THAILAND

Vajiralongkorn: From jet-set playboy to king of Thailand

Thai TV Pool, AFP | Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn sitting on a royal palanquin carried by soldiers following his coronation ceremony at the Grand Palace in Bangkok on May 4, 2019.

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn was crowned Rama X during an elaborate coronation ceremony on Saturday. Erratic, eccentric and “a little bit of a Don Juan”, his reign plunges Thailand further into an era of political uncertainty.

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Vajiralongkorn, 66, ascended to the throne after the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016. His father ruled the Buddhist kingdom for 70 years, one of the world's longest-serving monarchs.

During his reign, King Bhumibol was widely respected as a symbol of stability and unity in Thailand, which has been racked by political turmoil for nearly two decades.

Vajiralongkorn, however, is not held in the same esteem. His unpredictable behaviour and reputation as a jet-set playboy have raised concerns over the future of the constitutional monarchy.

Since taking the helm 18 months ago, he has also moved to consolidate power, including taking more direct control of Thailand’s vast wealth, with the help of the military junta.

A ‘Don Juan’

Vajiralongkorn was born in Bangkok on July 28, 1952, the second child of King Bhumibol and his wife, Queen Sirikit Kitiyakara. Their only son, he was named crown prince after his eldest sister renounced her rights to the throne in 1972.

As a child, Vajiralongkorn led a privileged life, attending school in the United Kingdom. He later moved to Australia, where he studied at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in Canberra, graduating as a lieutenant in 1976. Shortly afterward, he married his first wife, Soamsawali Kitiyakara (his first cousin on his mother’s side) in 1977. The couple had a daughter together, Bhajara Kittiyabha.

In the years that followed, Vajiralongkorn garnered a reputation as a hedonist and womanizer. Even Thailand’s harsh lèse-majesté laws – which make it a crime to speak ill of the royal family – were unable to prevent rumours of his antics from spreading abroad.

During a visit to the United States in the early 1980s, Sirikit spoke of her son’s bad behaviour in a number of unusually candid interviews.

"I have to be very frank. My son, the crown prince, is a little bit of a Don Juan," she told the Dallas Times Herald in 1981. "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."

By the late 1980s, it was public knowledge that Vajiralongkorn had a mistress, Yuvadhida Polpraserth, an aspiring actress with whom he had fathered five children: four boys and a girl. After a protracted divorce from his wife, he wed Yuvadhida in 1994, who became known as Sujarinee Vivacharawongse.

But it wasn’t long before that marriage failed, too. Just two years later, Yuvadhida packed up her five children and moved to the UK. Outraged, Vajiralongkorn took their daughter back to Thailand, and stripped Yuvadhida and their four sons of their royal titles and diplomatic passports.

Air Chief Marshal Foo Foo

Vajiralongkorn was again married in 2001, this time to Srirasmi Suwadee. A few years later, the couple had a son together, Dipangkorn Rasmijoti. At the time, Vajiralongkorn signaled that he was ready to settle down to a life of domesticity.

Yet the crown prince’s efforts to rehabilitate his image as a quiet, family man were dashed in 2007, when a home video was leaked of him celebrating the birthday of his beloved pet poodle, Foo Foo. In the footage, a dressed down Vajiralongkorn can be seen standing beside his wife Srirasmi, who is wearing nothing except a string-bikini bottom. Surrounded by flowers, balloons and fairy lights, the couple sing “Happy Birthday” to the dog, before blowing out the candles on a large cake.

Although never released in Thailand, due to the lèse-majesté rules, the video was widely viewed around the world, and was taken as further proof of Vajiralongkorn’s eccentricities. A few months later, the crown prince’s reputation was further damaged after it emerged that he had made Foo Foo a chief marshal in the Thai Air Force.

In diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, then US Ambassador to Thailand Ralph Boyce described a gala dinner he hosted, at which Vajiralongkorn, Srirasmi and Foo Foo were in attendance.

“Srirasmi … confirmed that the crown prince’s miniature poodle, Foo Foo, currently holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal,” Boyce wrote. “Foo Foo was present at the event, dressed in formal evening attire complete with paw mitts, and at one point during the band’s second number, he jumped up onto the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses, including my own."

“The Air Chief Marshal’s antics drew the full attention of the 600-plus audience members, and remains the talk of the town to this day.”

When Foo Foo died in 2015, Vajiralongkorn held an extravagant funeral for the canine, who was cremated after four days of Buddhist ceremonial rites.

Surprise wedding

The crown prince’s clear affection for his pet outlasted his ardour for his wife, whom he divorced in 2014. Following allegations of corruption by some of Srirasmi’s relatives, Vajiralongkorn had a number of her family members arrested for violating lèse-majesté laws.

Vajiralongkorn’s bizarre behaviour didn’t end there. In 2016, he was photographed at an airport in Germany (where he spent much of his time until recently) wearing a white tank-top rolled above his midriff, low-slung jeans that barely covered the tops of his buttocks, and sporting what appeared to be fake tattoos on his back and arm.

The same year, Vajiralongkorn succeeded his father to the throne. His official coronation was delayed, however, to give the country time to mourn the death of their beloved king.

Vajiralongkorn surprised the world this week after the Thai Royal Household Bureau announced on Wednesday he had wed a fourth wife, Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya, a former flight attendant. Suthida was given the title of queen consort, and attended Saturday’s coronation ceremony.

Despite concerns over his reign, Vajiralongkorn has pledged to uphold the values his father embodied during his seven decades as king.

“I shall continue, preserve, and build upon the royal legacy and shall reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the people forever,” he said in his first royal command.

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