Bhumibol would never have become king of Thailand if he and his mother had told the truth about Ananda’s death. In the weeks after the shooting, the government began to discover compelling evidence that Rama VIII had not committed suicide as they had assumed. Bhumibol had shot his brother through the head, probably by mistake, pulling the trigger while playing with Ananda, not realizing that the Colt 45 was loaded. Had Bhumibol and Sangwan admitted what had happened, the heir presumptive Prince Chumbhot – son of the hawkishly royalist Paribatra, who had died in exile in Java in 1944 – would have become monarch instead.
Even after they realized the truth, Pridi’s government covered up what happened. It suited them to have a weak monarch on the throne; the prospect of the assertive Chumbhot becoming king was much more worrying. The royalists and Phibun’s military faction also conspired to conceal the truth, exploiting the regicide to smear Pridi and provide the pretext for their coup in 1947. But after allying with the military to overthrow Pridi, the royalists became increasingly unhappy with Bhumibol. They wanted a strong king who could rally support for the royalist cause. Bhumibol was indecisive, unassertive and languishing in Lausanne, deep in depression. In 1948, leaders of the royalist Democrat Party hatched a plan to reveal that Bhumibol had killed his brother, to force him to abdicate. Phibun’s military faction, like Pridi’s progressives, wanted to keep Bhumibol on the throne precisely because he was weak and appeared harmless. The explosive secret of his killing of Ananda could be used to keep him under control – as Roger Kershaw observes, it left Bhumibol vulnerable to ‘blackmailing insinuation’. Realizing the royalists wanted to topple Bhumibol and replace him with Chumbhot, Phibun foiled the plot by ousting the Democrat Party and seizing power in April 1948. Meanwhile, a sensational show trial began of two palace pages and a former royal secretary falsely accused of plotting to murder Ananda on behalf of Pridi. As so often before in Thai history, a dominant elite faction was trying to keep a pliant monarch on the throne, while rival factions sought to replace the king with an alternative candidate who could better serve their interests.
After he finally returned in 1951 to formally take up his duties, Bhumibol was ignored by Thailand’s military rulers. He later told the New York Times: ‘When I’d open my mouth and suggest something, they’d say: “Your Majesty, you don’t know anything.” So I shut my mouth. I know things, but I shut my mouth. They don’t want me to speak, so I don’t speak’. Kobkua describes Bhumibol during this period as ‘a non-entity ruler in the affairs of the nation’ and a mere ‘figurehead whose duty it was to symbolize the nation through parts played in various religious and traditional rites and ceremonies’. The king tried to assert his influence during disputes with the junta by threatening to abdicate, but they were able to respond with a threat of their own – revealing the truth about the death of his brother. Unwilling to live in the Grand Palace following the trauma of 1946, Bhumibol made Chitralada Palace his Bangkok home, and spent months of each year at ‘Far from Worries’ villa in Hua Hin. His choice of residences symbolized royal weakness – there was no reigning monarch in the Grand Palace. In July 1952, Sirikit gave birth to a son – the first celestial prince to be born since Chulalongkorn’s reign. He was given a mighty name – Vajiralongkorn, ‘possessor of the thunderbolt’ – but he seemed destined to inherit a powerless throne.
In 1955, after three trials that had dragged on since 1948, police chief Phao Sriyanond oversaw the execution of the three scapegoats in the regicide case. Phibun, who wanted to prevent the case being closed to allow him to use it for leverage against the royalists, applied for a royal pardon for the accused men three times after they were sentenced to death. Bhumibol rejected the requests). Time magazine described the executions, and noted the widespread belief that the case had not been solved at all:
At 5 o’clock one morning last week, fortified with a final bottle of orange squash apiece, the three were led into the execution pavilion at Bangkwang Prison. Their hands were clasped together in the traditional Buddhist greeting and lashed to an upright pole. In each upraised hand, prison guards placed a ceremonial candle, joss sticks and a garland of small, pink Siamese orchids. Then a dark blue curtain was dropped behind each victim and the executioner fired a burst from his machine gun… At last the execution was done, the closet was tidy, and only one question remained unanswered: Who killed King Ananda?
Justice had been done – officially, at least – and Bhumibol’s guilt could remain hidden, but at the cost of allowing three innocent men to die. Kershaw argues the king had little choice: ‘It might be said in defence of King Bhumibol in relation to the execution of innocent men that the situation had become very difficult for him because he had already begun to pit his prerogative against the ruling military clique over the coup-legitimizing Constitution of 1951–52’. In fact, he could certainly have saved their lives if he wanted. He chose not to. The secret still haunts Thailand’s monarchy.
The executions made Bhumibol’s position more secure, and, boosted by his alliance with the army following Sarit’s coup of 1957, he began gradually restoring the influence of the palace. The emergent coalition of monarchy, the old royalist establishment, the ethnic Chinese capitalist elite and the military was cemented by the increasingly wealthy Crown Property Bureau, which bound the oligarchy together in a web of business deals and investments. The role of the CPB was strikingly similar to the royal harem in previous centuries, forging links among the disparate elements of the ruling class. Business relationships had replaced blood relationships, but the principle remained the same. Intermarriage among members of the extended royal family, the old noble clans, the tycoon class and the military elite also continued to play an important part in consolidating the oligarchy.
But, as always, intra-elite conflict and rivalry remained a highly destabilizing factor in Thai politics, despite the economic and sexual ties that wove the ruling class together. Feuding and squabbles even extended into Bhumibol’s immediate family, and by the 1970s the relationship between the king and queen had grown fractious. Much of the friction revolved around Vajiralongkorn. As the prince grew up, Bhumibol became increasingly dismayed by his son’s personality and behaviour, although Sirikit doted on her boy. Handley says that by the beginning of the 1970s, Vajiralongkorn ‘had become a disagreeable young man lacking any of the intellect, charm, curiosity, or diplomatic skills of his parents’ and who ‘treated aides with little respect and women as objects, using his power to get them to sleep with him’. When he turned 20 in 1972, Vajiralongkorn was formally designated heir to the throne. But he was already remarkably unpopular among Thais, who mocked and scorned him in private conversations. Far more admired was the prince’s younger sister Sirindhorn, an apparently amiable and unpretentious young woman whom many ordinary Thais adored.
Bhumibol and Sirikit were also divided over the appropriate political role of the palace. Both were firm believers in elite rule and a politically influential monarchy, but Bhumibol favoured a more consensual and subtle approach while the queen wanted aggressive action to crush their perceived enemies. Sirikit believed she was a reincarnation of the sixteenth-century Queen Suriyothai, who – according to legend – had ridden into battle on elephant back disguised as a man to defend her husband and save Ayutthaya. As semi-official royal biographer William Stevenson wrote:
Sirikit still returned in her dreams to what she believed was her earlier incarnation as a warrior queen. She consulted her own informants, who were full of stories about plots to bring down her husband. She shot at cardboard targets, saying bluntly that Buddha sanctioned the destruction of evil. Her targets represented live enemies… Photographs show her with lustrous black hair tied back, bracing herself against the sandbags, her long slim fingers supporting the rifle or curled around the trigger. She looks like a legendary Siamese woman warrior with a white ribbon around her head.
Marital discord in the palace and widespread contempt for Vajilongkorn fuelled the incendiary political atmosphere in Thailand in the mid-1970s and the explosion of violence in October 1976. The pretext for the Thammasat massacre was a play staged by students in the campus two days earlier – newspapers published front-page photographs of a mock hanging that was part of the drama, and rightists alleged it was intended to depict the execution of the crown prince, a claim those involved in the play have always denied. Whatever the truth, it was exploited by the far right to unleash an orgy of murder and brutality that shocked the world. Vajiralongkorn became more feared and hated than ever.
Widespread dread of the prospect that Vajiralongkorn could one day become king drew on historic fears of the terror wrought by violent monarchs, and the traditional belief that the world was on the brink of a dark age, or kaliyug. Many Thais came to believe that Vajiralongkorn’s reign would be this blighted era, and anxiety was stoked by an old prophecy that the monarchy would collapse after the ninth Chakri reign. After two decades of relentless royalist propaganda, it was widely assumed that the downfall of the monarchy would spell catastrophe for the country. The elite had particular reason for angst about Vajiralongkorn: unlike the generally pliable Bhumibol, whom they trusted to protect their interests and preserve the sacred aura of the monarchy, the crown prince was volatile and belligerent. They feared he could become a dangerous rogue monarch like Prasart Thong, one whose whims and rages could unravel generations of accumulated wealth and power for those unlucky enough to anger him. They were further scandalized and enraged by Vajiralongkorn’s habit of preying on their daughters. The prince became notorious for summoning attractive high-born young women to his palace. The extent to which it happened remains unknown, but it was a source of profound anger and anxiety among the elite, many of whom sent their daughters for education overseas to escape his attentions.
In January 1977, pressured by the queen, who wanted to ensure her own branch of the royal family would predominate, Vajiralongkorn married Soamsawali, a cousin from Sirikit’s bloodline. The marriage was a disaster. The prince was regularly seen in the company of wealthy strongmen who made their fortunes in the nexus of crime, politics and business. Thais began to refer to him derisively as ‘Sia-O’, a combination of the word for a Chinese–Thai gangster and the sixth syllable of his royal title. Frustrated by his son’s behaviour, in December 1977 the king elevated Sirindhorn to the status of potential heir to the throne too. Officials characterized this as a precaution in case anything happened to Vajiralongkorn and claimed it did not cast the prince’s status into doubt, but it generated significant ambiguity, which still remains. Support for Sirindhorn to be the next monarch became remarkably widespread and surprisingly openly expressed. Although the palace succession law specified that only males could accede to the throne, Thai constitutions began specifying that a woman could be nominated as monarch – a clear sign that much of the elite preferred Sirindhorn too. By the 1980s there was intense mutual animosity between Vajiralongkorn and most of Thailand’s establishment, who wanted Bhumibol to remain on the throne as long as possible and overwhelmingly favoured Sirindhorn to be the next monarch when he died.
During 1978, the prince abandoned his wife and moved in with Yuwathida Pholprasert, a nightclub hostess and aspiring actress. Soamsawali bore Vajiralongkorn a daughter in late 1978, and in 1979 Yuwathida gave birth to a son, Vajiralongkorn’s first male heir. Over the next decade, Yuwathida was to bear him four more children. Sirikit remained the prince’s staunchest supporter, but used a visit to the United States in 1981 to publicly rebuke Vajiralongkorn for his womanizing, declaring at a news conference in Texas:
My son the crown prince is a little bit of a Don Juan. He is a good student, a good boy, but women find him interesting and he finds women even more interesting… If the people of Thailand do not approve of the behaviour of my son, then he would either have to change his behaviour or resign from the royal family.
But during the 1980s, the queen’s own behaviour was causing a worsening crisis. She had asserted herself as the dominant personality in the palace, and her unconcealed political activism was causing mounting discontent. ‘The Queen, her entourage of generals and a few civilian advisers are effectively governing Thailand today through regular dinners at which the King does not participate’, reported The Times. Meanwhile, Sirikit’s open infatuation with one of her military aides, Narongdej Nandha-phothidej, became increasingly embarrassing to the elite, and in 1984 he was sent to the United States as a military attaché. In May 1985, he died after a game of tennis. The official explanation was that the 38-year-old colonel had suffered a heart attack, but many Thais – including Sirikit herself – suspected something more sinister. Her very public grief over the colonel’s death spiralled into a breakdown, and at the end of 1985 she vanished from view for months. With public disquiet growing, the royal couple’s youngest daughter, Princess Chulabhorn, was enlisted to calm anxiety in a televised interview:
We all work for his majesty because of our loyalty towards him. Nobody in our family wants popularity for themselves. Everybody is sharing the work and we work as a team… But again, there are people who say that our family is divided into two sides, which is not true at all.
In fact, it was all too true. The family was divided, and Bhumibol and Sirikit’s marriage was effectively over. They lived separate lives for the next two decades, a rival royal court of ultra-right-wing politics and all-night dinner dances developing around Sirikit.
As his marriage collapsed, Bhumibol shocked the nation on his 59th birthday in 1986 by hinting he would soon step aside to make way for Vajiralongkorn. As usual, he used oblique language to hint at his intentions, drawing on the water symbolism that had always been central to the theology of Thai kingship:
The water of the Chao Phraya must flow on, and the water that flows on will be replaced. In our lifetime, we just perform our duties. When we retire, somebody else will replace us…
One cannot stick to a single task forever. One day we will grow old and die.
Palace officials confirmed Bhumibol planned to retire to a monastery some time after he turned 60 – his fifth cycle birthday in Buddhist terms – and after another important anniversary in July 1988 when he would become the longest reigning monarch in Thai history. Tongnoi Tongyai, a semi-official spokesman for Bhumibol, set out the likely scenario:
The king will never abdicate, if by abdication you mean leaving his responsibilities behind and retiring… Once his majesty sees the crown prince reaching a more mature age and ready to take over all the royal functions, he may enter a monastery… It does not mean that he will remain a monk. The important thing is that he will continue to be there, behind the throne, and help his son solve any problems.
In September 1987, Vajiralongjorn was sent on a state visit to Japan. It was a chance to demonstrate he possessed the maturity and gravitas to become king. Given the stakes, things could hardly have turned out worse. The prince was enraged by several perceived insults, as the New York Times reported:
A Japanese chauffeur driving the Thai Prince’s car apparently stopped at a motorway tollbooth to relieve himself – Japanese officials say the man felt ill and had to be replaced. On other occasions, the Prince was said to have been given an inappropriate chair to sit on and to have been forced to reach down to the floor to pick up a cord to unveil a memorial. The prince came home three days earlier than scheduled, leaving a diplomatic crisis in his wake.
Bhumibol’s planned abdication made some sense in terms of the long-term preservation of the monarchy, but there was panic among much of the establishment. Sukhumband Paribatra, a senior member of the royal family whose status gave him some degree of protection, took the lead in publicly voicing elite fears. He explained the establishment’s worries in the Far Eastern Economic Review in January 1988:
Given the monarchy’s role in Thailand’s political and economic development, as well as its place in the hearts and minds of the populace, any uncertainty regarding the future of the monarch inevitably causes a great deal of apprehension. Doubts continue to be expressed, mostly in private but now increasingly in the open, about the crown prince’s capacity to evoke the kind of intense political loyalty from the people and the major domestic political groupings that his father is able to do. Doubts also persist as to whether the crown prince can match his father’s subtle and mediatory role in politics.
Behind the scenes other leading figures, particularly Prem, were also actively trying to sabotage the plan. Soon afterwards, palace officials spread word that Bhumibol would not be abdicating after all. No reason was ever given. The ruling class had succeeded in keeping Vajiralongkorn off the throne, for the moment at least.
It was an indication of where power really lay in Thailand – Bhumibol was officially venerated, but his ability to act independently of the elite was extremely limited. Socially isolated, and often seemingly adrift from reality, the king was a relatively weak figure in the ‘network monarchy’ – just as most Thai monarchs had been throughout history. He was an ideal king for the ruling class – pliable, distant, but beloved by many ordinary people for his perceived goodness. The elite used the king’s sacred aura to legitimize their supremacy, and to convince inferiors in the network that their instructions were imbued with royal authority. Once ‘king’s men’ like Prem managed to cloak themselves in royal barami, they had considerable latitude to use the network to advance their own interests. Nobody knows whether instructions genuinely come from the king. As the US embassy observed in a secret cable,
Many figures in the various circles attempt to appropriate the charisma of the King and prestige of the royal institution for their own purposes without any official remit, a process known in Thai as ‘ang barami.’ … Even Thai relatively close to royal principals treat purported wishes conveyed by other royal associates with caution, given the tradition of self-serving ‘ang barami.’
During the 1990s, Vajiralongkorn’s antics continued to appall the establishment. In 1996, when Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto arrived for a summit, his 747 was blocked on the runway for twenty minutes, as it taxied towards the red carpet, by three F-5 fighter jets, one of them piloted by the prince. This was Vajiralongkorn’s revenge for the disrespect he believed he was shown during his visit to Japan nine years previously. A few months later, as Thailand prepared for Bhumibol’s Golden Jubilee, the crown prince caused a scandal that transfixed the nation, banishing his second wife Yuwathida from his palace and from Thailand. Besides the terrible publicity it attracted, Vajiralongkorn’s melodramatic marriage breakdown dealt a severe blow to his succession prospects, because he also disowned and expelled the four sons Yuwathida had borne him. The crown prince was left with no legitimate male heir.
The issue of royal succession was central to the promulgation of the reformist ‘People’s Constitution’ of 1997. The two foremost proponents of reform, Anand Panyarachun and Prawase Wasi, were surprisingly explicit that a key motivation behind the new charter was the need to create a constitutional framework that could keep Vajiralongkorn in check. The new constitution was designed to allow the oligarchy to defend and preserve their exalted position and influence even if the crown prince became king. But most of the elite convinced themselves it would never happen. They thought that sooner or later he would so something so egregiously unacceptable it would ruin his succession prospects. They also believed that Bhumibol shared the widespread concern about his wayward son and would make Sirindhorn his heir instead at the opportune moment. The clearest signal of this was an extraordinary book by Canadian author William Stevenson, who spent several years in Bangkok after being enlisted by the king and granted unprecedented access to write a semi-official biography. The Revolutionary King was published in 1999 to derision from academics – it was riddled with basic errors and as a work of serious history was a risible failure. But as an insight into the mindset of the palace inner circle it was invaluable. Several passages hinted at the prince’s notoriety as a sexual predator:
‘Why is he giving you the Evil Eye?’ a lovely young member of the Royal Household Bureau asked me, when [Vajiralongkorn] presided over the casting of Buddha images. I suggested he was looking at her, not me. She shivered: ‘I hope not – it’s fatal for a woman.’…
‘Perfection was too much to ask from a boy who was Heir Apparent’, lamented an American-educated noblewoman. ‘Look at these pictures of him in court dress-up! If he had to submit to old customs, then he might as well go all the way, have all the women he wanted, and behave like the earlier kings.’
Towards the end of the book, Stevenson evokes an atmosphere of impending doom as Bhumibol’s reign approaches its end, and suggests the king favours Sirindhorn to succeed him:
‘I cannot afford to die’, he joked. All he had worked toward would be in jeopardy the very moment it might seem that his life was running out. The Crown Prince would never allow Crown Princess Sirindhorn to inherit the throne. She had upset her mother long ago when she decided she would never marry. The question of how much longer the king had to live was endlessly debated. Those who planned to monopolise political power could not afford to ignore the future of the Crown Princess. Even if she remained a virgin and even if there was no chance of her bearing an heir to the throne, provision had been made by the king for her to succeed him. And a majority of the people were so devoted to her that they would readily welcome her as the next monarch, however startling an innovation this might be.
In mid-2000, after passing two more milestones – his sixth cycle 72nd birthday and his overtaking of Rama I to become the oldest king in Thai history – Bhumibol made another attempt to retire. This time, instead of formally abdicating, he sought instead to take a step back from his royal duties. Leaving behind the smog and stifling intrigue of Bangkok, and escaping the company of constantly watchful courtiers and his estranged queen, he decamped to ‘Far from Worries’ palace by the seaside in Hua Hin, where he hoped to spend the twilight of his life in relative peace.