Paul Sanderson takes a look behind the fog of fawning platitudes about the new King and the climate of insecurity in the country.
Not being able to write the truth is no excuse for knowingly publishing lies, but the Bangkok Post came close on Dec 1 when it ran with the ludicrous headline Joyous Thais await new King. The opening paragraph on the morning before the thrice-divorced playboy prince Vajiralongkorn officially accepted the invitation to become King Rama X mentions joy and admiration where the reality for many is fear and trepidation. At best, the reaction is mixed. The story, however, quickly descends into the type of unctuous vox pops – “Ms Hayu said as her eyes filled with tears” – that are necessary to fill a void the truth dare not tread.
Worse, arguably, was the accompanying page one story “Education key to progress” in which Vajiralongkorn was described as having “devoted his life and resources to aiding the development of the Kingdom and improving Thai people’s livelihoods”. Now, no one seriously expects the Bangkok Post to call Vajiralongkorn Thailand’s answer to Caligula without being shut down and editors being jailed, but it need not be so nauseating. Vajiralongkorn has devoted his life to himself, prefers Bavaria to Bangkok and upended centuries of tradition by declining to accept the mantle for seven weeks after his father’s death. Everybody knows, as Leonard Cohen told us, but nobody says anything too loudly.
Still, even the fog of fawning platitudes tells you something of the climate of insecurity as Vajiralongkorn took the title of Rama X, although custom dictates the coronation must wait until after his father’s cremation next year. Record sentences have been handed down for lese majeste offences since the 2014 coup, 1,300 websites have been shut down since King Bhumibol’s death on Oct 13 – more than the previous five years combined – and the junta has mooted an emergency online censorship agency, because its hand-picked parliament may not be quick enough with the rubber stamp.
International coverage is curtailed, too. Many reports from correspondents in Bangkok are peppered with phrases such as “Vajiralongkorn does not enjoy his father’s level of popularity” and other euphemisms that hint at his notoriety, while others such as the Daily Mail show no restraint. Fairfax’s Lindsay Murdoch at least mentioned that he had five sons and two daughters to three wives, officially; Bangkok’s second-largest English daily The Nation chose not to count the four sons struck from the line of succession while the Bangkok Post neglected to mention children whatsoever – self-censorship that will ultimately be self-defeating. The ABC’s Southeast Asia correspondent Liam Cochrane included a telling line: “A more detailed description of the Crown Prince’s colourful life is not possible for the ABC’s Bangkok bureau, due to the country’s harsh lese majesty laws, with a 15-year sentence for each count of royal defamation.”
The truth is public enemy number one because it hurts. No one need invent stories about a man who discards wives and heirs, jails or exiles relatives and is believed to have orchestrated a deadly purge of former loyal advisers. Wearing full-body fake tattoos and giving his poodle a royally sponsored funeral (the dog was an air chief marshal, after all) just looks bad. The generals who have hitched their fortunes to the royal franchise don’t want any awkward questions about either their complicity in ensuring the smooth transition, or speculation they may be trying to manipulate Vajiralongkorn.
Having mythologised Bhumibol for so long – the dreary royal jazz compositions are starting to fade from the radio after nearly two months, but black and white advertisements praising his almost sacred guidance remain omnipresent – it was impossible for any heir to compare. Vajiralongkorn, however, has a reputation for being the polar opposite of his father; where one is calm, wise and selfless the other is capricious, vengeful and selfish. Nothing could ever be quite so simple: Bhumibol partied hard and amassed a fortune while urging poor rural Thais to live within their means, and the father of the nation had a rather dysfunctional family of his own. Oldest daughter Ubolratana was effectively exiled to the United States after marrying an American, and was never mentioned in the royal news until after her divorce in 1988.
In this, Vajiralongkorn had something of a template for the treatment of his wives, although he has taken it to extremes. Wife number one was a royal, and not easily dismissed. Wife number two was banished in 1996 amid loud and public allegations of adultery, then later airbrushed from history. The swift and utter humiliation of third wife Srirasm’s family in late 2014 was alarming, with her father sentenced to 31 years in jail for corruption and brothers also locked away.
Just as lese majeste was used under Bhumibol’s reign to stifle questions about what comes next, it will be used to prevent discussion of the succession after Vajiralongkorn. At 64, with his health a source of concern, his only official male heir is 11 and rarely seen. The Daily Beast asked some good questions about who Vajiralongkorn would take as a consort and name heir, but missed the point when calling him a single man: making former air hostess Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya his queen would not be a good look right now. She already holds the rank of lieutenant general and is a commander in his household guard. Photographs of her in uniform attending Bhumibol’s funeral rites, always a step behind Vajiralongkorn, were issued by the palace, and she has been seen on the royal news. Pictures of the pair with a newborn, said to be a son, are far less official and have been spread surreptitiously for more than a year.
Henry VIII had six wives. The crown isn’t even on his head, and Vajiralongkorn is already halfway there.
Paul Sanderson is pen name. The author is an independent writer and consultant based in and around Southeast Asia since 2007 who has contributed to several research projects and textbooks.