‘Extremely evil misconduct’: Thailand’s palace intrigue spills into view

Purges in King Vajiralongkorn’s court have electrified the normally anodyne royal gazette

King Maha Vajiralongkorn taking part in the Royal Land Procession on the day following his coronation as King Rama X of Thailand in May 2019. Photograph: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

King Maha Vajiralongkorn taking part in the Royal Land Procession on the day following his coronation as King Rama X of Thailand in May 2019. Photograph: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

 

The denunciations have swirled through Thailand’s gilded palaces with the rhetorical extravagance of a Shakespearean history. The official consort to the king was accused of trying to upstage the queen and “undermining the nation”, leading to the stripping of her royal titles after less than three months on the job.

A grand chamberlain was removed for “severely immoral acts” that allegedly included forcing a paramour to undergo an abortion. And last week, four more courtiers, two of whom were described as bedchamber pages, were removed for “extremely evil misconduct”

Nearly half a year ago, King Maha Vajiralongkorn was crowned in a lavish spectacle culminating in the placement of a 7kg crown on his head. Since then the 67-year-old king has assembled a court whose intrigue frequently spills onto the pages of the Royal Thai Government Gazette, which normally records more anodyne matters.

The explosive details of the palace purges stand in contrast to the reserved tenor of the seven-decade reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, his father. At the time of his death in 2016, Bhumibol was the world’s longest-serving royal. He did not leave Thailand for decades, and he was often pictured in rice paddies or factories with his subjects.

Vajiralongkorn spends much of his time in Germany and has not continued the tradition of communing with ordinary Thais, at least in photos that have been made public. The king has taken high-profile steps that appear to have bolstered his authority.

Last year, he assumed oversight over the Crown Property Bureau, whose fortune, believed to be upward of €30 billion, helps make him one of the world’s wealthiest royals. In February, he quashed the political candidacy of his elder sister, Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, calling her attempt to run for prime minister “highly inappropriate”.

Last month, he ordered two infantry units in Bangkok, the capital, moved from normal military command to that of his royal corps.

“This direct taking of control is something that we haven’t seen since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932,” said Tamara Loos, the chair of the history department at Cornell University and an expert on Thai monarchic traditions. “It’s a slide toward something that is very different from his father’s behind-the-scenes way of operating.”

Companion purged

The recent announcement that four palace insiders were being stripped of their royal and military titles capped a tumultuous week, which began when the king’s official companion was publicly purged. On October 21st, an announcement in the Royal Thai Government Gazette stated that Sineenatra Wongvajirabhakdi had been divested of her title of noble consort. She was accused of “ingratitude” and of scheming against Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya, the king’s fourth wife.

King Vajiralongkorn with royal noble consort Sineenat Bilaskalayani, also known as Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, in August 2019. The consort was recently stripped of all titles. Photograph: Thailand’s Royal Office/AFP via Getty Images
King Vajiralongkorn with royal noble consort Sineenat Bilaskalayani, also known as Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, in August 2019. The consort was recently stripped of all titles. Photograph: Thailand’s Royal Office/AFP via Getty Images

Sineenatra’s actions “caused the royal household staff to be discordant”, the official statement said. A nursing college graduate, Sineenatra had enjoyed her official position, which is separate from that of wife, for only a matter of weeks. The title of noble consort had not been used since Thailand abolished absolute monarchy and polygamy more than eight decades ago.

Two days after Sineenatra was stripped of her title, several other courtiers, including a senior representative of the king in many ceremonies, a nurse and a veterinarian from the royal canine division were dismissed for what was termed “severely evil misconduct using their government positions to seek benefits for themselves”.

Similar phrasing was used last week to describe the purported misdeeds of four others. Two of the courtiers were accused of adultery, which was deemed “an offence of the principles of the royal household staff”.

“You wouldn’t imagine that this is the language of a government gazette,” Loos said. “It’s more like a tabloid.”

The king, who is known in some official pronouncements as “the sacred lord over all heads”, has been married four times. His first wife, who is also his first cousin, retained the title of princess even after their divorce in 1991. They had one daughter.

The king has owned a number of poodles, one of which was granted the military rank of air chief marshal 

His second wife, with whom he had five children while still married to his first wife, was an actress. She and their four sons live overseas, but their daughter, Sirivannavari Nariratana, carries out royal duties in Thailand.

A fashion designer, Sirivannavari made headlines last year after a Thai entertainment host who panned a gown she had designed was threatened with criminal prosecution.

Strict laws

Thailand has strict laws against criticism of the royal family. Offenders can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for each count of lese-majesty. Because complaints can be lodged by anyone, not only the police, human rights groups say the law, meant to protect the monarchy, has been twisted to suppress political dissent.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida during their wedding ceremony in Bangkok in May 2019. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida during their wedding ceremony in Bangkok in May 2019. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps unsurprisingly, multiple academics and political commentators in Thailand declined to comment on the slew of firings recorded in the Royal Thai Government Gazette. The king’s third wife, Srirasmi Suwadee, was considered a princess until she and at least nine of her relatives were purged five years ago after the palace alleged that they had used their royal connections to illegally burnish their wealth. Srirasmi’s parents were jailed for lese-majesty.

The pair had one son, Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, who is considered the heir apparent to the throne. The king’s marriage to his fourth wife, Queen Suthida, a former flight attendant, was made public in May, three days before he was crowned.

It was on the king’s birthday this year, July 28th, that he named Sineenatra his noble consort. The Royal Household Bureau later released pictures of the two together, including images of Sineenatra flying a plane while wearing a camouflage-printed sports bra and another of her cradling a white poodle, which was wearing what appeared to be a black leather onesie.

The king has owned a number of poodles, one of which was granted the military rank of air chief marshal. Several women associated with the king have also attained high military positions. Queen Suthida was named a general in the king’s bodyguard corps, while Sineenatra was a major general before her downfall. – New York Times

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