Bangkok traffic is always bad. There’s no such thing as a rush hour. It’s always rush day. The only way to move around the city quickly is to use the municipal underground or overground trains, or to risk life and limb and get on the back of a motorbike taxi and be whisked through the posse of scooters that are ubiquitous across Southeast Asia. Whole families move on a single bike, it seems.
Last Monday morning, I was on the back on one such motorbike taxi, reporting for Gulf News on the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the 88-year-old monarch who had ruled Thailand for seven decades. At one traffic light, my driver got into a near fist-fight with the driver of a battered grey pickup truck. The crime? There was a two-metre portrait of the late king being transported in the truck, and my driver, the other driver claimed, had come too close.
For Thais, the monarch is a figurehead of tremendous respect and even the slightest perceived slight is a matter of grave issue. In restaurants, for example, women never place their handbags on the floor — the king’s image is on banknotes and should never be on the ground.
I know this as it once almost cost me my life. On an assignment, to cover the political strife, in May, 2010, in Bangkok, I had hired another motorbike taxi — one I did not trust. There’s an old trick after agreeing to a price and asking him to wait — give half the money, with the other half to follow. I then went to rip the bank notes in half, with every gun at a military checkpoint coming up to my face to warn be against such a disfigurement and mark of disrespect to the Thai king.
But things in Thailand have now changed forever with the passing of King Bhumibol. Many in Thailand want a princess to ascend to the throne, but her scandal-plagued brother is next in line.
They call her “Phra Thep” — Princess Angel. The most popular of the late Thai king’s children, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has built a reputation as a hardworking and down-to-earth royal. And although Thailand’s military rulers keep a tight lid on palace politics, many in the country had quietly hoped that she might one day succeed their beloved King Bhumibol.
Those hopes were dashed last Tuesday when General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the Prime Minister and junta leader, said Princess Sirindhorn’s scandal-plagued older brother could ascend to the throne in as little as two weeks. Prayuth surprised Thailand last week when he announced that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64, had asked for time to mourn before he could become king. Just how long that might be was not spelled out, prompting speculation among some long-time observers about a behind-the-scenes power struggle.
The issue for Thais is one of splitting heirs.
Like her father in his younger years, the 61-year-old Princess Sirindhorn is often spotted, notebook in hand and a camera around her neck, inspecting rural development projects.
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, however, has shown little interest in the public duties expected of a monarch. A jet-setter once described by his mother as “a little bit of a Don Juan”, he has divorced three times and spends much of the year in the German countryside.
Few dare to complain openly about the prince because of a strictly enforced law that makes it illegal to insult the royal family; offenders can face up to 15 years in jail. But the distaste and bemusement felt by many are evident in coded comments that frequently appear on social media.
Thais were scandalised in 2007 when a leaked video showed Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s third wife, Princess Srirasmi Suwadee, appearing topless at a poolside birthday party. Also in attendance was the prince’s pet poodle, Foo Foo, who, according to a United States diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks, was promoted to the rank of air chief marshal before his death last year.
Although it was never clear who leaked the video, some speculated that it was spread by opponents of the prince in the hope that his sister might ascend to the throne in his place. Such hopes were spelled out in another leaked cable that described a conversation between the then US Ambassador, Eric G. John, and the late Air Chief Marshal, Siddhi Savetsila in 2010.
“Siddhi stated that succession would be a difficult transition time for Thailand,” the cable says. “According to Palace Law, the Crown Prince would succeed his father, but added after a pause, almost hopefully: ‘If the Crown Prince were to die, anything could happen, and maybe Prathep (Sirindhorn) could succeed’.”
In recent months, the country’s military leaders have appeared keen to burnish the reputation of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. Prayuth joined the crown prince at a nationally-televised mass cycle ride in honour of his mother’s birthday over the summer.
In a sign of Princess Sirindhorn’s importance, the princess will oversee King Bhumibol’s funeral ceremony in a year’s time.
— With inputs from agencies