Why revealing photos of Thailand’s Crown Prince are making royalists anxious.
From the Chulalongkorn period onwards, members of the Thai royal family liked to ship their children off to be educated in the West. The goals were determinedly to catch up with Western modernity and to flaunt their own civilised veneer in front of their Western counterparts.
King Vajiravudh and King Prajadhipok were sent to Eton College in England. Prajadhipok also graduated from the Woolwich Military Academy and thus became familiar with British society. This could have explained why he chose to retire in Surrey after his abdication in 1935.
Prince Chakkrabongse Bhuvanath graduated from the Page Corps in St Petersburg, representing King Chulalongkorn at the Tsarist Court. Prince Mahidol Adulyadej pursued his medical study in Massachusetts, where the current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, was born. Bhumibol himself was raised in a picturesque Lausanne, attending French-speaking schools and eventually enrolling at the University of Lausanne. But he never graduated.
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn was neither academic nor intellectual. King Bhumibol sent his son to private colleges in Great Britain and Australia. Reckoning that a career in the army would suit his personality, Vajiralongkorn undertook military training at the Royal Military College, Duntroon in Canberra. In my interviews with some of his classmates in Australia, they referred to him fondly. Vajiralongkorn still keeps in touch with his old colleagues there and welcomes them with a royal treatment when they visit him in Thailand.
But it is the love of Germany’s Bavaria that ultimately drew Vajiralongkorn back time and again over the years. While the primary reason for Vajiralongkorn making Munich his second home are his regular medical check-ups, the Crown Prince found the region relatively tranquil and far enough away from the sophisticated atmosphere he normally encounters elsewhere. In particular, withdrawing from maddening crowds provides him privacy.
When King Frederick of Prussia yearned for a private residence where he could strip away royal ceremonies and customs, he ordered a construction of a palace called Sans Souci (Without Worries) in Potsdam, near Berlin, in 1745. At Sans Souci, Frederick was living a secret life in an all-male society away from the public eye, similar to what was seen within the royal court of King Vajiravudh.
Sans Souci lent its idea to Prajadhipok, who built a summer royal residence outside Bangkok in Hua Hin – construction commenced in 1926 and finished in 1933. Prajadhipok called the new palace, Klai Kangwon, a Thai translation of Sans Souci.
Vajiralongkorn’s familiarity with Munich was formed during the years he spent with his former consort, Srirasmi, whom he divorced in late 2014. It is also imperative to mention that the Crown Property Bureau has the majority holding in the Kempinski Hotels group and Vajiralongkorn often stayed at the Kempinski Munich, before he purchased an ultra-luxurious mansion in Lake Starnberg for 12 million Euros.
Named “Villa Stolberg”, it has a living area of 1,400 square metres, houses at least 15 rooms, and serves as a main home for his new consort, Major General Suthida Vajiralongkorn, nicknamed Nui, a former Thai Airways crew member, as well as for his son Prince Dipankorn Rasmichoti (from his previous marriage). Located about 30 kilometres southwest of Munich, the villa sits adjacent a beautiful lake.
But Vajiralongkorn’s new mansion is considered much smaller than the one in Lausanne where his father lived during his childhood. Located in Pully, east of Lausanne, “Villa Vadhana”, named after King Bhumibol’s grandmother, Queen Savang Vadhana, occupied 3,200 square metres with a view of Switzerland’s famed Lac Léman. Today, “Villa Vadhana” no longer exists, having burned down and been dismantled many years ago.
The less sophisticated lifestyle in Bavaria perhaps permits the Crown Prince to be himself, and to let loose. The latest photos of him wearing a skimpy undersized singlet barely covering massive Yakuza-styled tattoo stickers on his back, chest and arms reinforce this freedom of expression outside the rigidly royal traditions back in Bangkok. Yet, the beauty of the Bavarian scenic landscape refuses to treat his uninhabited lifestyle kindly. He has provided time and again much sought-after stories to feed the appetite and curiosity of German tabloid readers.
Royal life overseas is never free from intrusions. When Prince Chakkrabong Bhuvanath decided to marry his Kiev-born Ekaterina Ivanovna Desnitsky without the permission of his father, Chulalongkorn, he was compelled to hide his secret from the Russian media and those close to Tsar Nicholas II. He held a private marriage ceremony in Istanbul, and left his new wife in Singapore on his journey back to Siam. Chulalongkorn was furious when he discovered that his son brought home a farang wife.
In Lausanne, Princess Mother Sangwal, in the wake of the death of King Ananda in 1946, requested the Swiss police to guard Villa Vadhana 24 hours a day to ensure the safety of the young King Bhumibol. What she did not realise was that the content of the reports from the Swiss police on the family’s daily activities inside the villa revealed many dark secrets she would rather conceal from the public.
Vajiralongkorn’s presence in Munich today is much more explosive. In 2011, the German court impounded a Boeing 737 aircraft at Munich Airport, which belonged to the Crown Prince, as compensation for a long overdue debt of 30 million Euros the Thai government owed a now-defunct German construction company for the Don Muang Tollway. The Thai government subsequently agreed to pay a deposit of 20 million Euros to bail out the aircraft.
Meanwhile, Vajiralongkorn took steps to prevent his Mercedes-Benz SLK being confiscated after the aircraft was seized, hiding it in a private carpark inside the Munich Kempinski, where it was protected by a dozen bodyguards.
Like his father, Vajiralongkorn loves fast cars. German Paparazzi often get snapshots of him driving expensive cars in the Bavarain region. For example, he was once spotted in Erding with a white Porsche 911 Turbo, which costs almost 200,000 Euros.
His extravagant and peculiar lifestyle has become a major attraction for the German media. Vajiralongkorn often makes headlines — even on seemingly insignificant stories. For example, the German press once reported a dispute between Vajiralongkorn and a restaurant owner in Germany. Vajiralongkorn made a reservation at the restaurant, and the owner, eager to please him, closed the entire place for the privacy of the Thai royalty. But Vajiralongkorn turned up very late, did not order a lot of food, thus upsetting the owner who claimed to have lost a substantial profit that evening.
This week, a widely circulated tabloid paper, Bild, published a set of photos of Vajiralongkorn at the Munich Airport, in a bizarre crop tank top with tattoo stickers on his body. A few days later, former Reuters reporter, Andrew McGregor Marshall, released another photo of the Crown Prince roaming Munich in a similar tank top with different tattoo prints on his torso. Although Vajiralongkorn is protected by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, better known as lèse-majesté, these photos were shared widely on social media.
In the age of social media, the private life Vajiralongkorn really wants, as if he were at Sans Souci, is nowhere to be found in Bavaria. In Thailand, many Thais lack opportunities to see the heir apparent going wild, as it is forbidden in Thailand to print news, reports or photos that potentially damage the reputation of the monarchy. But he is in Germany and there can be nothing to stop the German media from publishing his saucy stories and disseminating them through social networks.
At the critical royal transition, royal image making is vital, even if it is too late for Vajiralongkorn to reinvent himself. It might be true that Vajiralongkorn might care little about his own image in public. The mysterious death of Moh Yong seems to suggest this argument.
But the recent episode revealing the Crown Prince in shocking dresses has caused great anxiety, particularly among royalists who fear that the nation’s next reign will end in disaster. A throne in trouble is trouble for them too.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is Associate Professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.