Thailand’s New King: Who is he Really?

The mystery is over. After decades of question marks over the Thai royal succession, former Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is now Rama X of the Chakri dynasty. After a period of suspense after his father’s death, the son and heir has been invited to become king, and has accepted.

Yet much mystery remains about how the new king, who is to be crowned sometime next year, sees his role. What is his relationship with the military junta that seized power in 2014? What is his relationship with the Privy Council headed by 96-year old Prem Tinsulanonda. How does the new king see his relationship with the exiled but still popular deposed former premier Thaksin Shinawatra?

Open public discussion of such vital questions is outlawed by the lese majeste laws that continue to be used to silence those critical of the military regime as well as those who would dare to refer to past news coverage of the then Crown Prince’s habits and lifestyle. The day after the new king ascended the throne, an activist from the northeast, Thaksin’s stronghold, was arrested for sharing a BBC profile of Rama X on Facebook.

Cleansing history

The mainstream Thai media is overwhelmed with praise for the new monarch and his character, his good works etc. Monarchists, and those wishing to appear so, rush to buy portraits of the 64-year-old King Vajiralongkorn, give thanks for his accession and generally attempt to transfer the reverence for the late father to the son.

Airbrushing of history on such a scale has not been seen since the days of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin but it no doubt can achieve short-term results even in the age of the Internet, thanks to the lese majeste laws and monitoring Thai on-line sites.

However, it cannot shield Rama X, or the junta, from private questioning of the future role of the monarch. His rollicking past private life may be no more than a marginal issue, a subject for titillation and gossip, but one that has little to do with his public role.

The much bigger issue is his past detachment from public life. While his sister, the popular but unmarried Princess Maha Chakri Sirindorn, has dutifully devoted herself to spreading royal goodwill by attending all manner of public functions and supporting worthy causes, the Crown Prince made scant appearances and spent more time living in Munich, Germany than in Thailand.

Independent mind?

The clue to the future may lie with the reason for this preference. Was it evidence of an independence of mind? Did he did not wish to be associated with the actions of the Privy Council, at least during the last decade when his father took very little visible part in affairs? Was it because he sympathised with Thaksin and wanted physical distance between himself and the series of military interventions against Thaksin and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra? Was it because he felt physically safer in Germany than in Thailand, where he knew many among the elite would have preferred either to anoint Sirindorn or appoint a regent on behalf of a royal child?

Did he have in mind the fate of King Bhumibol’s elder brother, King Ananda, Rama VIII, who was mysteriously shot and killed within months of returning to Thailand from Switzerland and assuming his royal duties at the age of twenty?

Whatever the answers to these questions, the fact remains that Vajiralongkorn seldom behaved in the manner normally expected of a crown prince. At the very least, he has shown an independence of action that, at his age, seems unlikely to vanish now that he is king.

Whatever he may have promised Prem and Prayuth to ensure their backing for his elevation – possibly including his break with is former wife Srirasmi and the prosecution of some of her family members – is now largely irrelevant. The monarchists have so built up the role of the king in maintaining Thai unity and identity that he now has the power to use that.

But he seems unlikely to use that power in the near term. The year’s mourning for his father will provide a lull, but his own coronation will provide a higher platform for him and it may well roughly coincide with the need for the junta to make good on its promise of elections under the new constitution. However skewed the system is, any vote will likely reveal the continuing popularity of Thaksin.

Magical monarchy

The king will also be in a position to make his own appointments to the Privy Council, and eventually name a replacement for the ancient Prem.

Given the age of the new king, and his past record as an independent if wayward spirit, Prayuth cannot expect to control him in the same way that past military leaders, Pibul Songgkram, Sarit Thanarat and Thanom Kittikachorn, used the young King Bhumibol for their own purposes while building up the magic of monarchism.

Possibly the new king will opt for a quiet (and safer) life. Equally, he may be enough of his own man to want to leave a mark on a nation deeply divided between Thaksin and the military.