Since becoming Thailand’s king in 2016, Vajiralongkorn has been regaining control over the wealth and property that his family lost after the absolute monarchy was toppled on 24 June 1932. But it’s about more than money. He appears to be erasing emblematic reminders of what he considers his family’s humiliation. And he’s setting the crown on a path that’s less dependent on the hitherto domineering army.
Reclaiming royal rights
Vajiralongkorn, who turns 68 on 28 July, is the world’s richest royal. In 2017, he reclaimed full ownership of Crown Property Bureau assets, unofficially valued at more than A$46 billion. In contrast, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is worth around A$24 billion. Queen Elizabeth has a reported personal wealth of around A$800 million.
But Vajiralongkorn’s moves to regain royal assets don’t stop at money. He repossessed for exclusive royal use a historic teak palace, previously a popular tourist attraction. Under his control, the Crown Property Bureau moved two iconic institutions off Crown land near the main royal palace, these are now among properties destined to become new palace facilities and royal grounds, according to media reports.
The king is also reviving bygone royal practices in his palace, which he reputedly rules with an iron hand. Two months after his 2019 coronation and revelations that he had wed—for the fourth time—he took an official concubine, the first king to do so since Chulalongkorn (1868-1910). But after three months, Vajiralongkorn stripped her of all ranks and titles and unconfirmed reports say she’s in a military gaol.
Vajiralongkorn’s is known to have exacting standards and expectations of obedience. In 1996, he disowned the four sons he had with the woman who later became his second wife — they are not mentioned by the palace or in mainstream Thai media reports on the royal family. In 2014, he stripped his third wife of her royal title — her parents, uncle and three brothers have been gaoled on lese majesté charges. Errant court officials are dismissed and publicly humiliated. There are also unconfirmed reports of darker deeds, including allegations of a private dungeon, torture, and deaths.
Re-imagining the past
Since Vajiralongkorn became king, there has been a concerted campaign to re-imagine events associated with the 1932 coup in royalist, not revolutionary, ways. Although some links to the revolution had been removed before he ascended the throne, the pace has picked up greatly in his reign.
In April 2017, the most famous coup memorial—a small brass plaque embedded in Bangkok’s Royal Plaza marking where the rebels proclaimed the end of the absolute monarchy—vanished. No-one has claimed responsibility, but it was clearly done with government connivance. Surveillance cameras in the high security area were turned off. Police refused to investigate. And an opposition politician who demanded its return was charged with sedition. It was replaced with royalist plaque, which was fenced off with a sign declaring it royal ground.
Earlier this year, the Crown Property Bureau announced it will replace 10 buildings on the iconic Ratchadamnoen (Royal Procession) Avenue with ones in the styles of the absolute monarchy. It is less clear whether Vajiralongkorn ordered the unexplained removal of memorials to the army leaders of the 1932 coup. And he might not have initiated the midnight removal of a three-storey monument to the army’s 1933 defeat of an attempted royalist counter-coup, nor instigated Vajiralongkorn loyalist army chief General Apirat Kongsompong’s decision to honour the royalist officers involved. The Thai military has always been selective about the history that it presents. The navy’s museum ignores its failed 1951 attempt to overthrow the ruling army junta, even though it resulted in its flagship sunk, battles in Bangkok’s streets and around 600 dead. And the army refuses to acknowledge that it fought alongside Japan in World War Two, claiming instead that Thailand was neutral.
The king, who served in the military and is well read on Thai history, would know the army has for generations esteemed the 1932 coup’s military leaders, despite outward professions of loyalty to the crown. He could well read into this veneration that there are those in the military that continue to believe it is Thailand’s pre-eminent institution, as argued by one of those honoured, Plaek Phibunsongkhram (see Box). Phibunsongkhram, in the early years of the reign of Vajiralongkorn’s father, Bhumibol, ignored palace wishes, controlled Bhumibol’s engagement with the public, and even reportedly threatened to dethrone him.
Vajiralongkorn would know that it is in his interest for the armed forces to focus solely on national defence and royal protection, rather than reflect on the times when the military could dictate to the monarchy, and ended the reign of an unpopular king. A wish to refocus the military’s values could also be behind Apirat’s plans to make the military more professional, disciplined and lean.
Bringing the military to heel
It appears that Vajiralongkorn doesn’t completely trust the armed forces or ex-military ministers to obey him, and that he’s working to fix this. He has set up in Bangkok an elite Royal Guard Command of at least 5,000 well-equipped and well-trained troops that answers directly to him, and brought other Bangkok units under palace control. Other army units are being moved out of the capital, which will leave security there in the hands of his personal forces. Foreign diplomats and Thai intelligence officers say Prime Minister (and ex-junta head) Prayuth Chan-ocha had little input in these changes, which will make it more difficult for the army to seize power without royal approval.
Vajiralongkorn has ensured that trusted generals hold key command positions. Loyalist General Apirat Kongsompong was appointed army chief — the most powerful military position in Thailand — in 2018. Another general close to the king, Narongphan Jitkhaewthae, now heads the First Army Region based around Bangkok, which is crucial to withstanding or supporting coups. He could well become the next army chief after Apirat retires in October.
Wariness of the military would also explain why Vajiralongkorn is ensuring he is not totally dependent on it for his security. In October 2018, a special police division was set up to protect the monarchy. In January 2019, it was symbolically renamed to ‘Ratchawallop Police Retainers, King’s Guards 904’ and its role was expanded to cover all Thailand. It is commanded by the brother of one of the king’s trusted lieutenants.
Working from his German home is not a long-term option
In this context, it is understandable why the king chooses to live in Germany, making only flying visits to Thailand. He had the constitution amended specifically so that he could continue to exercise his royal powers, despite residing overseas. But his moves to assure himself of his security in Bangkok suggests he plans to return there at some stage.
Vajiralongkorn would be aware that, the longer he lives outside his homeland, the more estranged he is from his subjects. Many Thais resent him staying abroad. In March, a Thai-language hashtag translating to “why do we need a king?” was a popular Twitter topic in Thailand.
The king is not completely indifferent to the palace’s need to promote a positive image in Thailand. He has stopped the government using the draconian lese majesté law . A sizeable volunteer corps he set up in 2017 to instil discipline and loyalty to the monarchy has been regularly deployed on community improvement projects in their distinctive blue and yellow uniforms. And after Thais expressed their anger at rush hour road closures for royal motorcades, the king acted to reduce their impact.
Less clear are Vajiralongkorn’s attitudes to civilian government. He has kept the royal family from playing an overt political role, stopping his sister’s prime ministerial candidacy in 2019. It may be significant that, unlike the memorials to the military leaders of the 1932 coup, those to its civilian ideological architect, Pridi Banomyong, have not been touched. That said, Vajiralongkorn’s loyal lieutenant, Apirat, would have been unlikely to have lashed out at the left of politics, accusing them of trying to “plant wrong ideas into the minds of students” if he did not believe that he had the king’s support. Although he didn’t name names, he was clearly targeting the head of the since-dissolved progressive Future Forward Party.
So there are small grounds to hope that, if the king is confident that he has achieved his security and royal asset reclamation goals, he could return to Thailand and reign as a constitutional monarch. This would be the smoothest path to avoid repeating the widespread dissatisfaction with the monarchy that was the bedrock for the 1932 coup. And if he can also disabuse the military of the idea that it has the right to meddle in politics, then those who ask “why do we need a king?” will have been answered.