Succession Tug-of-War Over Ousted Thai Princess and Son

A heartbreaking series of pictures of ousted Thai Princess Srirasmi Akharapongpreecha, the former consort of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has appeared on Facebook, showing the princess surrounded by impassive-appearing Thai police and soldiers while her hysterical son, 9-year-old Dhipangkorn, weeps.

But the pictures, which ultimately show Srirasmi huddled on the ground with her arms around her son, comforting him before the authorities take him away ostensibly to be sent to Munich to live with his father, may not reflect the real situation, possibly having been taken earlier, and may instead be related to the increasingly dangerous royal succession.

The prince precipitously kicked out Srirasmi in late November and has since replaced her with his fourth wife, a former Thai Airlines flight attendant now known as Suthida Vajiralongkorn and whose nickname is Nui. Although like Srirasmi she is not of royal blood, Nui recently gave birth to a baby boy and presumptive new heir to the throne. Srirasmi’s enemies say her disreputable background disqualified her from being queen and that they would not prostrate themselves before her, a requirement of respect for the monarch’s wife

The prince has since officially divorced Srirasmi, who has been forced to abandon her royal title, give up her jewels and take a commoner’s name, Busaba Suadee; she has been dispatched to live in well-heeled exile in Ratchaburi Province, 80 km. west of Bangkok. Dhipankorn, according to reports, was taken away from her and dispatched to Munich, where the prince now lives with his new wife when he isn’t in Thailand.

The treatment of Srirasmi has infuriated many in Thailand who had previously been critical of her because the prince took her as his consort after she was a cocktail waitress in a Nonthaburi lounge and was regarded universally as not respectable. But now sentiment has changed and it is the prince’s action in throwing her out that has scandalized Bangkok.

“The position of the heir looks shaky,” said a Thai business source with connections to the palace. “Most of his legal wife's family has been arrested for money laundering, corruption and lese majeste. But most Thai women feel that he has acted very cruelly – she has not appeared in public since Dec. 5. I should not say any more or I could get into trouble. “

Gossips in Bangkok say the prince became enraged earlier when he discovered that Srirasmi’s police relatives or allies had been tailing the new princess to keep an eye on her movements. Srirasmi’s uncle, the now-arrested and disgraced Pongpat Chayaphan, headed the deeply corrupt Central Investigation Bureau, Thailand’s FBI. Newspaper stories said US$300 million in gold, jewels, currency and Buddhist statuary had been found in his home. As many as 40 police and other officials have been cashiered or arrested along with Pongpat and a number of businessmen.

But in Thailand’s swirling politics, little is ever clear. Other sources say the stories of shadowing the new consort are not true and that there are other reasons behind Srirasmi’s ouster. They have put out the word that the picture was taken well before the prince got rid of Srirasmi, that she had gone to pick up her son after a ceremony and that the child was merely upset. Dhipangkorn has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to official reports.

The pictures, instead of having been taken by a sympathetic member of the palace staff and uploaded to the Internet, may have been ordered released by forces aligned with Prem Tinsulanonda, the head of the Privy Council, which advises the king on matters of state, the sources say, in an effort to discredit Vajiralongkorn, who has a reputation as a wastrel, and to sideswipe Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former chief of the army who masterminded the May 22 coup that eventually made him head of government. It is felt that the arrest of Srirasmi’s relatives and associates could not have taken place without the Army’s assistance.

Prem, who has served the king for decades after having retired as Prime Minister in 1988, is said to be in the fight of his life over his current position as Prayuth chips away at his authority. He and many surrounding the royalty are said to detest the crown prince, who has long been regarded as irresponsible, a womanizer and associate of Chinese gangsters, among other negative traits. Cables from the US Embassy, released by Wikileaks in 2010, quoted members of the Privy Council as harboring grave misgivings about the crown prince’s fitness to take the throne, saying he is widely hated and feared because of his irrational behavior.

Ironically, it is Prem’s forces who are believed to have circulated CDs in 2007 with compromising footage featuring the Crown Prince and Srirasmi at a birthday party in which she appears bare-breasted. The almost-naked consort cuts the cake and sings songs with Foo Foo the poodle while palace servants fulfill their duties on their knees. The video is nothing if not surreal.

Several sources in Bangkok say that Prayuth, who for better or worse staged the best-planned of the 19 coups that have afflicted the country since 1932, has steadily been encroaching on Prem’s territory while King Bhumibol Adulyadej, now 87 and the world’s longest-serving monarch, has largely been made irrelevant by ill health despite his gilded reputation.

Contending factions seeking primacy after his death seem to be working overtime to solidify their positions in a transition that is as opaque as it is vital to the future of Thailand. The monarch was forced by infirmity to abandon his traditional birthday message on Dec. 5. Previously, despite his health, a birthday message has been released even if he was not able to give it himself.

“We are entering a dangerous period,” said a Thai businessman. “I fear for my country. The end of the reign of the king is approaching. If you read Thai history, the end is always accompanied by tremendous unrest.”

In this case, the factions who do not want Vajiralongkorn to be king face a quandary. There are no other viable heirs. Vajiralongkorn’s sister, Maha Chakri Sirindorn, 59, who is said to be favored by Prem, has never married and has produced no children. There has been talk of bypassing Vajiralongkorn for another member of the family, possibly one of his sons, but that talk has not coalesced around a single figure.

In any case, talk of skipping Vajiralongkorn is problematical. He has raised his own private army, a formidable palace guard. Given his unpredictability, it is uncertain what he would do if his position were threatened.