Asia-Pacific

Privileged, unpredictable and a 'bit of a Don Juan' – who is the new Thai king?

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Privileged, unpredictable and a ‘bit of a Don Juan’, the new Thai king will try to follow in the popular footsteps of his father.

The life of Thailand's new king, Rama X, has so far been characterised by privilege, money and status - but his playboy antics and frequent scandals are a far cry from his beloved father.

As an only son, he was destined to rule from the moment he entered the world and was born in 1952, a time when Thailand's constitutional monarchy flourished, under his father.

But a comparison with his late father shows stark differences between the two rulers - with Maha Vajiralongkorn, as he was known before his official ascension, well known for his playboy lifestyle, string of ex-wives and penchant for bestowing military titles on his pets. 

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Second day of Thai king's coronation ceremony
Second day of Thai king's coronation ceremony

“His father had a lot of charisma and had a lot of popular support, in his latter part of his reign he acted in the manner of a pious Buddhist monarch,” Dr Patrick Jory, a senior lecturer in south-east Asian history at the University of Queensland, told SBS News.

"The current king has nothing of that and everybody knows about this private life, so he does not approach the popularity of his father.”

The royal household
King Vajiralongkorn's father was the longest-reigning monarch in the world.
Getty Images

King Rama X was educated in the UK, trained at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in Canberra, and went on to become an officer in the Thai army.

He is also a qualified civilian and fighter pilot, and likes to cycle.

The Thai king as teenager
Thai king Vajiralongkorn as teenager
AFP

As Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, he spent much of his time living in luxury villas in Germany and Austria and was well known as a lover of luxury cars.

That time in the lap of luxury also saw him generate a reputation as a ladies' man and a bit of a playboy.

His mother once famously said during a trip to the US “My son, the Crown Prince, is a little bit of a Don Juan… women find him interesting and he finds women even more interesting".

My son...is a little bit of a Don Juan

Crown Prince
King Rama when he was crown prince.
AFP

Those comments come as no surprise to Thai royal watchers, with the then-crown prince regularly generating gossip for his antics, affairs and accusations - despite strict Lèse majesté law and severe penalties for "defaming" the royal family.

The now 66-year-old royal had a string of affairs and married his fourth wife, Queen Suthida, a former Thai airways flight attendant, this week.

“The current king had a very lively private life, a string of wives, mistresses, one who’s living in exile in the US , the one he most recently divorced in 2014 has been placed more or less under house arrest, her son was taken away from her, most of her family were arrested," Dr Jory said.

King Rama and his fourth wife, Queen Suthida
King Rama and his fourth wife, Queen Suthida
AFP

He has seven children from his previous marriages, but has disowned four children, who live in the United States, after messy martial splits. 

The son from his last marriage, 14-year-old Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, attends school in southern Germany.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun (Rama X), with Queen Suthida.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun (Rama X), with Queen Suthida.
SIPA USA

“He has very unorthodox private life, sometimes the media tends to play on this that he’s the playboy, but it’s more his authoritarian and unpredictable, violent tendencies that are more worrying,” Dr Jory added.

These tendencies are important, because unlike the European or Japanese monarchies, the Thai king has real political power.

The political power of the Thai monarch

There’s currently a conservative support base, mostly made up of the monarchy, military and bureaucracy, and a pro-democracy base in Thailand.

“The coronation is taking place at a time of deep political divisions, the country is very polarised,” explained Dr Jory.

Before the 24 March election, the new king crushed the aspirations of his older sister to run as a political candidate for an anti-junta party, calling it "highly inappropriate".

Hours before polls opened, another palace statement urged the public to vote for "good people" - a phrase most often attached to the arch-royalist political elite.

King Rama X
King Rama X
AFP

Results from the election are due to be announced on 9 May, just three days after the end of the coronation ceremony.

“The monarchy is such an essential part of Thai politics, at the same time the pro-democracy forces are getting stronger so, it’s to be seen how the king will deal with these forces,” Dr Jory said.

More than a dozen royal staff have reportedly been sacked by the new king for varying degrees of offences, including adultery and corruption.

"One of the most striking changes has been the re-organisation of the royal house," Michael Vatikiotis, Asia director of the NGO Centre of Humanitarian Dialogue, said.

The royal purification ablution bath as part of his coronation ceremony at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
The royal purification ablution bath as part of his coronation ceremony at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
SIPA USA

Thailand's Lèse majesté laws ban criticism of the monarchy and shield  the royal family from public view and scrutiny, with jail sentences of up to 15 years.

“This king tried to shore up his authority even before his father passed away,” Dr Jory said.

“All the indications are that it will be an interventionist monarchy with the more authoritarian type forces in Thai politics.”

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