BANGKOK – Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has been anointed Thailand’s next monarch following his father’s death, an elevation that would see him become the 10th king in the Chakri Dynasty and inherit control of a fortune that runs to the tens of billions.
The sole son of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died Thursday at 88, Vajiralongkorn would replace the only monarch most Thais alive today have known. While his father was beloved over the course of his seven decades on the throne, Vajiralongkorn, 64, has not attracted the same adulation.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said Thursday that Bhumibol had chosen his successor in accordance with the constitution — a reference to Vajiralongkorn. Even so, Prayuth later said Vajiralongkorn requested a delay in proclaiming him king to give Thais time to mourn his father. He also urged people not to use the transition as a pretext to incite unrest, Prayuth said.
Vajiralongkorn, who is the father of seven children and has been married three times, is a career soldier whose personal life has been the subject of gossip on outlawed websites and in leaked diplomatic cables. As Bhumibol’s health deteriorated in recent years, focus turned to Vajiralongkorn and what his reign may look like, given long-running political divisions in Thailand that were exposed by two military coups in eight years, the last in May 2014.
“Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn neither commands the respect nor displays the charisma of his beloved father,” read a confidential U.S. cable from July 2009 addressed to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and released via WikiLeaks.
“Nearly everyone expects the monarchy to shrink and change in function after succession,” the cable read. “How much will change is open to question, with many institutions, figures, and political forces positioning for influence, not only over redefining the institution of monarchy but, equally fundamentally, what it means to be Thai.”
The royal palace does not comment on political matters.
The crown prince rarely speaks in public and little is formally revealed of how he spends his time. He is known to travel to Germany, where his personal jet is recorded making landings.
Still, in recent years he has taken part in more public events, leading two carefully planned bike rides for his mother and father across Bangkok last year. The rides drew hundreds of thousands of people.
As monarch, Vajiralongkorn would have influence over royal investments held by the Crown Property Bureau, which by 2012 climbed to an estimated $41.3 billion — more than three times that of the British throne. Forbes magazine has called Bhumibol the world’s wealthiest monarch.
Bhumibol has been seen as a unifying figure in a country that has seen dozens of changes in prime minister and 10 military coups during his reign.
Like his father, Vajiralongkorn is protected by lese majeste laws that allow for as long as 15 years in prison for those convicted of threatening or insulting key members of the royal family. The constitution says the king “shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship,” and the law has served to limit debate about the role of the monarchy in Thai society.
Vajiralongkorn was destined to rule from birth. Bhumibol snapped a photo of his son when he was just 48 hours old and it ran in newspapers with the caption “Thailand’s new heir to the throne.” Vajiralongkorn underwent ancient ceremonies and a religious leader spent a month composing his name, which in full is nearly 70 words long.
The second oldest of Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit’s four children, and the only son, Vajiralongkorn studied at the palace’s school in Bangkok before leaving at 13 to attend King’s Mead School in Sussex. He was seen off at the airport in Bangkok by hundreds of well-wishers. The Bangkok Post described the prince as somber as he left and reported he told his friends “I am a soldier and soldiers don’t cry.”
The prince went on to study in Australia, graduating from the Royal Military College at Duntroon in 1975. Upon his return he was made a captain in the Thai army and was a serving officer in the fight against communists. He is a qualified pilot, flying helicopters, fighter jets and his own Boeing 737.
It was a key moment for Vajiralongkorn when he was formally named crown prince in December 1972 and had the word Maha, meaning great, added before his name. It was the first time a crown prince had been named in 77 years.
In 1977 Vajiralongkorn married his royally descended cousin, ML Soamsawali Kitiyakara. The next year he briefly ordained as a Buddhist monk in a ceremony broadcast on national TV. In 1978 his first child, Princess Bajrakitiyabha, was born, and the couple were married until 1993.
Vajiralongkorn’s first son, Prince Juthavachara Mahidol, was born in 1979 to actress Yuvadhida Polpraserth, with whom he went on to have four more children. They were married in 1994 and she was given the name Mom Sujarinee Mahidol na Ayudhaya.
Still, the relationship did not last and a few years later Sujarinee and her children left the country under circumstances that were not explained. While youngest child Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana eventually returned and is a part of royal ceremonies, their sons remain abroad and are rarely mentioned.
Vajiralongkorn married again in 2001 to commoner Srirasmi Suwadee, who became known as Princess Srirasm. Their son was born in 2005. In late 2014 the crown prince abruptly stripped several members of Srirasm’s family of their royally bestowed surname and several of them — including her parents — were later jailed for lese majeste.
The arrests coincided with a graft probe of a group of police who were accused of citing the monarchy while profiting from gambling dens and other illegal businesses. Princess Srirasm surrendered her royal title and has not been seen in public for several years.
While the prince has led a mostly-closed door existence, another leaked U.S. cable from 2007 included the claim the royal poodle held the rank of Air Chief Marshal and had appeared at events in a formal outfit that included paw mitts. On one occasion he jumped on the head table and drank from guests’ water glasses, the cable said.
A Thai monarch is traditionally expected to observe ten virtues of kingship, including generosity, self-sacrifice, honesty and integrity.
The monarchy is steeped in Buddhist tradition and the king, though now a constitutional ruler, is still referred to in terms such as God Upon Our Head, and Lord of Life. State-run television channels air broadcasts on royal activities each night, and an anthem praising the king is played at movie theaters.
“The Buddhist rules of kingship thus act to check the potentially unmitigated power of the king and present him with a clear social contract,” according to “King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work,” written by a group of academics and journalists with an advisory board that includes former leaders. “As sovereign, he is accorded tremendous respect and power, but he enjoys this status only because his subjects, believing in his worthiness, assent to it.”