Can Vajiralongkorn deliver the stable monarchy the Thai junta wants? Kevin Hewison takes a look at the past, present, and future king.
Thailand’s succession is complete with only the coronation to take place at some future time. The accession process was messy.
When the king passed on October 13, the junta had already prepared for a meeting of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA). Vajiralongkorn surprised them, and many others, by delaying the process. General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that the prince wanted time to mourn. Indeed, the prince did lead the official mourning for the first fortnight of these ceremonies before jetting back to Munich and his villa in Tutzing on beautiful Lake Starnberg.
At the end of October, the date for accession was leaked. It was to be December 1, and so it was. When the prince returned from Germany, the delayed process was reactivated.
That saw the Council of Ministers, mainly composed of the men who planned and implemented the 2014 military coup, sent notification that an heir apparent had been appointed by the late king. The junta-selected NLA met to acknowledge this. Its president met with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, together with Acting Regent General Prem Tinsulanonda, General Prayuth and the president of the Supreme Court to invite him to take the throne.
The delayed succession caused some observers to wonder if there really was a power struggle within the palace. Over the past few years, there has been rumour and analysis that suggested a contested succession. Usually, the protagonists were said to be the prince and his sister, Princess Sirindhorn. Each was said to have boosters and backers operating behind the curtain that maintains the secrecy around the royal family.
The notion of a succession struggle unleashed a renewed and broad discussion about the monarchy that was wonderfully enlightening. It also did much to change the standard and disciplining narrative on the monarchy promoted by palace propaganda.
While not all contributions are mentioned here, some excellent work has emerged on the monarchy over the past decade. Paul Handley’s outstanding The King Never Smiles appeared in 2005 and kick-started the renewed critical discussion of the monarchy. Several new works have been published. Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis has been the iconic intervention, and others like Patrick Jory and Serhat Ünaldi have each produced innovative books. Christine Gray’s path-breaking anthropological studies from the 1970s and 1980s were also brought into focus.
Thai academics like Thongchai Winichakul, Ji Ungpakorn, Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Somsak Jeamteerasakul were important for taking this debate on the monarchy to Thailand, incurring the wrath of ultra-royalists and the military brass. Several are now in exile, with the lèse majesté law being invoked, and books and websites have been banned.
Hindsight doesn’t always give us clear vision. Yet it may suggest that the attention to the succession crisis has caused some blindness on something else that was going on.
Propaganda aside, the late king was a political meddler. Arguably, though, his last major intervention was when he and the queen met the military leaders of the 2006 coup, along with privy councillor General Prem. That intervention was acknowledging the logical outcome of the palace’s manoeuvring against Thaksin Shinawatra. It followed the king’s earlier “advice” to judges to sort out the problems associated with the April 2006 election.
After that, the king spent almost all his time in hospital, being treated for a range of ailments. His health declined and his incapacities, evident when he did appear in public, usually in a wheelchair, meant that he had withdrawn from almost all royal activities. Queen Sirikit continued her political activism for a while longer, but she was soon hospitalised and also incapacitated.
It was Vajiralongkorn and Sirindhorn who took over most of the monarchy’s public events. Indeed, sometimes supported by others in the royal family, they had been doing much of the ceremonial work of the palace for quite a few years.
The prince has seldom exhibited much enthusiasm for these activities, usually appearing stern and hurried, if not harried. As we know, he preferred to reside overseas and his interests did not seem to extend to the endless stream of propaganda and ceremonial events. His affable sister appeared more comfortable in that role. It seems that a division of royal duties may have emerged or even been agreed upon.
By the time of the 2014 putsch, the prince had undertaken his role as crown prince for more than four decades. He’d displayed loyalty to his father and mother, he’d “served” the nation as an army officer and he’d participated in or performed many of the Brahmin and Buddhist ceremonies reserved for high royals.
There were numerous gaffs and scandals. The prince seemed unable to avoid troubles that became the subject of gossip and confounded palace image-makers. His three marriage “failures” have been “big bang” events that sometimes showed the prince as vindictive; four sons from one marriage remain overseas. Then there was lavish spending, Fu Fu the pampered pup, the notorious leaked birthday video, pictures of naked consorts, fake tattoos and weird clothing, to name just a few. Yet he continued with the necessary royal tasks.
At least in part, the 2014 coup seemed to respond to concerns about succession. The avowedly monarchist junta threw its resources behind the prince. It left little doubt that the prince would succeed the incapacitated and lingering king. It arranged several showcase events for the prince, not always without problems.
More importantly, the junta supported the prince in getting his personal life in order, preparing to take the throne. In late 2014, the prince decided it was time to ditch then Princess Srirasmi. His official wife since 2001, the separation was played out in public as the princess was stripped of her title and shamed, with almost all her family jailed for lèse majesté offences. This allowed the prince to promote his favourite, Suthida. The former flight attendant now carries the family name Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhya, the rank of Lieutenant General, and at least two royal decorations.
These events punctuated the more mundane elements of a long succession that has been taking place for more than a decade. The king receded from view and Vajiralongkorn and Sirindhorn became the public faces of the monarchy. In ceremonial terms, though, it has been the prince who has held position and precedence. None of the gaffs and scandals changed this.
Indeed, as the media endlessly states, the prince does not have the prestige of his father, but he had taken his father’s ceremonial place for more than a decade. Endless rumours about the prince have not prevented his reign being acknowledged and even welcomed by loyalists and even by many who doubted his suitability. That’s probably the best the 64-year-old prince and the palace could have hoped for.
The prince and the military regime now have about a year to ensure that the new reign is settled in. The makeover of the prince-as-king, sans weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, is already filling the mainstream media. The long mourning period, the suffocating manipulation of veneration for the past king, the hair-triggered lèse majesté law and the junta’s continuing political dominance all play in the new king’s favour, building on the long succession. It remains to be seen how much the general public will buy in.
Behind the palace façade, however, as the late king showed, the throne is a living thing, changed by the incumbent. While there may have been a long succession, we still know relatively little about the prince’s political proclivities, his plans for the throne or his relationship with advisers. We can expect changes in the palace and the way it is managed – indeed the long succession has seen some changes already.
What will be more fascinating is how the prince views his political role and how much he studied and understood his father’s interventionist politics. How that plays out in Thailand’s continuing political crisis could be defining of the reign. The junta certainly wants a secure monarchy. Can the prince deliver, building on the long succession? Or is there to be more tumult for the palace and a return to the broad questions that underpinned discussions of a succession crisis. Interesting times lie ahead.
Kevin Hewison is a Distinguished Emeritus Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Editor-in-chief of the Journal of Contemporary Asia.