, he married his mistress in 1984. That marriage ended 12 years later, after the actress fled to Britain with the couple’s daughter. Undaunted, the prince abducted the child and brought her back to Thailand. In 2001, he married again, although it took years before the marriage was made public. His present wife, known as Princess Srirasmi, is another scandalous liaison. A commoner, she worked on his staff, “waiting on him,” before they married. The couple has a 5-year-old son, now second in line to the throne, but there are rumors of other children by other women, although the royal palace has not acknowledged them.

Westerners may have grown accustomed to lurid tales of European royals, but not so the Thais. More than six decades of public probity and rigid censorship have created an aura of godliness around Bhumibol, an aura unlikely to be passed on to his son.

While some Thais have made veiled—and unflattering—comparisons between the ways of their crown prince and those of Britain’s Prince Charles, the similarity is slight. Whereas Charles has burnished an international reputation for his support of just causes such as human rights and disaster relief, his counterpart in Thailand seems to have been more focused on adding to his already substantial wealth. There are rumors of nefarious business deals with Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial multibillionaire and deposed prime minister who from his exile abroad has openly funded and encouraged the Red Shirts’ revolt against the current government.

Bhumibol himself came to the throne under suspicious circumstances. Born in Boston and educated in Switzerland, the king ascended to the throne in 1946 at 19, after his elder brother was found dead in bed with a gunshot wound to the head. The death remains a mystery, unsolved and—like most royal matters—never discussed in public. (Thai authorities have been quick to bring defamation charges against journalists and observers, charges that carry severe prison sentences.)

In private, many Thais express concern about the succession issue. Some fear the crown prince would prove to be a feeble ruler, allowing the country to fall victim to military dictatorship once again. Others have suggested that the crown prince’s unmarried sister, Princess Sirindhorn, take her father’s place instead. Like the old king, the princess is perceived as a tireless worker for the people’s well-being, and adoring Thais have nicknamed her “Princess Angel.” But while modern Thai law permits a female monarch, the law has never been tested, and no one knows how various interest groups, particularly the armed forces and those behind the crown prince, might react.

Given that Thailand is one of the United States’ oldest allies in Southeast Asia and today works closely with Washington in critical areas such as counterterrorism, drug interdiction, and nuclear nonproliferation, the Obama administration has a stake in the outcome of the conflict. Earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell traveled to Bangkok to meet with the leaders of the Red Shirts, who have staged the revolt against the government. The American diplomat was quickly criticized by Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya for his “intervention in Thai domestic politics.”

The various factions “are playing for keeps, and they don’t care who is watching,” said Ernest Bower, director of Southeast Asian studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The country, he warned, is poised to step off the brink and into “the political equivalent of the unknown.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lewis M. Simons is co-author with Sen. Christopher S. Bond of The Next Front: Southeast Asia and the Road to Global Peace with Islam. He also writes for Foreign Affairs.