A close aide of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn was this month named head of the agency which manages the monarchy’s vast holdings after legal changes giving the king total control of the Crown Property Bureau.
It removes any pretence that the assets are for anything other than the private use of the eccentric king.
Air Chief Marshal Satitpong Sukvimol will chair the bureau, a role which was previously held by the finance minister.
The opaque Crown Property Bureau has approximate assets of US$30-50 billion through its holdings in real estate and other investments.
Satitpong is Vajiralongkorn’s long-serving private secretary and was put in charge of the king’s private property in January.
The bureau controls the monarchy’s institutional assets, shares of Siam Commercial Bank, Thailand’s third-largest, and Siam Cement, the largest industrial conglomerate in a country that churns out charmless, concrete developments with breathtaking frequency.
Forbes once described the former king as the world’s richest monarch only to be scolded by the Thai embassy in Washington, which claimed assets in the Crown Property Bureau were not his but held “in trust for the nation”: not a claim that can be made anymore.
Thailand is not North Korea and it is increasingly hard for the junta to prevent Thais discussing how their national assets are being squandered overseas.
Journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a veteran observer of the Thai monarchy, told the BBC World Service last week that the situation was becoming increasingly unsustainable.
As details of the king’s lifestyle spread, the kingdom was approaching a “crisis point”, he argued.
“He seems determined to reassert the rule of monarchy and he doesn’t want all these rules and regulations … he wants everyone to know that he controls the money,” said the exiled reporter, whose work is banned in Thailand. He said that the previous king reportedly lived a relatively frugal life and the property bureau was managed by a separate, professional team.
“The current king is notoriously spendthrift. He has three 747s, for example, that he flies around regularly. He’s got two villas in Munich where he spends most of his time. He goes on these notorious shopping sprees around Europe. He once ordered a Thai take away from Stratford-upon-Avon [in England] when he was in Bangkok and Thai Airways had to fly it all the way there.
“So it’s quite possible we’re going to see this new money used in a far more active way by the new monarch, which I think will cause a lot of disquiet in Thailand.”
MacGregor Marshall said that Vajiralongkorn, from a young age, was unpopular in Thailand. Because of his arrogance, Vajiralongkorn was seen as a throwback to the era of absolute monarchy. As a notorious womaniser, now on his fourth marriage, he has disowned most of his seven children who live in exile in the US.
Vajiralongkorn met his third wife in a Thai nightclub. She was later featured in a famous YouTube video, leaked in 2007, almost naked, surrounded by servants, eating birthday cake off the floor with their white, fluffy poodle, Fufu. The dog was promoted to the rank of air vice marshal and given a four-day state funeral after his death a few years ago.
When she was divorced, the Thais were exposed to their future king’s cruelty, as he had most of her family, including her elderly parents, jailed.
MacGregor Marshall told the BBC that Vajiralongkorn now lives with his fourth wife and series of mistresses, who he is regularly pictured with, in Germany. He enjoys cycling in just his underwear around the Bavarian countryside.
It was during one of his cycling trips that Vajiralongkorn was shot at last month by 13 and 14 year old German boys using airsoft guns loaded with plastic pellets in a suburb of Munich.
It is indicative of the incompetence of the monarchy that the incident became a diplomatic incident.
According to the German media, the king and his security team did not stop but the police were summoned through “official channels”.
The Bavarian state prosecutor in Landshut is now mulling charges of attempted criminal assault for the 14-year-old. The other child is below the age of criminal responsibility.
Prosecutor Thomas Rauscher has played down the incident, saying no one was in danger of being hurt.
The playboy-king, 64, who spends much of time in a villa on Lake Starnberg in southwest Munich, frequently attracts media ridicule in Germany.
Bild printed pictures of him wearing a bizarre crop-top exposing numerous tattoos and low-slung jeans (pictured) while shopping. A story showed him being served lunch by kneeling staff in rural Bavaria during a bike ride.
Thailand’s lese-majeste laws, the strictest in the world, forbid reports on the royals’ private life, and heavy online censorship blocks videos or articles about the king’s bizarre behaviour.
Vajiralongkorn, who was educated at Millfield boarding school in Somerset and had military training in Australia, is a frequent visitor to leading Bavarian clinics.
The crown prince used to stay at Munich’s Kempinski hotel, in which the Crown Property Bureau owned a majority share, until a year ago when he bought a villa for an estimated €10 million in Tutzing.
One financial hurdle facing the monarch is the fact he was living in Bavaria when his father died, meaning he is due to pay inheritance tax on the personal wealth passed down from former king, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The Bavarian finance ministry has declined to comment, saying individual taxation is secret.
How much longer Thailand’s inflexible generals will tolerate Vajiralongkorn as their head of state will have to be seen. He will no doubt go down, along with the Emperor Caligula, as a key case study used by republicans arguing against constitutional monarchy.
Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Picture credit: YouTube