Both Donald Trump and Thailand’s Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn share something in common — the use of their “families-of-the-moment” for political gain. But what happens to those who magically disappear?
Anyone who has followed Donald Trump’s inexorable march to the Republican nomination for president of the United States and the succession fiasco (one might say “crisis”) generated by the decadent lifestyle of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn of Thailand might sense a few parallels.
In particular, one might note the artful presentation of their magical families-of-the-moment, and the vanishing acts therein.
The spectacles associated with the braggart Trump and Thailand’s infamous Crown Prince are similar to the balcony scenes at Buckingham Palace, whereby assorted royal relatives periodically appear and disappear at the wish of the queen — but with a few obvious twists.
Like Queen Elizabeth, Trump and Vajiralongkorn are masters of extravaganza — the big show. Unlike the queen — but perhaps not so unlike her husband and children – the two are serial adulterers, both having children out of wedlock due to unfortunate overlaps of mistresses and wives (see more on Trump here and Vajiralongkorn here).
While Queen Elizabeth’s version of family values would seem to prioritise the keeping of royals’ clothes on, at least in public, Trump and Vajiralongkorn, lifelong enthusiasts of the Mile High Club, have been known to command their consorts to crawl naked at will.
One consequence of these men’s alleged sexual appetites is that their wives and children span an awkward continuum in which the eldest children veer ever more closely in age to the wives and mistresses. By design, one might say, it takes a road map to tell them apart.
Trump’s current extravaganza, this week’s Republican Party nominating convention in Ohio, features his third and youngest trophy-wife Melania, face frozen in a near permanent grimace as she stands adoringly at her husband’s side, a duty she is now even more determined to avoid, and Trump’s photogenic and magically talented adult children by first wife Ivana, a somewhat embittered former skier and fashion model turned New York socialite.
The steadfast presence of Ivana’s adult children is punctuated by showcase appearances by Trump’s youngest daughter, the California-raised Tiffany – yes, named after the jewelry store — and Melania’s equally modestly named son Barron, whose near total absence from the campaign trail is itself worthy of note.
“Tiffany,” explains former aspiring actress and wife number two Marla Maples cautiously and only somewhat acerbically, “was raised outside of Trumpdom.”
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, more real rather than pretend royalty, likewise romped from one family to the next, albeit on a far grander scale, converting enchanting mistresses into wives, discarding them at will. Unlike Trump (for now), there appears to be no end in sight for the Crown Prince – Trump’s male heirs being assured, Vajiralongkorn’s, not.
The most extravagant ritual moment by far in Thailand’s recent history was the stupendous December 2015 Bike4Dad event in Bangkok.
The Crown Prince, looking wiry and athletic – not sick, as if he were HIV positive or had some blood disease as per persistent rumours – led a cast of thousands in a massively publicised, environmentally-friendly bike rally in honour of his near comatose father, King Bhumibol, from whom he has been estranged for the last 30+ years of his life.
Family values, anyone?
The bike rally, an exquisitely crafted rendition of royal ritual set against a modern celestial landscape -– an event that would have done Queen Elizabeth proud — featured the prince’s two daughters by wives one and two. Contrast to other of the royal relatives – almost a ritual slap in the face to the same, one might say – the princesses Bajrakitiyabha (“Princess Pa” or “Patty,” born in 1978) and Sirivannavari (born in 1987) were fit and athletic, adoring of their father.
Conspicuously absent from the rally, by design one senses, was the prince’s younger sister Maha Sirindhorn, favoured by his enemies and occasionally his own parents for the throne.
Sirindhorn is nicknamed “the fat one” by her detractors, Isan taxi drivers and the like, uttered in English so farang will be sure to get the point. This is a pun on her official nickname of phra thep or “Princess Angel,” a stark contrast, as the official narrative goes, to the grim shadow cast by her disobedient older brother.
Likewise absent from the prince’s version of key players in this vital new Kingdom of the Fit and the Fat was the equally rotund, aristocratic wife number one Soamsawali Kitiyakara (born in 1952, married in 1977, divorced in 1991), who ate her way into obesity after his aspiring film-star mistress, Sujarinee, began to bear him sons named and blessed by the abbot of Wat Bowonniwet, the foremost royal temple in Bangkok.
Also absent were the prince’s second wife and former mistress, the thrice renamed Sujarinee Vivacharawongse (born in 1962, married in 1994, divorced in 1996), who fled for her life to England with her five children after her enraged husband publicly accused her of adultery; former princess consort and wife number three, the beautiful, exquisitely deferential former bargirl Srirasmi Suwadee (born in 1971, married in 2001, divorced in 2014), exiled to the south, fate unknown; and even his rumored fourth wife Major-General Suthida Vajiralongkiorn (“Nui), a former air hostess in his personal air fleet who gave birth to an infant son (anon) in 2014.
In her rare appearances accompanying the prince on his ritual duties in Bangkok, Major-General Suthida sports a deer-in-the-headlights look, acutely conscious, one supposes, of the fate of her predecessors. The fixed look on Suthida’s face, one thinks, is similar to that on Melania’s face after the debacle of the plagiarised speech. Melania, who was Trump’s mistress during the infamous photo shoot for Britain’s GQ, may no longer be so eager to crawl.
Also artfully vanished from both kingdom and bike rally were Sirivannavari’s four older brothers, living in exile in America with their mother, callously disowned by their father. Alone of the siblings, the thrice-renamed Sirivannavari was snatched from England as a small child, folded into the official embrace of the royal family as signified by the favour of the queen and the awarding of auspicious royal names and titles.
Unlike Sirivannavari’s ill-fated siblings, both princess-daughters live the life of globe-trotting royals, with apparently limitless funds at their disposal. Princess Patty has been a jet-setter since birth.
Princess Sirivannavari, with her father’s blessing, pursued an initially promising career in fashion, which, for the prince, embodied yet a new ideal of family. Sirivannavari made the 2008 list of Forbes’ Hottest Royals. Patty did not.
Likewise absent from the bike spectacle – celebrated by Thai newspapers and the military junta alike as the embodiment of national unity cum Thai family values – was Vajiralongkorn’s beloved but flawed heir presumptive, Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, born to Srirasmi in 2005.
Former hope of the kingdom and of his father (to clean up the succession mess), Dipangkorn’s off appearance and behaviour have long given rise to speculation about autism, ADD/ADHD and the like. Such flaws, painfully obvious in the ritual appearances to which the prince has been subjected since birth, signaled an end to Srirasmi’s hopes of becoming queen.
Either that or the video of Srirasmi crouching naked at the prince’s feet on the occasion of her 30th birthday party. The video was posted on the Internet by the prince’s enemies in 2007, some six years after the event. Included on the long list of suspects therein would be an angry ex-wife and her relatives.
Meanwhile, Srirasmi’s parents and close relatives remain jailed on charges of lese-majeste for abruptly unauthorised use of the prince’s “name” in business transactions, said transactions being typical of the entitlements granted to the royal in-laws. Demoted to the name and status of commoner, Srirasmi, herself a former fashion icon, has disappeared from the public eye.
Vajiralongkorn, like Trump, being intolerant of fat women, having schooled his official children in the rigours of extreme fitness, Dipangkorn technically would have been a cute addition to the Bike4Dad event, in the same way that the young Barron Trump might be a cute addition to the Trump Family Values Show in Ohio and elsewhere on the campaign trail.
Even cuter still would be an appearance by the prince’s infant son, except he does not officially exist – the prince, one presumes, having learned caution from the Dipangkorn catastrophe.
So successful are these vanishing acts on the respective patriarchs’ march to power, one has to wonder about the value of family at all. So extravagant are the presentations, the disappearances seem natural, not worthy of note.
Or, one notes them at one’s own risk, both men being famed for their ruthlessness, for vanquishing their enemies by whatever means possible.
The saddest thing about magic family is that that all evidence to the contrary, these moments are presented as incontrovertible proof of the tyrants’ essential kindness and good character.
“You can’t fake good children,” declares Trump’s vice-presidential running mate, gesturing dramatically towards Trump’s children at the Cleveland convention.
King Bhumibol, if he could speak, might have something to say about that.
Christine Gray is a cultural anthropologist who writes about monarchy, ritual, gender and power.