BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn faces a daunting task as heir to the throne after his father gained semi-divine status in a kingdom that underwent profound changes during his 70-year reign.
Prince Vajiralongkorn is in line to take the throne after the death of the much loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Thursday plunged the Southeast Asian nation into mourning. Most Thais have known no other monarch.
While no formal succession plan was announced, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha signalled the prince’s widely expected ascension.
“When the right time comes, the crown prince confirmed that he has realised his duty and will continue to perform his duty as the heir to the throne,” Prayuth said.
Prayuth told reporters the prince wanted time to grieve with the nation.
King Bhumibol revived the influence of the monarchy in a political system dominated by the military and grew in stature as a symbol of continuity during decades of rapid economic development and political turbulence.
Prince Vajiralongkorn, 64, has yet to command the kind of adoration that King Bhumibol received from Thais and he has kept a much lower profile for most of his adult life. That has changed since 2014, when he assumed more royal duties in place of his ailing father.
King Bhumibol’s promotion and funding of charitable work in rural areas endeared him to the population. Media coverage of the prince has focussed on his marriages and divorces.
The prince, like his father, is shielded from public criticism by Thailand’s lese majeste laws, which have seen offenders jailed for up to 30 years for perceived insults to the monarchy. The laws effectively restrict negative reporting in Thailand about the royal family.
Prince Vajiralongkorn’s personal life and suitability as king have been the subject of private speculation by Thais and overseas observers beyond the reach of the law.
The most recent splash in Prince Vajiralongkorn’s personal life came in 2014 when he divorced his third wife, former lady-in-waiting Srirasmi Suwadee.
Their split followed the arrest of several of her relatives and six police officers as part of a corruption investigation into people who made false claims of having links to the monarchy for financial gain. Srirasmi was never charged herself.
Some of her relatives and the six officers were also charged and convicted of lese majeste.
As a result of the investigation, her uncle Pongsapat Chayaphan, a former head of the police Central Investigation Bureau, was convicted of lese majeste, bribery and intimidation and sentenced to more than 36 years in prison. Reuters was unable to contact the uncle or anyone legally representing him.
Srirasmi’s parents and three brothers were convicted and jailed in 2015 for defaming the monarchy and remain in prison.
Srirasmi, who relinquished her royal titles at the height of the investigation, lives outside Bangkok and has rarely been seen in public since the divorce.
Prince Vajiralongkorn takes the throne at a tumultuous time for Thailand and its monarchy. The military toppled an elected government in 2014 and
enforced a political calm on a country divided by a decade of conflict between a military-backed royalist establishment and populist political forces.
The political rivalry began after former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra came to power in 2001 as a “CEO prime minister”. Thaksin shook up the old order and made powerful enemies, including General Sonthi Boonyaratglin who became army commander-in-chief in 2005.
Sonthi led the coup that removed Thaksin in 2006, accusing Thaksin of corruption and a threat to the monarchy. Thaksin denied he had disrespected the royal institution.
In October 2008, the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions ruled that Thaksin, while prime minister, abused his power to help his wife buy public land at auction, and sentenced him to two years in jail.
He now lives in Dubai to avoid the sentence.
Anxiety over King Bhumibol’s failing health over the past few years also contributed to the political tension.
“BEING A FISH”
Prince Vajiralongkorn was born on July 28, 1952, the second of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit’s four children and their only son.
He was educated at private schools in Britain and Australia before attending the Royal Military College Duntroon in
Duntroon graduates remember a prince, who they nicknamed “Vaji”, enduring tough military training with no special treatment.
In one exercise, the prince became entangled in ropes with his gun on his back. His bodyguard tried to help him get down, only to be held down by four officers who told him it was up to the cadets to sort themselves out, said Bob Breen, a Duntroon graduate now at the educational Podmore Foundation in Australia.
According to the prince’s official biography, he is a qualified helicopter and fighter pilot, who saw action against communist insurgents in Thailand in the 1970s. He holds the honorary military ranks of general, admiral and air chief marshal.
He was designated crown prince in 1972.
Asked about the pressures of the role during a 1979 BBC
documentary, he said he had been a prince “from the first second of my life” and knew no other existence.
“It’s difficult to say what it is like being a fish when you are a fish, or what it is like being a bird when you are a bird,” he said. “There are pros and cons ... I‘m not special.”
‘BIT OF A DON JUAN’
In 1981, his mother told the Dallas Times Herald during a trip to the United States the young prince was a “little bit of a Don Juan”.
”He is a good student, a good boy, but women find him
interesting and he finds women even more interesting. So his family life is not so smooth,” she told the newspaper.
On the same trip, during an interview with veteran
broadcaster Diane Sawyer, the queen said her son ”demands his
“Well, he’s quite handsome, and he loves beautiful women, so he needs his weekends,” she said, according to a CBS transcript.
His first marriage was in 1977 to Princess Soamsawali, who
gave birth to his first child, a girl. The couple divorced
The prince had a long relationship with actress Yuvadhida Polpraserth before marrying her in 1994. They divorced two years later and she left Thailand with their four sons and daughter before the split was formalised.
Their daughter returned to Thailand and later became a
fashion designer and national badminton player. The sons and Yuvadhida live in the United States.
Prince Vajiralongkorn married Srirasmi in 2001, and they had a son four years later.
The prince pilots his own Boeing 737 jet and has spent much of his time on private trips abroad, particularly Germany. His life there attracted foreign media attention in 2011 when insolvency officials in Munich impounded his plane and demanded the Thai government settle a long standing $42 million debt to defunct German construction firm Walter Bau AG. The company could not be reached for comment.
The plane was released after the Thai government promised to pay off the debt, even though Thailand insisted the plane was the prince’s personal property and not the government‘s.
In recent years, the palace’s publicity machine has portrayed the prince in a similar light to that of his father, as a devoted family man.
While portraits of the late king have long been ubiquitous, images of the prince have increased as the kingdom prepared for its first royal succession in 70 years.
In August 2015, the prince donned spandex pants and a helmet to lead tens of thousands of cyclists through Bangkok in honour of his mother.
Royal watchers said the “Bike For Mom” and a similar cycling rally to honour his father four months later were partly aimed at boosting the prince’s image. The palace declined to comment.
Reporting by Bangkok newsroom; Editing by Bill Tarrant