Schrödinger's Princess: Is Thai Royal Alive or Dead?
Death in Thailand throws succession into chaos
The apparent sudden death on December 14 of Thai Princess Bajrakitiyabha, the eldest daughter of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, has thrown the royal succession of the massively wealthy Chakri dynasty into confusion and raised the possibility of an economic slowdown just at the time the economy is starting to emerge from Covid-19 related problems.
According to a palace statement, the princess remains in hospital, receiving support for her heart, lungs, and kidneys. Prayers have been organized across the country in a massive outpouring for her recovery, with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and other officials visiting Chulalongkorn Hospital to present offerings. However, she is widely believed in Bangkok to have died.
The Thai royalty, which extends back to the first Rama king in 1782, is almost unique in the world, protected by one of the world’s strictest lese-majeste laws forbidding insult of the monarchy – despite the louche reputation of the 70-year-old Vajiralongkorn, who spends most of his time ruling as Rama X from Germany. The military, which took power in a coup in 2014, has increasingly used enforcement of the law to protect the power structure, to the point where it can be used against those who insult the king’s dog. Critics who dare jail time say the junta uses the law to clamp down on free speech.
The 44-year-old princess, said to be heir to the throne and Vajiralongkorn’s favorite child, apparently suffered a brain aneurysm and collapsed while exercising with her dogs at a facility northeast of Bangkok. She was rushed by helicopter to Bangkok and is being kept alive at Chulalongkorn Hospital on heart-lung circulation equipment despite the fact that her condition is irreversible, according to Andrew MacGregor Marshall, the former Reuters bureau chief in Bangkok and author of the authoritative book A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand's Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century.
“By the time she arrived at the hospital, her situation was already hopeless, despite the heroic efforts to keep her alive with CPR,” Marshall, an assiduous critic of the royal lineage, wrote in his blog Secret Siam. “When the brain is deprived of oxygen, permanent damage begins within five minutes, and brain death usually occurs within 10. Bajrakitiyabha had been starved of oxygen for far longer than this.” Nine hours had passed as medical personnel performed CPR and other life-support regimens before she was hooked up to life support, MacGregor Marshall wrote.
Despite that, doctors have been ordered to keep circulating and oxygenating blood outside her body, partly because when top royalty die, mourning requires the country to virtually shut down, With the Christmas and New Year’s holidays complicating the issue, both because of family celebrations and consumer buying, Bajrakityabha must be kept “alive” so that she can die in the new year.
Whether she is technically alive, the war of succession has started in earnest and “it does not look like the dust will settle sometime soon,” said a Thai source with lines into the royalty. After the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the beloved monarch who occupied the throne as Rama IX for 70 years, dying in 2016, Vajiralongkorn wasn’t immediately named until sometime later presumably with the intervention of Queen Sirikit. The popular Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the king’s sister, 67 years old, is a possible heir but she has never married and has no children, which played a role in her being passed over for Vajiralongkorn, whose erratic behavior and tangled romantic life worked against him.
“The reason there is so much uncertainty over who will succeed Vajiralongkorn is that he’s had such a tumultuous private life that there are several possible candidates,” MacGregor Marshall wrote. “To analyze Thai royal succession dynamics, we have to start with a history of the king’s marriages. The role of Bajrakitiyabha in the shifting royal succession dynamics over the decades is also crucial.”
The king has been married four times and has taken at least two women as consorts. According to Wikipedia, he has sired at least seven children, with Bajrakitiyabha the eldest at 44.
He divorced his second wife, Sujarinee Vivacharawongse, a former actress, in 1996, accusing her of adultery with an air marshal, as well as other shortcomings, and disowned her children. Sujarinee fled first to the UK, then to the United States, where she now lives.
Naming one of the disinherited children his heir to the throne becomes embarrassing at best if not impossible. Sujarnee’s only daughter, Princess Busyanambejra, later returned to Thailand to live with her father and later changed her name to Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya. She is 36. A female heir to the throne would be the first in the Chakri line.
That leaves Vajiralongkorn’s final son, the 17-year-old Dipangkorn Rasmoijoti, by his fourth wife, Srirasmi Suwadee, whom he divorced in 2014, stripped her of her titles and perks and sent her to live in exiled straits far from Bangkok.. Dipangkorn is believed to be developmentally disabled, although mentioning the youth’s health dares the lese-majeste law.
“We know nothing about Dipangkorn's health,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an exiled critic of the administration currently living in Japan. “But it is widely believed that he suffers from autism. Putting the health issue aside, the choice of Dipangkorn as next in line could be troublesome. Nobody knows the fate of his mother, whether she is still under house arrest. I can't imagine the future king of Thailand having a mother thrown out of the palace and locked in her house.”
As for the issue of succession, he said, “Rama X intends to make it blur. Partly, it is a buying-time strategy since there seems to be nobody suitable for the throne, especially now that the favorite daughter is dead. But even if she is alive, that doesn't solve the problem since she has been single and has no heir of her own.
As he and others have pointed out, the success of the monarchy depends on the ability to produce offspring. Her death will lead to a crisis of succession. Having no designated heir will not guarantee the stability of the throne, nor the future of Thailand.