BANGKOK — Thailand’s national assembly has invited Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to become king, succeeding his father who died last month. He is expected to accept, be proclaimed monarch this week, and be crowned a year hence, at the end of the mourning period for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The announcement cures one big Thai headache—concern about whether the often-absent crown prince would ascend the throne at all. But it raises other questions: Who will be queen consort to the new king—thrice-divorced and, as far as anyone knows, single. Who is likely to be heir-designate, considering Vajiralongkorn’s only officially recognized son is 11 while his four other sons were stripped of their royal titles. And, where will the new monarch live, given that for years he’s been based mostly in Germany.
“You can’t very well be king of Thailand and live in Bavaria,” says a former diplomat previously posted at a Western embassy in Bangkok.
The long-serving crown prince—he was granted that status in 1972—acquires the grand title of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Badinthorn Theppayawarangkool, which in the language of Buddhism means, “Vajiralongkorn Descended by Flesh and Blood of God Indra, Overlord of All Angels.” Informally, he will be Rama X, denoting his position as the tenth king in the Chakri dynasty.
He is said to be in Thailand now, and will meet with top officials, perhaps in a matter of hours.
“After this, we enter the parliamentary process,” Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters. “We expect an audience within the next one to two days” with the new sovereign.
Vajiralongkorn, 64, issued no statements and made no comment Tuesday, sticking to the silence he has maintained since King Bhumibol died at 88 on Oct. 13. Last month the prince requested that lawmakers take no immediate action on the succession, asking for more time to grieve for his father. Even that request was announced not by the crown prince, but by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the strongman who heads the military junta. Prem Tinsulanonda, the 96-year-old president of King Bhumibol’s privy council, has been serving as regent.
In a speech in the National Legislative Assembly on Tuesday, Chairman Pornpetch Wichitcholchai said, “Upon this most auspicious occasion, I would like to ask all members to stand up and offer praise to the new king.” In response, his colleagues rose and declared, “Long live the king!”
The cheer probably reflected a certain relief that the succession is going smoothly. In recent years, as King Bhumibol battled numerous ailments amid national unrest that saw rival political factions take to the streets in sometimes lethal protests, many had feared the beloved monarch’s death would trigger bloody confrontations.
For years tensions have simmered between folks who advocate classic, one-man/one-vote democracy and the “elites” who champion “Thai-style democracy”—basically an anti-democratic system that allows the military, big business, and the Bangkok ruling classes to retain power.
“The king is the keystone of the political architecture through which the elites have always run the country,” says one Bangkok analyst who doesn’t want to be quoted by name because of draconian laws punishing critics of the monarchy.
For some, the crown prince was a question mark in that elitist algorithm. While King Bhumibol was venerated and personally loved, Vajiralongkorn has been seen as a distant, enigmatic figure; a much-married royal with a fondness for a hedonistic, peripatetic life spent on planes, in shops—and abroad.
“Vajiralongkorn inherits his father’s throne, but not his father’s stature and authority,” says the Bangkok analyst. “His father led a life of unimpeachable personal probity, which was the basis of his legitimacy and authority. By contrast, the son’s personal life is in disarray.”
Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws, which criminalize “insulting” the royal family, have kept the crown prince’s personal activities out of the local spotlight. But foreign media have not hesitated to report on his exploits, mostly to do with his marriages and children.
His first wife was Princess Soamsawali Kitiyakara, with whom he had one daughter. His second wife was Mom Sujarinee Mahidol na Ayudhaya, whom he met when she was an aspiring actress known as Yuvadhida Polpraserth. They married in 1994, after she bore him his first son, Prince Juthavachara Mahidol, in 1979. The couple had three more sons and a daughter before they divorced in 1996. The crown prince brought the daughter to live with him and she was elevated to the rank of princess, but his former wife and their four sons were stripped of their titles and diplomatic passports. Sujarinee and the boys eventually moved to the United States.
In 2001, Vajiralongkorn married another commoner, Srirasmi Suwadee, although the marriage was not disclosed to ordinary Thais until 2005. Also in 2005, Srirasmi bore the crown prince a son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, now 11. In 2014, the crown prince asked the government to strip Srirasmi of her royal name and titles after seven of her relatives were accused of corruption—using their connection with the royal family for financial gain. The couple divorced a month later and she received a settlement of more than $5 million.
Rumors recently circulated around Bangkok that the four sons from the new king’s second marriage were allowed to return to Thailand when King Bhumibol died, but no one has confirmed any real rapprochement between the crown prince and his older children, and so young Prince Dipangkorn remains the heir apparent to the Chakri dynasty.
“The parents of his third wife are all now in prison and he is reportedly alienated from his four adult children, who have lived for many years in the United States,” the former diplomat says.
Another rumor posits that the new king has been dating a Thai air hostess and that he intends to marry her. Some even claim he has already married the young lady. But for now, Rama X possesses no queen, at least officially. Some say his sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn—a highly popular royal whom supporters had suggested might succeed her father—could fill in, for now.
In the meantime, the new king must move quickly, analysts say, to establish himself and reunify the country, which remains under the heavy thumb of the military junta that deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra two years ago—eight years after the army ousted her brother Thaksin Shinawatra as premier. The regime has ruled with an iron hand, using a referendum in August to ram through a new constitution that codifies military oversight of government for years to come.
“His immediate challenge is to establish his legitimacy by distancing himself from his playboy image and reuniting a royal family divided by mutual alienation and personal rivalry,” says the Bangkok analyst.
In a 1987 interview with the Thai magazine Dichan, Vajiralongkorn was asked about his reputation as a royal “black sheep.”
“Sometimes, being a black sheep has benefits, too, you know,’’ the future king responded. “I want to stress this point: Black sheep have benefits, too. Sometimes it’s like making merit for others. You see, being a black sheep to others, or being a black sheep that people made me to be, it helps other sheep that are not so white become whiter.”
The language is not quite as elegant as Shakespeare’s, but seems to suggest that Rama X, like Henry V, expects to surprise those who criticized his profligacy before taking the crown: “I’ll so offend, to make offense a skill,” as Price Hal put it. “Redeeming time when men think least I will.”
In any case, Thais will be hoping that King Vajiralongkorn makes merit for all his subjects—and for the troubled Land of Smiles.