Thailand’s royal couple, King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his wife, Queen Sirikit, left Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok on May 10 to return to their seaside palace in Hua Hin, 200 km to the south on the Gulf of Thailand. But as the couple waved to cheering crowds that lined the streets along the way, the public appearance did little to allay fears over the health of both.
The king appeared motionless. The queen waved feebly, but photos appeared to show a hand lifting the 82-year-old monarch’s hand to the window. Both have been in obviously poor health for several years despite carefully staged public appearances that have left more questions than answers.
The condition of the monarch, the world’s longest-serving, who has never left his country after his 1950 coronation, is of enormous emotional importance to Thailand’s 67-million people. It is also of concern to a palace writhing with intrigue over how to deal with his eventual death and who or what will follow, and indeed whether the royal institution will survive.
The king went into the hospital seven months ago to have his gall bladder removed. He had previously been confined to the hospital for four years before coming out for a brief period
Both he and the queen are believed to have had a series of strokes that have left them basically incapacitated. As the health of the two has waned, however, Thailand remains caught in the coils of a crisis that appears unlikely to end anytime soon, with the military in full control and continuing to tighten the screws, and a restive rural population disheartened and intimidated by the ouster of democratic government last year. Most of the democrats’ leaders have either fled the country or are in jail.
Although the king has no formal political role, his replacement, assumed to be the 62-year-old crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has inspired little confidence and a lot of scorn for his profligate womanizing and seeming irresponsibility in a country that has worshiped the royalty.
That worship is said to be waning as an incapacitated king clearly no longer has any role in the running of the country and the behavior of the crown prince, who named his poodle, Foo Foo, an air marshal, has long since seeped out into the general public, raising continuing problems for a junta seeking to justify its coup as ratified by the palace.
Vajiralongkorn is largely held in contempt by the common citizenry. In November last year, he suddenly kicked out his consort, a former cocktail hostess, Princes Srirasmi, who was ordered to give up the royally-granted family name Akharapongpreecha. Ousted with her was a long list of allies in the police force including her uncle, the head of the Criminal Investigation Division, Thailand’s FBI. The prince now has a new consort, a former Thai International flight attendant, and a new son.