BANGKOK – Last December, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn led hundreds of fellow Thais on an 18-mile bicycle ride through central Bangkok as thousands more lined the streets to watch. The “Bike for Dad” celebrated the 88th birthday of the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, but it also was designed to showcase the prince, to help endear him to the people whose monarch he was destined to become.
Why? The government and royal palace apparently were keen to rehabilitate the prince’s image as an eccentric, remote man who prefers a life of hedonism—parties, expensive cars, girlfriends, shopping, and jet-setting—in his luxurious home in Germany to overseeing mundane affairs of state in Thailand.
That image makeover has become urgent now that King Bhumibol is dead and Vajiralongkorn, 64, is poised to succeed him. While the late monarch was beloved, cherished as the father of the nation and lionized as a selfless campaigner on behalf of his subjects, the prince is regarded with bafflement, indifference, even some hostility.
“My place in this world is being among my people, the Thai people,” King Bhumibol once famously declared.
It is such sentiments that earned him the deep affection of his subjects. By contrast, the crown prince acknowledged his popularity deficit in an interview with the Thai women’s magazine Dichan: “Some people like me, some people don’t like me. It’s their right…,” he said.
That was in 1987. Since then, the crown prince has done little to boost his standing, still leading a life that seems ready-made for supermarket tabloids rather than a royal court.
In an early-1980s interview with American media, his mother Queen Sirikit described him as “a little bit of a Don Juan” and allowed that, "He is a good student, a good boy, but women find him interesting and he finds women even more interesting.”
Indeed, the crown prince’s life so far has included three marriages and tales of dalliances. Of late he has been seen often in the company of Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhaya, a striking former flight attendant who is believed to live with him in Germany. Some speculate about whether she will become the presumptive monarch’s fourth consort.
In 1977, Vajiralongkorn married a maternal cousin, Soamsawali Kitiyakara. She gave birth to their daughter Princess Bajrakitiyabha in 1978. Nine months later the prince had a son by Yuvadhida Polpraserth, a commoner and aspiring actress who eventually became his second wife following a protracted divorce from his first wife. Yuvadhida had five children with the crown prince while he was still married to his first wife. Yuvadhida finally married Vajiralongkorn in 1994 and became known as Sujarinee Vivacharawongse. But that marriage, too, fell apart, and within two years Sujarinee was living in Britain with the children. So acrimonious was that split that Vajiralongkorn brought their daughter back to live in Thailand, where she’s now known as Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, but stripped his four sons of their royal titles and diplomatic passports, refused to pay their school tuition, and severed contact with them.
Vajiralongkorn married for a third time—another commoner, Srirasmi Suwadee, in 2001. They had one son, Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, and the crown prince signaled his readiness to finally settle down. Srirasmi was elevated to the rank of princess and Dipangkorn was confirmed as a royal prince, even his father’s heir.
But a now-notorious home video that was leaked in November 2009 erased any image of quiet domesticity. In the video, Srirasmi is seen cavorting topless and wearing a string bikini bottom as she and her husband celebrate the birthday of the crown prince's poodle. The video was widely seen around the world—though not in Thailand, where it is never spoken of—no surprise given the nation’s draconian lese-majeste law that mandates stiff prison sentences for “insulting” the royal family.
Vajiralongkorn divorced Srirasmi in 2014, in an episode some believe illustrates the perils of incurring the crown prince’s wrath: Following allegations of corruption by some of his wife’s relatives, the future king asked the Interior Ministry to strip his wife of her royal name and titles. Her parents were jailed for violating lese majeste, as were several of her siblings. Srirasmi was awarded $5 million and went off to live at an undisclosed location. Prince Dipangkorn went to live with his father in Germany. He is now 11 years old.
The crown prince has not yet remarried, but he carries on with his peripatetic lifestyle.
Recent photos, purportedly shot last July, show him being greeted on the tarmac of an airport by a group of saluting men preparing to usher him along a red carpet into a waiting Mercedes. His Royal Highness is dressed in slow-slung jeans, a midriff-baring tank top that reveals large, colorful—and reportedly fake—tattoos, and sandals. The unidentified woman with him is dressed similarly, in tight jeans, a halter top and stiletto heels, and carrying a fluffy white dog.
Again, the response in Thailand was muted. The military government keeps a tight handle on journalism and social media, and uses the lese-majeste law liberally to maintain “stability.”
Vajiralongkorn’s enthusiasm for Europe—particularly Germany—appears to continue unabated, as does his disinclination to spend a lot of time in his homeland. King Bhumibol was grievously ill for weeks before he succumbed on Thursday. The crown prince was on hand when his father died, but arrived in Bangkok only the day before.
After his father died, the crown prince surprised the nation by declining to become monarch immediately. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that the prince had requested time to grieve before being invested as king, even though the custom is immediate ascension: “The king is dead; long live the king.”
Analysts say the delay may reflect both Vajiralongkorn’s own wishes and reservations among some in the Thai leadership. For years there was talk among some skeptical elements of skipping Vajiralongkorn altogether and making his highly popular sister, Princess Maha Sirindhorn, queen in her own right. Such talk has faded in recent times.
“But there remain fundamental questions” before the crown prince can be crowned king, said one analyst. “Who’s going to be your queen? Who’s going to be your heir? Where are you going to live? You can’t continue to live in Germany and be king of Thailand. The time to ask these questions is now.”
In the meantime, Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, a 96-year-old former prime minister, has been named regent.
In her 1980s interview with the Dallas Times Herald, Queen Sirikit said "the royal family belongs to the people of Thailand" and that if the people did not approve of her son's behavior, he would either have to change or resign his title.
With his requests for time to grieve, Vajiralongkorn may be seeking space to decide whether he really wants to change.