Behind these palace walls, writes Jonathan Manthorpe, lies political intrigue that would have William Shakespeare licking his lips and sharpening his quill. Photo by Aleksandr Zykov via Flickr, Creative Commons
December 5, 2014
It’s a story that would have William Shakespeare licking his lips and sharpening his quill.
The tale has everything that excited the creative juices of The Bard.
There’s a dying king, much loved and revered by his people for his care for their wellbeing. But waiting in the wings is a hated, rapacious and vindictive Crown Prince. Even the most fervent royalists among the people are consumed with anxiety about what may happen when the prince assumes the throne and grasps the powers of monarchy. There is a rival for the crown, the king’s daughter, who has earned the public’s affection because of her charity and good works. But it is unclear whether she has the desire or the will to challenge her brother for the throne.
There is the politically powerful and involved Queen, the king’s consort. She defends her husband’s interests, as she sees them, in alliance with scheming and manipulative palace officials.
In the background are three discarded princesses, wives of the Crown Prince. With them are their children, some of whom have lost their royal birthrights.
Beyond the palace walls are hugely wealthy merchants intent on limiting the power of the monarchy. And on the streets is an emotionally charged population, riven into factions, and all-too-often primed for violence.
This could be imperial Rome, medieval Denmark or Scotland, or Plantagenet England. But it is modern day Thailand, where the people this week are celebrating the 87th birthday of King Bhumibol Aduladej, the world’s longest serving monarch. The king has for several years been in hospital or in a specially constructed hospital room at the palace. He seems to be hanging on to life by a slim thread. But no one outside the palace inner circles knows for sure the true state of his health. Thailand has draconian lesé-majesté laws, which prohibit any public discussion about the royal family. The laws allow for prison sentences of up to 15 years for miscreants and there are frequent prosecutions, even of foreigners. The result is that there can be no public discussion of some of the most crucial political and constitutional issues facing Thailand.
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In the light of the rumours about the monarch’s health, there was much surprise this week when the palace announced King Bhumibol will hold a public audience today, Friday, to mark his birthday. In the event, the King’s appearance was cancelled, on the advice of his doctors, further fuelling speculation about how long he has left.
But the original statement from the palace about the audience and the members of the royal family who would, it was hoped, accompany King Bhumibol read like the cast of players in the drama over Thailand’s future that has gripped the country for more than a decade.
With the King, said the statement, would be Queen Sirikit. She has come to the fore as a political force during her husband’s decline. Her intervention in political events has been evident since September, 2006, when senior army officers launched a coup against the Prime Minister, billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra.
The coup was launched with, at the very least, the acquiescence and perhaps at the instigation of the wily and devious head of the King’s Privy Council, former army general Prem Tinsulanonda. The excuse for the coup was the alleged corruption and republican instincts of Thaksin, who now lives in exile, but who continues to be a dominant figure in Thai politics because of his fortune and his support among poor, rural Thais.
Since he came to the throne in 1946, King Bhumibol has on several occasions used his considerable constitutional powers to intervene in Thai political life, usually to prevent military coups, hasten the end of martial rule and promote democratic advancement.
There is little confidence, however, that when the King dies and if Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn takes the throne, the palace will continue to be a moderating and largely beneficial influence on public life.
Much of the turmoil in Thai politics since the 2006 coup, and even going back to the election of Thaksin as Prime Minister in 2001 has revolved around trying to find a new, workable balance between the powers of the palace and of the parliament before the King dies. Many see Thaksin as a champion of parliament and the establishment of a functional constitutional monarchy that would limit the impact of king Vajiralonghorn, with his erratic and spiteful nature, his habit of consorting with gangsters, and his indiscriminate womanising.
But while this view appears to set up a sharp confrontation between parliamentarian Thaksin and royalist Vajiralongkorn, the relationship is not that clear cut. Indeed, in recent years since the coup the two have become closely associated and Thaksin, who became hugely wealthy by building a communications, media and retail corporate empire, is even reported to have paid for a mansion for the prince. But the latest reports are that the two have fallen out.
The statement from the palace this week about the King’s birthday audience says Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn would attend and would be accompanied by his wife of the moment, Princess Srirasmi. This was a surprise because Prince Vajiralongkorn is in the process of trying to divest himself of Srirasmi, a former bar girl. And for once in Thailand, the Prince’s mean and unpleasant treatment of Srirasmi has been played out in public.
Prince Vajiralongkorn’s predilection for humiliating people, especially his wives, was amply displayed in late 2009 when WikiLeaks posted an amateur video of a nauseating 2001 birthday party he held for his pet poodle dog, Air Chief Marshall Foo Foo. Prominent throughout the video is a clearly uncomfortable Princess Srirasmi, dressed only in a thong apparently at the insistence of the Prince. At one point Vajiralongkorn instructs the princess to crouch down like a dog.
Stories have circulated for some time that these days Prince Vajiralongkorn lives much of the time in Munich, Germany, with his Thai Airlines air stewardess mistress, Suthida, with whom he has son. Some reports say they are married and that the son is second in line for the throne.
Prince Vajiralongkorn has been trying to divorce Princess Srirasmi for a while and to establish Suthida as his consort. It seems that palace officials have dissuaded him from doing so for fear of the effect the news might have on the King’s already feeble health.
But in the last few days Prince Vajiralongkorn, never a man who likes to be thwarted, decided to act. The first indications of his move against his wife came in a circuitous way. Last week the news broke that Pongpat Chayaphan, the head of the Thai national police Central Investigation Bureau, had been arrested along with a dozen colleagues. They face various corruption charges, including soliciting bribes, permitting illegal gambling and smuggling oil into the country.
This was startling, and a clear indication that intrigue is loose in the palace because Pongpat is the uncle of Princess Srirasmi, and under usual circumstances would be immune from this kind of prosecution. This week the Crown Prince took the next step when it was announced that seven of Princess Srirasmi’s relatives have been arrested for misusing their royal status to amass vast fortunes. The princess and her family were also ordered to stop using the royal name Akrapongpreecha, which was bestowed on them by Prince Vajiralongkorn when he married Srirasmi in 2001.
It looks very much as though Srirasmi’s nine-year-old son, Dipangkorn, should give up any hopes of remaining a prince or his father’s heir. It may not be much consolation, but Dipangkorn will not be the first of Vajiralongkorn’s sons to be cast aside when the Crown Prince tired of their mothers.
Prince Vajiralongkorn first married in 1977, to his first cousin, who became Princess Soamsavali. They had one daughter, but soon after the marriage Vajiralongkorn started living with a woman who was somewhat charitably described as “an aspiring actress.” The Crown Prince had four sons and one daughter with Yuvadhida Polpraserth, who became Princess Sujarinee after he got a divorce and they married in 1994. But the marriage did not go well from the start and in 1996 Princess Sujarinee fled to Britain with her children. Vajiralongkorn managed to abduct the daughter, who now lives in Thailand as a princess. But Sujarinee and the four sons have been stripped of their royal titles and Thai passports, and now live in the United States.
The Thai constitution gives King Bhumibol latitude in choosing his successor, especially since a 1974 change that allowed a woman to become monarch. Vajiralongkorn is regarded with such fear and loathing, even among palace courtiers, that there is hope the King will bypass his son and pick his daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, to succeed him.
Unlike her brother, Princess Sirindhorn is highly popular among Thais of all classes and is known as Phra Thep — Princess Angel — for her charitable work and financing of rural development schemes. She is a highly qualified academic with degrees in history and a doctorate in education development. The Princess teaches in the history department of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy.
There would be much public cheering if King Bhumibol chose his daughter to succeed him. But there are some serious problems associated with that choice. The most obvious is that Prince Vajiralongkorn is unlikely to take kindly to losing his inheritance. He is a formidable enemy.
The other significant problem is that if Princess Sirindhorn became Queen it would present a future succession problem. The lesé-majesté laws have effectively barred any public discussion of the princess’ sexuality, but she is unmarried and the inference is that she is a lesbian. The closest any public comments have come to discussing the issue have been asides that Princess Sirindhorn “prefers the company of women.”
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2014
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Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has traveled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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