The reporting on this story was done in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
BANGKOK — A few years ago, a Facebook video went viral and revealed to the world why many people in Thailand were anxious over the prospect of Maha Vajiralongkorn, then the country’s crown prince, becoming king.
The film showed the then-64-year-old Vajiralongkorn roaming a shopping mall in Munich, Germany, where he lived most of the time, accompanied not by his wife but his mistress. He was eating ice cream while wearing very un-monarchical jeans and a crop top, his bare midriff displaying what seemed to be elaborate temporary tattoos.
In Thai society, the king is a figure of inestimable importance, a Hindu-Buddhist paragon of presumed dignity, virtue, and morality — none of which Vajiralongkorn seemed to be exhibiting on his stroll through the mall.
With King Bhumibol Adulyadej old and ailing, many worried the Thai monarchy would atrophy into irrelevance once his playboy son ascended to the throne. And given its importance as a pillar of Thai nationhood and identity, that could be disastrous in a country already prone to deep divisions and political turmoil.
But things have decidedly not worked out that way.
Since taking the throne in late 2016, Vajiralongkorn has rapidly amassed power. He’s gotten changes in the constitution giving him emergency powers and allowing him to exercise his authority even when he is out of the country — which is most of the time.
He’s taken control of an estimated $43 billion in royal assets that have for decades been entrusted to a Crown Property Bureau that, at least theoretically, managed the money for the benefit of the Thai people. He’s arranged for units of the army to report directly to him.
Vajiralongkorn’s assertion of his power comes at a time when Thailand has been moving in an authoritarian direction, the government largely controlled by the military, which, after years of sometimes violent political turmoil, took power in a coup in 2014.
A new constitution written by the coup leaders allowed an election to take place in March 2019, but the new law gives the military so many automatic seats in parliament that it would be almost impossible for an opposition party to take control.
The Thai military government has always used a mandatory reverence for the monarchy as a tool of political control, and has carefully cultivated a very monarchical image for the new king.
The man once infamous for his mistresses, crop tops, and presumably fake tattoos now looks out sternly from portraits placed all over Thailand, dressed in kingly gold-brocaded robes or a trim white jacket with epaulets, a yellow sash, and a sword.
Vajiralongkorn is still a bit of an absentee monarch, living mostly in Europe. But that doesn’t mean he’s detached from politics back home. He has clearly taken charge, doing so in a way that implicitly affirms both obedience to authority and a kind of above-the-law monarchical privilege.
“I thought that Thailand would end up having a weak king,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a scholar of Thai politics and a dissident exiled from the country when Vajiralongkorn’s father was still king, told me in a Skype interview from Japan, where he lives.
“I thought that Vajiralongkorn would be so lacking in moral authority that he wouldn’t get the support of the various sectors of society that he needs. But I was wrong,” Chachavalpongpun continued. “He is basically running the country now, though he’s not doing that like his father did through moral authority. He’s using fear to solidify his position and to take command.”
The incident that has attracted the most attention in the new king’s reign so far involved the woman walking next to Vajiralongkorn in that shopping mall video, a former nurse named Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi.
After taking the throne, Vajiralongkorn had her recognized as noble royal consort, meaning that she would be a sort of official concubine — a second female companion to the king in addition to his actual wife (his fourth).
In a country where polygamy has been banned for 100 years, the king seemed to be saying that a kind of polygamy would be a prerogative of the monarch (and nobody else).
But then things got even stranger. Just three months later, as if to show the dangers of incurring the king’s disfavor, Sineenat was accused of ingratitude and misbehavior and stripped of her rank and titles.
Then she disappeared.
The universally held belief in Bangkok is that she was thrown into the Bangkok women’s prison; on exactly what legal authority other than the king’s demand, nobody is saying. Around the same time, several palace aides were dismissed — two of them, identified as bedroom guards, for “inappropriate acts and adultery,” according to the official Palace Gazette.
It wasn’t lost on many Thais that the king himself had five children with a now-dismissed mistress while he was still married to his second wife (that mistress and four of the five children have since been disowned and are now living in the United States; the youngest child and only daughter lives in Thailand as a royal).
But in a way, that was the point: Like President Trump, Vajiralongkorn gets away with things that would have ruined his predecessors, though in Vajiralongkorn’s case, this involves an intentional display of royal power, a signal that the rules that apply to everybody else don’t apply to him.
It would be hard to overstate the extent of what seems to be an almost medieval reverence for the king in Thailand. Even the most senior officials in the government and the military literally drop to their knees when in his presence.
When Sineenat was installed for her brief reign as noble royal consort, official photographs of the ceremony showed her lying on the floor, making hand gestures of fealty, while Vajiralongkorn sat imperiously on a gilded throne above her.
The reverence for the king has long been enforced by the country’s lèse-majesté laws, which outlaw “defaming, insulting, or threatening” of a member of the royal family — including, for example, “Liking” that mall video on Facebook. Since the military coup of 2014, at least 68 people have been arrested or imprisoned under these laws, according to Human Rights Watch.
In what seemed to be a concession to modern sensibilities, Vajiralongkorn, according to newspaper reports, has ordered an end to prosecutions under the lèse-majesté laws. But human rights groups say that, instead, similar prosecutions are taking place under the country’s computer crime laws.
It’s clear that nobody wants to be heard saying anything negative or derogatory about Vajiralongkorn. Thailand is a country where there can be lively conversations about all sorts of topics, where some new political parties have formed to vigorously contest the national elections held in March last year.
But when the subject turns to the king, most people lapse into an awkward silence or, if they do say something, look cautiously around them to make sure no unknown person is listening.
“We’re not supposed to talk about the king,” one person whispered to me in Bangkok during a visit there in November, “but the king is what everybody talks about.”
A remarkable display of unrestricted power
Installing his mistress as a royal consort was certainly scandalous, but some of the measures Vajiralongkorn has taken to assert his power go well beyond nasty palace intrigue and into unprecedented territory for Thailand.
His removal of two crack army regiments in the Bangkok area from the usual chain of command and putting them under his own authority is among them. In effect, it gives him control of a personal private army. Thais who know about such things say his army is equipped with armored personnel carriers, anti-riot gear, and helicopters.
A private army would be very useful if there were ever a coup attempt, including a move against him from some dissenting faction in the army.
In perhaps his most remarkable display of unrestricted power, after a new constitution was adopted in a referendum, Vajiralongkorn simply rewrote the clauses having to do with the power of the king. In one of them, for example, he eliminated a requirement that when the king is out of the country, which Vajiralongkorn is most of the time, his authority would revert to a regent. There is no such regent anymore in Thailand.
He’s also embarked on a massive building campaign in the central Dusit district of Bangkok, where the monarchy holds real estate of such dimensions as to make the British royal family’s compounds seem small. This has included closing areas that were once open to the public, including the Bangkok Zoo and one of Bangkok’s two horse-racing tracks.
I hired a car to look at the royal compound, though it’s not easy to get glimpses inside.
It’s an immense rectangle, surrounded by newly renovated walls surmounted by the yellow flag of the monarchy. Soldiers patrol the sidewalks alongside. Construction cranes loom over the ramparts. In one area, a row of large buildings that once housed senior members of the palace staff are empty and decaying, reportedly awaiting demolition.
The gates to the old zoo are locked shut. A glimpse into the old race track revealed a bunch of construction sheds. Plaques that once memorialized the 1932 coup that abolished the absolute monarchy have, according to some Bangkok residents, simply disappeared.
“It’s all a way of making his power formal, visible,” one person whispered to me. “He wants everybody to see, whether it’s taking back the land that the zoo is on or assuming direct control of military regiments. And nobody can or dares to stop him.”
All of this would be far more difficult, maybe even impossible, if there were widespread public opposition. But there seems to be very little of that in Thailand these days.
This is partly because of skillfully applied measures of repression by the military-led government, including the disappearances and apparent killings of at least eight leading opposition figures, and surveillance of others the police feel might cause trouble. Thailand is a place where journalists, civic activists, lawyers, and others are summoned to a military base for “attitude adjustment,” as the well-known euphemism would have it.
“Some people have gone to jail,” Sirapop Kornaroot, known as Rungsila, a dissident poet recently released after five years of detention, told me. “That’s the way they keep control. That’s the way they make people give up.”
But, as Rungsila and people like him acknowledge, Thailand’s turn to authoritarianism has also been welcomed and supported by many people who experienced the intermittent turbulence and violence of the years before the 2014 coup, and who give credit to the military and the monarchy for the return of domestic “peace and order,” as the propaganda put it at the time.
Vajiralongkorn, in this sense, arrives at a time of disillusionment with the old politics.
Old politics meets new politics
Indeed, the old politics was breeding such extreme conflict that Thailand was in danger of civil war. It started in 2001 when a rich, charismatic populist, Thaksin Shinawatra, was elected prime minister via overwhelming support from the rural poor in the north and northeast of the country.
Thaksin put into place several programs, like low-cost universal health care, aimed at alleviating rural poverty and appealing to his base. But he also gave rise to a kind of middle- and upper-class terror that he was dictatorial and corrupt, and that his populist appeal challenged the sustained privilege of wealthy Bangkok elites.
A furious opposition emerged, known as the Yellow Shirts — yellow being the color of the monarchy — whose claim to legitimacy was that they, with support from the military, were the defenders of the monarchy.
A military coup, the first of two in eight years, removed Thaksin from power in 2006, and shortly after that, facing trial on charges of corruption, he fled the country and has not been back since.
“Regarding Thaksin, it had to be either a coup or an assassination,” a former moderate Thai member of parliament told me in 2014, expressing the commonly held middle- and upper-class fear that even though Thaksin had been legally elected, he would turn out to be a dictator impossible to remove.
Still, whenever new elections were held, Thaksin’s party won them handily, and when those governments were ousted, Thaksin’s ardent supporters, known as the Red Shirts, mounted huge counter-demonstrations.
In the largest of them, in 2010, the Red Shirts occupied the commercial center of Bangkok for nearly three months before they were crushed by the army, with some 80 Red Shirts killed and more than 2,000 injured.
But in new elections in 2011, the pro-Thaksin party won again in a landslide, and Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, became prime minister. Two years later, huge Yellow Shirt demonstrations took place.
Yingluck was accused of corruption and removed from office in 2014, and with new Red Shirt protests looming and the old, much-loved king, Bhumibol, on his deathbed, the military stepped in, seizing power in a coup and then assuring the royal succession when Bhumibol died two years later.
“Actually, the 2014 coup was a way for the military to assure Vajiralongkorn’s succession at a time when his father was sick and Thaksin was becoming more popular than the king,” Pavin said. “There’s a mutual interdependence between the military and the monarchy. Neither can be as strong as it is without the other.”
“He’s not the kind of person to voluntarily relinquish any of his power,” Pavin said. “When he came to the throne, he looked at the past ... and he said, ‘Why should I let any of that go?’”
Vajiralongkorn is clearly a product of Thai culture, but his evident authoritarianism also seems to fit a larger regional and even global pattern, the disillusionment with traditional liberal elites and the turn to strongman rule. Indeed, it’s difficult these days to think of a single country in Southeast Asia, with its 620 million people, that is becoming more democratic rather than more authoritarian.
In the Philippines, for example, President Rodrigo Duterte has emerged as a sort of elected strongman, carrying out a supposed war on drugs that has resulted, according to human rights groups, in more than 20,000 extrajudicial killings.
In Thailand’s neighbor, Myanmar, the military has allowed elections but retains its hold on power, and even the country’s ostensible democratic champion, Aung San Suu Kyi, has supported her government’s genocidal attacks on its Rohingya minority.
Meanwhile, in Cambodia, the long-serving prime minister, Hun Sen, has jailed his main political opponents and banned the only political party that had a chance to defeat him in elections two years ago.
All of these countries have retained what a Filipino journalist, Marites Vitug, called “the trappings of power” in a conversation I had with her in Manila. They have elections, some independent newspapers that even do good critical reporting, and while they do not hesitate to get rid of opponents, they also keep disappearances at low levels so as not to arouse public animosity or international sanction. Yet none of them are functioning as democracies.
All four countries have another thing in common, namely close and cordial relations with nearby authoritarian China, which has used its power and wealth to promote authoritarianism throughout its region.
It does this by refusing to criticize these countries for human rights violations, by offering aid and military support when such support is withheld by the US and Europe, and, not least, by presenting a model that seems to be successful and that China itself proclaims as an alternative to Western ways of doing things.
“For the Chinese, it’s easier to deal with strongmen than with democratic governments,” one Thai businessman told me in Bangkok.
“Take the Belt and Road project,” he said, referring to Beijing’s plan for a network of ports, railroads, energy corridors, and shipping lanes aimed at making China the center of a vast Eurasian economic network. “It can only be successful if there are no popular protests against it, and the easiest way to achieve this is to deal with strongmen in each country.”
Another Thai, a young political activist in the country’s Democratic Party who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in parliament in the elections last March, told me, “The fact that there’s a new superpower that’s less keen on human rights in other countries reduces the American influence. The threat of the US withdrawing its support is less serious.”
“China is not democratic,” he continued, “but it’s able to deliver fast economic growth, and people feel that if this can happen, what’s the need for democracy?”
Where does Vajiralongkorn fit into this? The Thai monarchy has never been a powerful or outspoken champion of democracy, but many Thais believed the king’s late father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, tried to soften the harshness of military rule.
And whether he really did that or not, he cultivated an image of Buddhist kindness and compassion, sponsoring programs in the countryside, going to villages and meeting with ordinary people.
Vajiralongkorn does none of that, cultivating instead an image of sternness, command, and Olympian distance from ordinary people. If there were people hoping somehow that, being a Western-educated, cosmopolitan person living mostly in the West, he would encourage a move back in the direction of liberal values and practices, they have by now been disappointed.
But there is a deep and wide respect for the institution of the monarchy in Thailand that will no doubt help him, as well as the military factions that support him.
To get a sense of that, I spent a day in November in an area of fish farms and rice paddies in Chachoengsao province southwest of Bangkok to talk to members of an environmental group opposed to a planned industrial zone called the Eastern Economic Corridor.
One of the leaders of the protests, a local fish farmer named Sarayoot Souraksa, described in succinct terms how people in the region of 4 million people felt about the country’s past turmoil and the coup that put an end to it.
“They supported the Yellow Shirts,” he said, “because they were afraid of Thaksin coming back.” We were sitting in a covered yard alongside one of his ponds, where he grows plankton for sale to nearby fish and shrimp farmers.
“Any other reasons they support the government?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “They are royalists.”
And so, following the election, the former army chief who led the 2014 coup, Prayuth Chan-ocha, became the country’s prime minister. And that’s the situation in which the new king has been asserting his authority.
Richard Bernstein is a former foreign correspondent at Time magazine and the New York Times. His latest book is China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice. For more on him, see richardbernstein.net.