[The prince’s ascension also raises questions about the future of the monarchy, as a less-beloved king could give strength to a republican movement that has gained a foothold in recent years. Among the issues at stake is control over one of the world’s great royal fortunes, an estimated $31 billion in real estate holdings alone. Succession may force the consideration of an unresolved and rarely discussed question of whether those assets and others are the property of the royal family or of the Thai public.]
By Alison Smale and Thomas Fuller
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, with his mother, on his left, and sisters,
in Bangkok in 2010. Credit Sukree Sukplang/Reuters
TUTZING, Germany — For more than two years, the king of Thailand lay ill in a Bangkok hospital. During much of that time, his son, the heir to Thailand’s throne, was far from the kingdom, flying around Europe in his Boeing 737 and ensconced in luxury villas and hotels amid the misty lakes and mountains of southern Germany and Austria.
The lavish European lifestyle of the son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, and his tastes for airplanes, fast cars, women and the high life have caused great anxiety in the kingdom for decades. Now he is on the cusp of ascending the throne.
The death of the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Thursday has set in motion a succession that many Thais say they wish they could avoid. King Bhumibol had been a unifying figure in a country that is torn by deep divisions of class and politics and is currently ruled by a military junta. The issue is whether the prince, seen by many Thais as lacking the deep public devotion that his father enjoyed, can hold the country together.
The prince’s ascension also raises questions about the future of the monarchy, as a less-beloved king could give strength to a republican movement that has gained a foothold in recent years. Among the issues at stake is control over one of the world’s great royal fortunes, an estimated $31 billion in real estate holdings alone. Succession may force the consideration of an unresolved and rarely discussed question of whether those assets and others are the property of the royal family or of the Thai public.
The crown prince, 64, has led a stormy life of byzantine quarrels and breakups with various lovers that were rarely fully elucidated in public. To his critics, his romantic liaisons have been more than just a royal soap opera; they have raised questions about whether his character suits the institution he is about to lead.
Having multiple lovers is a dynastic tradition — his great-grandfather, King Rama V, had more than 150 wives and consorts — but the prince’s former partners have endured spiteful separations and the purged members of his entourage have died under suspicious circumstances. His three divorces, and the brusque ways they were handled, turned many Thais against him and left a trail of broken families, including four children in the United States with whom he has cut ties.
The crown prince returned to Thailand in time to be present for his father’s death on Thursday. But the timing of his accession remains in question. Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister, surprised the nation on Thursday when he told reporters that the prince had decided to wait until the “appropriate time” to ascend the throne, which is still replete with the ancient pageantry and extreme formality made famous by the musical “The King and I.”
What details are known of the crown prince’s life are whispered and passed along furtively on social media in Thailand, where the military government, enforcing a strict lèse-majesté law, has sentenced dozens of people to long prison terms for offending the monarchy. The law has been interpreted broadly, stifling most public discussion of anything related to the royal family.
But piecing together the few details that have emerged in public records, leaked documents and videos, and in publications from abroad offers a glimpse into the man who stands to be Thailand’s next king.
The prince was still married to his first wife, his cousin Soamsawali Kitiyakara, in the 1970s and 80s when he fathered five children with another woman, according to Thai news accounts at the time. The other woman, an aspiring actress and a commoner, Sujarinee Vivacharawongse, would become his second wife.
That second marriage ended in the late 1990s in such acrimony that a public notice was posted at the prince’s palace accusing Ms. Sujarinee of corruption and infidelity with a soldier. The prince cut off communication with four of the five children from the marriage, stripped them of their royal titles and diplomatic passports, and wrote letters, since posted online by an exiled academic, to their British boarding schools informing them that he would no longer pay their tuition. They now live in the United States, as does their mother.
His third marriage, also to a commoner, Srirasmi Suwadee, in 2001, produced the boy who is considered the next heir to the throne, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, 11, who lives in Bavaria, Germany, with his father.
Thais got a rare insight into the third marriage when a video clip of an elaborate poolside birthday party circulated widely on computer discs and on the internet. The video, which showed the princess topless with a string bikini bottom being attended to by submissive palace staff, scandalized a public accustomed to perceiving the monarchy as a paragon of virtue.
It was never clear how the video had been leaked but some suggested that the prince’s enemies had spread it to promote the possibility that his sister, Princess Sirindhorn, beloved by the public for her devotion to charitable causes, could become monarch in his stead.
The footage of the party was never publicly discussed in Thailand’s news media.
The crown prince’s marriage to Ms. Srirasmi blew up spectacularly in 2014, when members of her family were suddenly swept up by the police, charged and brought to trial.
At least three of Ms. Srirasmi’s siblings were sent to prison for crimes including illegal possession of firearms and insulting the monarchy, according to police statements. Her mother and father were sentenced to prison for insulting the monarchy.
Her uncle Pongpat Chayapan, a high-ranking police officer, was convicted of running illegal casinos, oil smuggling, money laundering and other crimes.
Ms. Srirasmi gave up her royally bestowed name, according to an entry in The Royal Gazette, but she was given a stipend of more than $5 million of government funds from the Crown Property Bureau, a payment made public in a letter signed by the junta chief.
The purge reinforced fears of an ominous, violent side in the prince’s entourage.
One of a handful of police officers purged in the 2014 separation, Akkharawit Limrat, died under mysterious circumstances, his body hastily cremated, according to a funeral certificate published in the Thai news media.
The police, calling the matter “sensitive,” gave only scant details.
Lt. Gen. Prawut Thavornsiri, then the police spokesman, described the death this way: “He got stressed out. So he jumped out of the building and died.”
A separate purge last year of aides to the crown prince had a similar outcome. Two of the three men arrested died in custody in military barracks.
The purges have somewhat overshadowed recent efforts by the government to rehabilitate the prince’s image, including broadcasts of his riding in bicycle tours to celebrate the king and queen and the release of a video showing him caring for his son Dipangkorn in Germany. Critics said that after the purge of his third wife, those images sought to present him as a healthy, responsible father.
The efforts suggested that the military had cast its lot with the prince, trying to forge the same kind of mutually beneficial alliance it had with his father. The king heads the armed forces and must approve all governments, while the military draws its legitimacy from the monarch’s blessing.
Then there’s the matter of who will be the new queen. Like so many other parts of the crown prince’s life, the answer is shrouded in secrecy.
A former flight attendant, Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhaya, has appeared by the prince’s side on the official royal broadcasts and has been bestowed the military rank of lieutenant general.
Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister, said he met Ms. Suthida many times when he was in government.
“She’s an air hostess, very lively, highly intelligent,” he said. “She can ski, she can bike. She loves music. She knows what is good wine in Italy.”
Ms. Suthida appears to live with the crown prince in Bavaria.
Bild, the German tabloid, published a photograph in July of the crown prince on an airport runway in low-slung jeans, with what appeared to be tattoos covering his back and arms. The prince’s companion, possibly Ms. Suthida, is wearing stiletto heels and a tight shirt, midriff exposed, an outfit that might not raise eyebrows in Europe but would disqualify any tourist from entering the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
The prince bought two villas in southern Germany last year, one on the exclusive Lake Starnberg for an estimated $13 million, and another, said to have cost some $5.5 million, in the adjacent community of Feldafing.
When Andreas Botas, a real estate agent in Tutzing, showed the prince and his entourage a property there last year, three black Mercedes vans, a white Porsche and three more vans arrived for the appointment.
The driver of the Porsche turned out to be the prince, “dressed in a skimpy T-shirt and jeans but very good shoes,” Mr. Botas said. The prince looked carefully at the villa’s 12 main rooms as servants lay prostrate or knelt on the ground ready to start the white Porsche and open the driver and passenger doors. Ultimately, Mr. Botas said, the prince bought the other villas.
Bavaria offers the crown prince the privacy that he appears to crave. In Tutzing, the Prince’s three-story villa is defended from prying eyes by a fence and hedge more than six-feet tall.
In Feldafing, few locals seem to know the prince, but neighbors said they heard parties around the private pool late into the night last summer.
Occasional public appearances sometimes make news in the German and Austrian news media. The crown prince’s entourage, they reported, has visited a pumpkin farm, picked strawberries, and toured parts of Bavaria on mountain bikes. In the Austrian ski resort of Zell am Ziller, the prince’s entourage in 2014 rented 70 rooms in a spa hotel and demanded the installation of a kitchen where the prince’s own cook prepared his food, according to an article in the Innsbruck newspaper Tiroler Tageszeitung.
But for the most part, this community shelters its wealthy residents with discreet propriety.
The deputy mayor of Tutzing, Elisabeth Dörrenberg, said only that her community of some 10,000 welcomed wealthy and prominent people, but said nothing specifically about the prince. The town does not show off its wealth; there is no five-star hotel or Michelin-starred restaurant.
The mayor of Feldafing, Bernhard Sontheim, was equally reticent. The prince’s entourage showed up at his office in July, the mayor said, and spent half an hour chatting about generalities.
The prince, he said, “is now a resident of Feldafing, he lives here and that is that.”
Follow Alison Smale @asmalenyt and Thomas Fuller @thomasfullerNYT on Twitter.
Alison Smale reported from Tutzing, Germany, and Thomas Fuller from San Francisco. Victor Homola contributed reporting from Berlin.