Crown Prince Becomes First New Thai King in Seven Decades

  • New monarch inherits control of fortune worth tens of billions
  • Vajiralongkorn is the sole son of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Vajiralongkorn Becomes New Thai King

Thailand has its first new monarch in seven decades after Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was formally proclaimed the 10th king in the Chakri Dynasty.

Vajiralongkorn, 64, accepted the military-backed legislature’s invitation to become King Rama X. The move announced Thursday was expected given that Vajiralongkorn was the only son and designated heir of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died Oct. 13 at age 88.

"I wish to announce that His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has succeeded the throne since October 13 onward," said Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, the president of the National Legislative Assembly, the unelected body installed by the junta that seized control of the country in a 2014 coup. The procedure was a formality mandated under Thailand’s constitution.

Vajiralongkorn replaces the only monarch most Thais alive today have known and one who was seen as a symbol of continuity during a reign marked by dozens of changes in prime minister and 10 coups. The career soldier inherits control of a fortune that runs to the tens of billions of dollars and includes stakes in some of the nation’s largest companies.

"Let us all unite to pray to the late King Bhumibol for him to protect the new king to be the pillar of the Thai people and Thailand," Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said in televised comments after Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne.

Stocks

Thailand’s benchmark stock index has climbed about 7 percent since Bhumibol’s death, after falling in the week prior as his health deteriorated. The economic impact from the mourning period appears limited, with the Bank of Thailand leaving its 2016 growth forecast of 3.2 percent unchanged.

Vajiralongkorn, the father of seven children, has been married three times. His personal life has been the subject of gossip on outlawed websites and in leaked diplomatic cables. He becomes king at a time when the institution’s role in society faces increasing scrutiny after the political unrest that marred the twilight of his father’s reign.

“Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn neither commands the respect nor displays the charisma of his beloved father,” read a confidential U.S. cable from July 2009 addressed to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and released via WikiLeaks. “Nearly everyone expects the monarchy to shrink and change in function after succession.” The royal palace doesn’t comment on political matters.

Lese Majeste

Vajiralongkorn is protected by lese majeste laws that allow for as long as 15 years in prison for those convicted of threatening or insulting key members of the royal family. Prosecutions spiked following the latest coup and again following Bhumibol’s death, and a number of Thai academics, activists and politicians have fled abroad to avoid what they say is persecution under the law.

Thailand’s new king rarely speaks in public, and little is formally revealed of how he spends his time. He is known to travel to Germany, where his personal jet is recorded making landings. Vajiralongkorn made a brief statement Thursday accepting the invitation to become king. It was his first public comment since his father’s death, though he has participated in royal funeral ceremonies. Prayuth said in October that Vajiralongkorn wanted time to mourn before he was formally declared king.

Asked in the 1980 BBC documentary Soul of Nation what it was like to be crown prince, Vajiralongkorn replied: “The first second of my life I am a prince. It is difficult to say what it is like to be a fish when you are a fish or what it is like to be a bird when you are a bird.”

Coronation

He went on to say that there are advantages and disadvantages to every life. “I am not special,” he said.

While Vajiralongkorn is now king, the government has indicated that his formal coronation ceremony will not be held until after the declared year of mourning for Bhumibol is complete and his cremation has taken place. He will immediately take on the role of head of state under Thailand’s constitutional monarchy, and all legislation will require his seal of approval.

Vajiralongkorn will also have influence over royal investments held by the Crown Property Bureau, which by 2012 climbed to an estimated $41.3 billion -- more than three times that of the British throne. Forbes magazine had previously called Bhumibol the world’s wealthiest monarch.

The bureau controls major stakes in some of Thailand’s largest companies, including Siam Cement Pcl and Siam Commercial Bank Pcl. It also owns vast tracts of land across the country, including some of the most expensive land in Bangkok.

Military Training

As king, Vajiralongkorn will have the power to appoint the bureau’s director-general and board members apart from the chairman, a position taken by the finance minister. The bureau, which pays no tax, is under no obligation to provide details of its earnings or how they are spent. The bureau’s annual budget and all disbursements require the signature of the sitting monarch.

The second oldest of Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit’s four children, Vajiralongkorn studied in Australia, graduating from the Royal Military College at Duntroon in 1975. Upon his return he was made a captain in the Thai army and was a serving officer in the fight against communists. He is a qualified pilot, flying helicopters, fighter jets and his own Boeing 737.

Vajiralongkorn has seven children from three marriages. His third wife Princess Srirasm surrendered her royal title and has not been seen in public for several years. In late 2014, the crown prince abruptly stripped several members of her family of their royally bestowed surname and several of them -- including her parents -- were later jailed for lese majeste.

As Vajiralongkorn’s reign begins he will be faced with the expectations of the past. The monarchy is steeped in Buddhist tradition and a Thai king is given respect and power because his subjects assent to it on the belief he is worthy, according to “King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work," a semi-official biography written by a group of academics and journalists with an advisory board that includes former leaders.

“A good king who fulfills the expectations of the Buddhist ideal can command enormous reverence and authority,” it said. “A bad king rules weakly.”

— With assistance by Chris Blake

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