Rumor Nation

Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn showed up in the flesh at Kasetsart University in Bangkok on Friday to watch his wife receive a master’s degree in home economics, debunking widespread speculation in the capital over the past few weeks that he had died or was incapacitated.

Indeed, Bangkok’s supercharged rumor mill has had the prince everywhere and nowhere at once. Variations of the rumors had him taking flight simulation courses in Canada or flying illegally over Sweden. The darkest and most tragic accounts—which were picked up by several blogs—said he died in Switzerland while undergoing treatment for an incurable disease.

Either way, taxi drivers, office workers, executives and bureaucrats across the capital all waited anxiously to see if the tales were true. The story seemed plausible to many for a number of reasons. First, whispers that the prince is suffering from a terminal illness are nothing new. Second, he hadn’t made a public appearance since he opened a new theatre on June 3 after making several high-profile appearances throughout the year. Third, the rumors were widespread, persistent and confirmed by military and diplomatic sources to foreign newswires and top editors of local newspapers, which would never dare print the information anyway until receiving confirmation from the palace.

It’s unclear who started the rumor campaign or why, but many observers said that something was certainly amiss. Even so, the opacity surrounding Thailand’s monarchy allows rumors like this to fester as all official public information is tightly controlled.

But the tale about Vajiralongkorn took on a life of its own because of the many questions surrounding succession issues when his father, the esteemed but aging King Bhumibol Adulyadej, passes away.

Though it’s taboo to discuss, some segments of the Thai public would prefer to see someone else besides Vajiralongkorn become the monarch. Many Thais have a negative impression of the crown prince despite palace attempts in recent years to give his image a makeover.

Moreover, deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who reportedly helped to bankroll the prince’s jet-setting lifestyle, would lose a pillar of support inside the monarchy. It’s tough to tell if this would complicate efforts by Thaksin to return to power one day, as his removal from office was largely supported by royalist bureaucrats and soldiers loyal to Privy Council chief Prem Tinsulanonda, a former army chief and prime minister who is seen as Thailand’s ultimate power broker.

Either way, the succession questions would have been forced on the public, even if most people would still be reluctant to think about it. Bhumibol will turn 80 in December and his own health is the subject of wide speculation.

After Vajiralongkorn, who turns 55 on Saturday, possible successors include his two-year-old son, Prince Dipangkara Rasmijoti, and the king’s popular daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

Indeed, Sirindhorn could possibly serve as regent until the younger prince turns 18, although the constitution allows for a female successor if the king has not named an heir. The decision ultimately rests with either the king or the privy council.

Although the monarchy is highly revered and deemed “above politics” by many Thais, the military-led government has certainly levered the king’s immense popularity to gain support for the coup. Bhumibol’s praise during his annual December birthday speech for the government of appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, who served beside Prem on his advisory council, helped boost the unelected government’s legitimacy.

The king’s presence undoubtedly acts as a buffer to prevent widespread political violence in much of the country (apart from the vicious insurgency raging in the majority Malay-Muslim southernmost provinces, of course). But when Bhumibol eventually passes away—a thought some might find offensive even to entertain—the monarchy’s aura of morality will take a blow, inviting those who challenge the aristocracy to fight back against any moves from soldiers and royalist Bangkok elites perceived to restrict civil liberties and retain their grip on power.

Although some critics may say it’s useless to even discuss rumors surrounding the monarchy, strict lese-majeste laws and a possible public backlash prevent any open discussion, creating the conditions for rumors to proliferate. The fears are certainly justified. A university philosophy lecturer was recently threatened with charges for asking on an exam if the monarchy was necessary for Thai society and how it should be adapted to a democratic system. This climate of secrecy and fear clearly has a destabilizing effect, as seen by the protest at Prem’s house last Sunday that turned violent.

Since the September 2006 putsch, anti-coup protestors have accused Prem of giving the green light for General Sonthi Boonyaratglin to take Thaksin out with guns. Prior to the power seizure, Prem, a former army chief himself, dressed up in full military garb and told soldiers to be loyal to the king instead of the government—signaling that indeed they had divergent interests.

Now the protest leaders are in jail for inciting violence, and Surayud has accused them of trying to take down the monarchy—an explosive charge that even drew a rebuke from The Nation newspaper, which has more or less supported the coupmakers.

Surayud’s “statement condemning the violence—in which he claimed that the protests could be part of a conspiracy to undermine Thailand’s monarchy—was uncalled for,” the editorial said. “After all, the country’s political situation has already become fragile, without bringing its most beloved institution into the picture…. Thai politics has deteriorated into underground power plays that could erupt into a bloody upheaval with just a little spark.”

But indeed, as long as discussion of the monarchy remains stifled and the king’s closest advisors associate openly with coup leaders—or in Surayud’s case, become prime minister of a military-installed government—then opponents of military rule will continue overt and covert attempts to undermine the power structure, which receives its legitimacy from the king’s unmatched moral authority.

A simple way to dispel such rumors in the future would be for the monarchy and privy council to adapt the same measures of transparency that is demanded of elected politicians and go out of their way to ensure that they actually have no political interest. But of course nobody expects that anytime soon. The myths of morality will carry on—as well as the secrets and rumors to the contrary.