From love to fear: The rise of King Vajiralongkorn

Thailand’s new king started his reign wresting more power from the junta and purging the royal court’s old guard.

FILE PHOTO - A woman walks past a portrait of Thailand''s King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun at a department store in central Bangkok
Since his ascension to the throne, Vijiralongkorn has demonstrated that power can be waged both by consent and coercion, love and fear. writes Sopranzetti [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

On April 6, King Vajiralongkorn signed Thailand’s 20th constitution. Charters have come and gone in the country since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, often without much woe or jubilation. While the new constitution was met with similar general apathy, the unprecedented journey it went through offers a rare insight into the secretive new reign of King Vajiralongkorn and his developing leadership style.

The King ascended to the throne on December 1, 2016, a month and a half after his father died after seven decades on the throne. As the nation mourned the much-loved monarch, the succession caused anxiety among the Thai people about the future of the institution and doubts over the new monarch’s ability to fill his father’s shoes.

Many saw the new King as an erratic playboy more interested in fast cars, parties, and women than in ruling a country that over the past four decades has turned to his father to arbitrate political conflicts. Since his ascension to the throne, King Vajiralongkorn has proved them wrong. The first four months of his reign have seen a forceful monarch, even more hands-on than his father. Yet, while the late King Bhumibol ruled by inspiring love in his subjects, Vajiralongkorn is starting his reign by instilling fear.

King Bhumibol ascended to the throne in 1946, after the mysterious death of his brother, who was found shot in his room. Initially an irrelevant figurehead controlled by military governments and secluded in his palace in southern Thailand, the young Bhumibol started to travel to rural provinces, support local monks and temples, and establish development projects across the country. These popular enterprises laid the groundwork for the construction of his unprecedented popularity among Thais.

Over the following decades, Bhumibol acquired more and more power, cultivating his image as the benevolent and charismatic father of the nation, together with an unprecedented accumulation of wealth and the 1957 introduction of a lese majeste law which punishes anyone who criticises the monarch with three to 15 years in jail. Even with such policies, his dedication to the Thai people remained, until the very end, a largely celebrated feature of his reign.

A new style of leadership

The same cannot be said for his son. Vijiralongkorn spent much of his adult life outside the country enjoying a lavish lifestyle in Europe and since his return to the country, he has shown indifference to the crowd-pleasing rituals established by his father.

Five weeks after his coronation, on January 9, the new King delivered university degrees to students of Rajabhat University in the northern city of Chiang Mai, a practice established by the late King. Vajiralongkorn kept the students waiting for more than four hours. This was only the first sign of his emerging style of leadership.

The following day, Vijiralongkorn demanded changes to a constitutional draft voted on in a popular referendum in August 2016 under a military junta that prevented anti-charter activists and politicians from campaigning. The details of the royal intervention remained unknown during the initial consultations and were disclosed to the public only after the new constitution was promulgated in a royal ceremony on April 6.

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The changes provide the King with complete control over the appointment of a regent in his absence, cancel the need for a parliamentary counter-signature to royal orders, and re-establish royal crisis powers which were taken away from the palace in the 2016 draft, including the ability to impose executive and legislative vetoes and the right to dissolve the legislative assembly. Overall, with the new constitution Vajiralongkorn will wield more power over the parliament than his father ever did.

The new king's tighter grip on power has affected not only members of the elites but also commoners.


A tighter grip on power

Since he took the throne, the new King has imposed tighter control over the palace’s inner circles and the powerful figures who ran it under his late father. In the past four months, Vijiralongkorn has stripped more than 40 palace officials of their ranks, with official accusations that go from behaviour unfit for senior bureaucrats to abuses of power for personal profit, from engagement in politics jeopardising national security, disclosing the late King’s personal health record  to having lost His Majesty’s trust.

Among those removed from their positions in the palace were two important cases: that of Jumpol Manmai, a former deputy police chief and Grand Chamberlain of the Bureau of the Royal Household in charge of security and special affairs; and that of five members of the Vajarodaya clan, one of the most prominent families in the palace under Vajiralongkorn’s father. While the five Vajarodayas were quietly removed from their roles and stripped of their titles, the purging of the former deputy police chief was a much more public business.

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Jumpol was fired for undisclosed “extremely evil misconduct” – in the words of the Royal Gazette – and went incommunicado amid rumours about his death, a fate that befell two former members of Vajiralongkorn’s inner circles, who died in mysterious circumstances while in detention. 

A week after his disappearance, Jumpol was accused of land encroachment and appeared in court with his head shaven, a treatment reserved to those who fall out of favour with the new King. His former spouse Princess Srirasmi faced a similar punishment in 2014. After being divorced, Srirasmi was stripped of her titles, shaved, and kept away from the public eye while her parents and four more members of her family were jailed for royal defamation.

Fear has spread within prominent families in the country. A source close to the palace who preferred to remain anonymous declared: “People are developing contingency plans, moving money abroad and putting things in place in case the King turns against them.”

A king to be feared

The new King’s tighter grip on power has affected not only members of the elites but also commoners. Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, a 25-year-old law student, was arrested and charged with lese majeste the day after Vijiralongkorn’s ascension to the throne for sharing a Facebook post of a critical royal biography published by BBC Thailand. The case has been seen as a clear sign of the low tolerance for any public discussion of the new King’s past.

Since his ascension to the throne, Vijiralongkorn has demonstrated that power can be waged both by consent and coercion, love and fear. If love – shielded by the draconian lese majeste law – defined his father’s reign and commanded respect from his subjects, fear will define the son’s reign. Whether the new strategy will work remains to be seen, but fear of the new monarch is something the country will have to grapple with. 

Claudio Sopranzetti is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He is the author of the forthcoming book Owners of the Map and is currently working on Awakened, a graphic novel on life in Bangkok. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.