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Story Publication logo September 19, 2017

Thailand's Monarchical Playboy—Can He Do the Job?


The Skytrain in central Bangkok, part of the the city's mass transit. Image by Richard Bernstein. Thailand, 2017.

While the U.S. lives through the domestic storms of the Trump presidency, China is moving boldly in...

Though he died last year and has already been succeeded by his son, the image of Thailand's King Bhumipol Adulyadej is as ubiquitous as ever. Image by Richard Bernstein. Thailand, 2017.
Though he died last year and has already been succeeded by his son, the image of Thailand's King Bhumipol Adulyadej is as ubiquitous as ever. Image by Richard Bernstein. Thailand, 2017.

He's everywhere, the king. Or, more accurately, they are everywhere, the old king and the new one, the father and the son, the one dead as of a few months ago, the other awaiting formal coronation but already putting his stamp on Thailand's monarchy, perhaps the most compulsorily revered monarchy in the world.

King Bhumipol Adulyadej, the father, was by far the longest serving monarch anywhere when he died last October. According to Forbes he was also the richest royal on the planet, worth about $30 billion, his estate including 3,000 acres of land in central Bangkok and one of the world's largest diamonds. Bhumipol's cremation is set for October 26, and it is sure to be a lavish affair, scheduled to last five days.

The new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, acceded to the throne in December, but his formal coronation ceremonies, which will be another lavish affair, will take place a few days after the old king's cremation.

Meanwhile, you can't go anyplace in Thailand without encountering testimonials to King Bhumipol, describing him as a sort of Buddha in this most Buddhist of countries, a man of infinite kindness and goodness, the figure who assured the 70 million Thais that whatever their differences, they all have the same father, who will remain a treasure in their hearts forever. The testimonials are broadcast between station announcements on the Bangkok Skytrain, on television between commercials, at the departure gates at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport, on the planes themselves, before or after the safety announcement.

There are no polls measuring the actual popularity of the king, because Thailand doesn't only have the richest monarch in the world, it also has the world's most frequently and harshly-enforced lese-majeste laws. These laws make it a criminal offense to defame, insult, or threaten the king, the queen, the heir-apparent, or the regent, which makes the phrase that the foreign press almost always attached to Bhumipol– "Thailand's revered monarch"–somewhat unsubstantiated by empirical findings in public opinion.

Still, for what it's worth, talking to Thais and visiting the country over the years, I have the admittedly unscientific impression that Bhumipol was indeed a beloved figure. He was lean, bespectacled, and unpretentious, even in the gold-brocaded cloak in which he is commonly depicted. There was a regular-guy, down to earth quality to his less formal depictions. He loved photography and often appeared with a camera slung over his shoulder. He visited farmers in their fields and expressed concerns over rural poverty. He played the saxophone. He wrote his own compositions, which can sometimes be heard over the loudspeakers in airport departure halls.

Bhumipol wrote a best-selling book about a mongrel named Tongdaeng, meaning copper, whom he adopted from an animal shelter . I haven't read it, but the book is commonly described as a parable–the dog shown to be humble and loyal to the king, the way the Thai people are supposed to be. There's a series of postage stamps showing Tongdaeng in different poses, and a bronze statue of her standing on a plinth at a dog shelter in the resort town of Hua Hin.

Last year a 27 year-old factory worker named Thanakorn Siripaiboon was charged under the lese-majeste laws for allegedly posting a sarcastic comment about the dog on Facebook.

The lese-majeste prosecutions show a certain iron fist inside Bhumipol's kindly, fatherly velvet glove, and there's no sign that Maha Vajiralongkorn will be different in this respect from his father. Yet overall, the new king makes a very different impression from the old one. Bhumipol had an aura of simple virtuousness; Vajiralongkorn's is one of of Bohemian, jet-set decadence and scandal. He spends a great deal of his time in a villa south of Munich in Germany. He likes to drive fast cars. He has seven children with three wives. Every once in a while something featuring Vajiralongkorn in less than royal circumstances goes viral and provokes gossip in Thailand about his suitability for the throne. A few years ago, his now divorced third wife, Srirasmi Suwadee, appeared at a birthday party naked but for a g-string. There's also a dog associated with Vajiralongkorn–Fufu, now deceased, but who had an official title of Chief Air Marshall while he was alive.

More recently there was a video posted on YouTube showing Vajiralongkorn strolling in a German shopping mall, a comely female companion by his side. He was wearing tight jeans and a midriff-baring tee-shirt, and the video showed motorcycle-gang tattoos on his arm, back, and stomach, though there is some question whether the tattoos are permanent or fake. At least one person is Thailand is being prosecuted for the crime of pressing the "like" button on Facebook postings of that video.

That footage of Vajiralongkorn in the shopping center contrasts sharply with the image Thailand's military government is creating for him now that he has succeeded his father. The pictures of him, going up all over Thailand, depict him as a solemn, serious figure, square-jawed and handsome, looking younger than his sixty-five years, regally resplendent in a gold-brocaded royal cloak, or a white military tunic with medals and epaulets. One picture of him shows him in a more casual mode, smiling and wearing a Western-style suit and tie—no tattoos.

Years leading up to the old king's death, it was conventional wisdom in Thailand, frequently reported in the Western media, that Vajiralongkorn's lack of popularity would weaken the monarchy. "There were all these predictions in The New York Times that it would be the end of the world when the king died," a Thai well-connected to the military government told me, expressing satisfaction that this prediction has already proved false.

But it's an exaggeration to say that the Times or other papers predicted any end of the world, only that the new king's image wasn't up to the level of the old king's. And that could be a problem, given the political differences in Thailand that caused several instances of violent conflict in the decade before the current junta took power.

In burnishing Vajiralongkorn's image, the junta is clearly striving to make him the sort of unifying, obedience-encouraging presence that his father was. Whether or not he will become that remains to be seen.





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Democracy and Authoritarianism

Democracy and Authoritarianism

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