The Roman emperor Caligula was renowned for his extravagance, capricious cruelty, sexual deviancy and temper bordering on insanity. Most famously, before he was assassinated, he planned to appoint his favourite horse as a consul. This is probably a legend. But King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the Thai throne in 2016, adopted Caligula’s playbook for real. In 2009 the then crown prince promoted his pet miniature poodle Foo Foo to the post of air chief marshal, in which capacity he served until his death in 2015, aged 17. Foo Foo’s cremation was preceded by four days of formal Buddhist mourning.
The poodle first came to the attention of the general public when a video was released showing him eating cake from the hand of Vajiralongkorn’s third wife, Princess Srirasmi, while she cavorted in a G-string at the dog’s lavish birthday party. At a 2009 gala dinner in honour of Vajiralongkorn, Foo Foo was kitted out head to paw in black-tie dress and, according to a WikiLeaks-revealed account by US ambassador, Ralph Boyce, ‘jumped onto the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses, including my own’.
When on parade the new king wears crisp, snowy-white, gold-braided, Ruritanian military uniforms or elaborate Thai regalia that make him look like a Buddhist temple in human form. In downtime his dress code can at best be described as kinky: trainers and low-hung jeans paired with the skimpiest of crop tops. His back and arms are festooned with possibly fake tattoos.
Vajiralongkorn is famously lecherous. Indeed, in his youth, Thai aristocrats would pack off their daughters to Europe to get them out of his clutches. Happily for Bangkok’s elite, the crown prince’s tastes, after his divorce from his first wife, an aristocratic relative of his mother, were consistently low-rent. His second wife was an aspiring actress, albeit of the soft-porn variety.
The marriage did not last. After Vajiralongkorn put posters all over the palace accusing her of adultery, she fled to London and later to the US with her children — apart from a daughter who was kidnapped and brought back to Bangkok. The daughter was elevated to the rank of princess, but her mother and brothers had their diplomatic passports and royal titles revoked by the crown prince. The Thai public was left horrified by his treatment of his family.
Another marriage followed in 2001, to the aforementioned Srirasmi, though it was not publicly announced until 2005 when the crown prince, by then in his early fifties, declared it was time to settle down. How-ever, in 2014 he stripped his wife of her royal titles because of her relatives’ corruption. Srirasmi’s parents were jailed for two and a half years each for lèse-majesté.
Five years later, on 1 May last year, and just three days before his official coronation, Vajiralongkorn married for the fourth time, to Suthida Tidjai, a former Thai Airways hostess, giving her the title of Queen Consort. The Thai people were dumbfounded when just two months later, the new king named his mistress, Major General Sineenat Wongvajira-pakdi, as his Royal Noble Consort; it was the first time this form of address had been used for more than 100 years. The new relationship lasted three months. On 21 October, Sineenat was stripped of all her titles and disappeared from public view, supposedly for being disrespectful to the queen.
The king’s extravagance is no less remarkable than his private life. A monarchy that was impoverished in the postwar period had, by some estimates, increased its wealth to between $40 billion and $60 billion by last year. Most of the wealth resides in land; ownership of some four square miles of central Bangkok makes the Thai monarchy the world’s wealthiest by a large margin. Overseas holdings include a major stake in the Kempinski hotel group. Indeed, for years Vajiralongkorn has spent months on end at the Munich Kempinski with his harem and servants. In addition, he owns a mansion on Lake Starnberg to the southwest of Munich. In spite of his huge allowances as crown prince, affording him ownership of two Boeing 737s, it is thought that he had to resort to begging funds from the then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to cover his gambling debts.
Why do King Vajiralongkorn’s private shenanigans matter? Royal families throughout Europe have long weathered sexual and financial scandals. Juan Carlos may have had to step down as king and go into exile, but the Spanish monarchy has survived. So too has the Belgian monarchy after the former King Albert II admitted to a love child. There is no suggestion that Prince Andrew, cherubic by comparison with King Vajiralongkorn, will bring down the British royals because of the Epstein imbroglio. But the key difference is that, unlike Thailand, all those are constitutional monarchies.
In Thailand the monarchy is integral to the country’s real power structures. This was a 70-year legacy of Vajiralongkorn’s father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Bhumibol’s reign started under a cloud following the killing of his 20-year-old predecessor, King Ananda Mahidol, by a single shot to the head with a Colt .45 pistol. After a questionable trial two servants were executed for the murder, though it is widely suspected that the king was accidently shot by Bhumibol, his brother. For the first decade of his rule King Bhumibol was entirely powerless and lived under the rule of the quasi-dictator Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram, who, during the second world war, had allied Thailand with the Axis powers.
But gradually, as Thailand inched towards a democracy, Bhumibol won the adoration of the Thai people thanks to his moderating influence and good works, such as paying for medical facilities for the poor. His political power increased. In 1952 he bravely refused to preside over ceremonies for Phibunsongkhram’s new militaristic constitution. However, Bhumibol’s finest moment came in 1981 when he faced down the ‘April Fools’ Day’ coup d’état by fleeing Bangkok and raising the Thai royal standard at the military base at Khorat, where General Prem emerged as the new military strongman. There followed what is now known as the ‘Network Monarchy’ era, a coalition of military interests and those of the financial and industrial elite based in Bangkok. As a former American deputy-president at Thailand’s Bank of Asia noted: ‘Thai politics has been about dividing up the pie among the elite.’ At the centre of the web stood the Thai monarchy. Elected democratic institutions remained largely an adornment to this oligarchic structure.
In 2001 a business chancer and mobile phone billionaire, Thaksin Shinawatra, later the owner of Manchester City FC, swept to power with his Thai Rak Thai party promising a populist agenda including reform of health and education. Much to the chagrin of the ‘Network Monarchy’, Thaksin won a sweeping electoral victory again in 2005. Bhumibol, who loathed Thaksin, gave tacit support to the coup that first removed him and then sent him into exile two years later. Until his death in 2016, Bhumibol thwarted, either by military or judicial coup, the democratic will of the Thai people, who since 2001 have consistently voted into power Thaksin-backed parties and their proxy leaders. Bhumibol’s historic reputation, albeit tarnished by his thwarting of the democratic will, became an important pillar of resistance to Thaksin’s outsiders. After Bhumibol’s death in 2016, the critical power of the monarchy was left in the hands of his dissolute playboy son.
Will King Vajiralongkorn redeem his dire youthful reputation and do a ‘Prince Hal’, moving to the path of royal righteousness? The signs so far are not good. Just over a week ago, the Royal Noble Consort Sineenat suddenly re-emerged with no information other than an inventive Royal Gazette announcement that ‘It will be regarded that she was never stripped of the royal consort title, military ranks and royal decorations’.
More important than this saga of extra-judicial fiat, the king intervened in the drafting of a new constitution by the military junta in 2017 to grant himself new powers over the appointment of regents. In addition, the new constitution asserted the king’s rights to ‘manage’ during any constitutional crisis. Given that Thailand has had 17 military coups since 1932, this is not trivial. Two crack regiments have also been put under his direct control. As the political exile and professor at Kyoto University Pavin Chachavalpongpun has noted, the king ‘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.’
It is therefore interesting that in the past month, demonstrations of up to 10,000 people have called for the powers of the king to be curtailed. Protestors have defied Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws — which can incur up to 15 years’ imprisonment — to chant ‘Down with feudalism’. It remains to be seen whether the protests are a straw in the wind of future political instability. The new king’s attempt to transition from a monarch with influence within the ‘Network Monarchy’ to a monarch who rules is fraught with danger. But at least Vajiralongkorn is unlikely to come to Caligula’s sticky end; the king has a ready-made home for an exile in his beloved Bavaria.