Royal divorce signals power shift for Thai monarchy

Royal divorce signals power shift for Thai monarchy

Thailand’s Crown Prince is divorcing his wife shortly after several of her relatives were arrested in a corruption scandal. The move is seen as a power shift within the palace amid anxiety before the succession of the 87-year-old ailing monarch, King Bhumibol.

Thailand had been awash with rumours since several high-ranking officials directly related to Princess Srirasmi, the third wife of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, was arrested recently in a high-profile corruption probe that sent shockwaves through Thai elites.

Srirasmi’s uncle Pongpat Chayapan, former head of the Central Investigation Bureau, was first detained on charges of bribery and corruption. Later three of her brothers were accused of “insulting the monarchy”, charges that under Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws carries up to 15 years in prison.

Shortly after the arrests, the Crown Prince requested to strip his wife’s family of their royal titles, followed by the Crown Princess renouncing her title and resigning from her role in the family. The couple was already estranged, and the move is expected to be the first step in a divorce for Vajiralongkorn.

Why is Vajiralongkorn important?

The issue of the royal succession is highly contentious in Thailand. 87-year old King Bhumibol, the world’s longest-serving monarch, is widely popular among the public and has been a stabilizing factor throughout countless crises in Thai politics. By contrast, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is remarkably unpopular. His personal life has been a source of public gossip for decades, although any mention of this is strictly prohibited under Thai laws.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the King enjoys little official power, but his role in the political sphere is, nevertheless, important. The royal family is also among the world’s richest royalties, estimated by Forbes to be worth at least $30 billion.

Journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, whose book on the monarchy was banned by Thai authorities, argues that this wealth has helped maintain harmony among the ruling elites: “During the current king’s reign, this money has been spread around through the Crown Property Bureau to the old elite, and everybody takes a piece of it”. For the ruling elites in Bangkok, the upcoming succession of the throne is anything but symbolic.

“Grave misgivings” over his fitness as King

U.S. Embassy cables released by Wikileaks in 2010 revealed that top officials in the government and the Royal Court have “grave misgivings” over his suitability to succeed Bhumibol as King, stemming from both his well-known playboy image but also from his ties with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The traditional Bangkok elites loathed Shinawatra, an outsider from the north, for his populist and highly competitive politics. His party has been removed from power by military coups twice in the last decade. In 2006 he was sent in exile when the army intervened, and in May this year his sister Yingluck was ousted from power in a similar fashion.

According to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai scholar at Kyoto University, the persistent attempts at removing the Shinawatra clan from Thai politics has forced the Crown Prince to rethink his strategy and distance himself from the Shinawatras.

Chachavalpongpun sees the recent purge of royal family members as the beginning of significant power shifts inside the royal palace as Vajiralongkorn tries to ease the way for an otherwise complicated transition when the King dies. He is rumoured to have already fathered a baby boy with his fourth wife, who he is eager to officially elevate to the status of royal consort and future queen of Thailand.

Power arrangements affect future of country

Vajiralongkorn depends on support from the military for his eventual ascension to the throne, and commentators have speculated that he struck a deal with the military and royal elites to “clean up his act, dump his third wife, just stick with the fourth wife, not be a playboy and just be a good king”. Considering how fundamentally important the monarchy is in Thai politics, power shifts within the royal family will influence the future shape of the country.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Havard Bergo

Håvard is a foreign policy analyst who works in Kampala for LPC Consult International, a consulting company that specializes on developing projects in East Africa and Mozambique. He has previously worked with the United Nations in Bangkok and as a project manager for a research project in Montreal. Håvard graduated with an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE).