Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn appears to have shied away from the top job. Source: YouTube
Hereditary monarchies are almost by definition unstable because first-born sons invariably rebel against their fathers. After initially failing to learn the lessons of the Imperial Rome, Shakespeare’s plays, Game of Thrones and most of British history, Thailand has delayed naming a singularly poorly qualified candidate for king.
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, a three-time divorcee who named his poodle an air chief marshal, poses perhaps the biggest headache for the junta following the death of his father.
Vajiralongkorn has apparently asked for an entire year to “mourn” with the rest of the kingdom before he is crowned.
Instead, the trusted veteran of Thai politics, Prem Tinsulanonda, 96, will take on the duties of the monarch as regent.
This enables the military to buy some time and it becomes evident why it might want to if one delves into the crown prince’s history.
He was trained at the Australian Duntroom military college and has a pilot’s licence, but has shown little interest in the duties associated with the role of king.
Instead Vajiralongkorn has built up a reputation for womanising, extravagance, self-indulgence and cruelty, including to his children, several of whom have been stripped of their titles and now live in exile.
In 2007 a leaked video showed his then consort, Princess Srirasm, performing nearly naked at a birthday party for pet poodle Foo Foo.
At a high-level dinner in Thailand, Vajiralongkorn reportedly allowed Foo Foo to run up and down the high table, sniffing and licking food off the plates of Thai and foreign guests.
The canine air chief marshal, who died in 2015, was cremated after four days of Buddhist prayers.
More recently Vajiralongkorn was pictured at Munich’s airport, accepting salutes from the crew while dressed in jeans, showing off a torso covered in temporary tattoos.
Infamous lèse-majesté laws have kept the prince’s stranger exploits out of the Thai media, but stories about Vajiralongkorn are often exchanged and he is unpopular with many of his future subjects, including key members of the elite needed to help him rule. It is hard to spend much time in Thailand without hearing the most lurid rumours about the mourning prince.
A leaked US diplomatic cable in 2010 detailed how members of the Thai privy council were concerned about the crown prince’s suitability for the role, his meddling in politics and “embarrassing financial transactions”.
Anand Panyarachun, the former prime minister, said “the consensus view among many Thais was that the crown prince could not stop either, nor would he be able, at age 57, to rectify his behaviour”, the US dispatch revealed.
Many in Thailand had hoped the king’s respected daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, would be named heir but the Thai laws of succession specify the need for a male heir.
“If the crown prince were to die, anything could happen, and maybe [Sirindhorn] could succeed,” the cable quotes late air chief marshal Siddhi Savetsila saying, with an element of intrigue.
“The lèse-majesté law criminalises publication of the prince’s exploits, but despite this, or indeed because of this, Thais have voracious interest in informal royal information and gossip, which they share privately with those they trust,” said British journalist Andrew McGregor Marshall, an unofficial biographer of the monarchy.
“Almost all Thais know about the exploits of the crown prince, who has been a hated figure in Thailand since the 1970s,” the author said.
Vajiralongkorn is also mistrusted because of his apparent ties with the ousted ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who gave the prince a luxury car when he was first elected in 2001. Anxieties that the crown prince might ally himself with Thaksin are believed to have contributed to the 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin and then his sister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014.
Since the second coup, the junta has courted Vajiralongkorn, presumably to bring him into its political circle, rather than leaving him vulnerable to approaches from the Shinawatra clan.
There have been public relations campaigns to bolster Vajiralongkorn’s popularity, including mass bike rides in tribute to his parents and his picture has begun appearing on lampposts next to those of his father. The new image of piety and fitness contrast with reports of ill health in 2009 WikiLeaks releases of US diplomatic documents.
Until last week, the prince also appeared to have developed a desire to secure power.
“Vajiralongkorn has over the years demonstrated little interest in political and royal affairs,” wrote Professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun recently. “[Vajiralongkorn’s] life is an elusive study because Thais know little about his views on politics, or his vision of the future of the monarchy.”
This year has allegedly seen a purge of members of the royal court and his ex-wife’s family.
Marshall argues that his ruthlessness and reported taste for violence could destabilise the kingdom far more than the junta expects.
“With an incompetent junta in power, providing impunity to a loathed prince who is increasingly out of control, the likelihood of some kind of uprising seems very high,” Marshall argued.
“In my view, it is probable that we will face a so-called hard landing in terms of Thailand’s transition after Bhumibol’s death. Instead of a soft landing of peaceful evolution towards a democratic constitutional monarchy, we are likely to see a violent transition.”
The Thais have witnessed how brutal the junta can be when securing its power and privilege. If the crown prince cannot convince the military that he can perform as head of state, he might become another one of its victims.