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Embassy cables reveal fears over heir’s womanising and links to ousted PM damaging stabilising role of monarchy in Thailand
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 15 December 2010 21.30 GMT
Thai leaders harbour grave misgivings about the crown prince’s fitness to become king owing to his reputation as a womaniser and links to a fugitive former prime minister, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable.
Three senior members of Thailand’s powerful privy council, a group of advisers appointed by the king, make clear their preference for an alternative to Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is considered a political liability because of his extramarital affairs in several European countries.
The succession is of pressing concern as King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turned 83 this month, is in poor health. Revered by most Thais, he is one of the few unifying figures in a country deeply divided between an urban elite and a rural poor.
The great fear within the authorities is that with the divisive figure of the crown prince as king, any future political turbulence could split Thailand in two. The military and the police rely on loyalty to the crown to maintain control and without it their authority would be greatly weakened.
This year Thailand experienced the worst political violence in its modern history. Ninety-one people died as protesters who support Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted as prime minister in a 2006 military coup, called for the dissolution of parliament and new elections. A state of emergency imposed at the time still remains in force.
The cable, written by the US ambassador, Eric John, in January, reports on his conversations with General Prem Tinsulanonda, the head of the privy council and a former prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, another former prime minister, and Air Chief Marshall Siddhi Savetsila.
“All three had quite negative comments about Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn,” the cable reads. “While asserting that the crown prince will become King, both Siddhi and Anand implied the country would be better off if other arrangements could be made. Siddhi expressed preference for Princess Sirindhorn; Anand suggested only the King would be in a position to change succession, and acknowledged a low likelihood of that happening.”
There are repeated references to the prince’s affairs. When the US ambassador asked where the prince was, Prem is quoted as saying: “You know his social life, how he is,” which John says is a “presumed reference to Vajiralongkorn’s preference to spend time based out of Munich with his main mistress, rather than in Thailand with his wife and son”.
John also conveys Siddhi’s observations about the prince’s dalliances. The cable states: “Siddhi, in a similar vein, noted that the Crown Prince frequently slipped away from Thailand, and that information about his air hostess mistresses was widely available on websites; he lamented how his former aide, now Thai ambassador to Germany, was forced to leave Berlin for Munich often to receive Vajiralongkorn.”
Apart from their concerns over the prince’s behaviour, the privy council members also express unease over his ties with the fugitive ex-prime minister Thaksin, best known in the UK for owning Manchester City football club from 2007 to 2008. Thaksin spends most of his time in Dubai in self-imposed exile.
“Prem acknowledged Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn probably maintained some sort of relationship with fugitive former PM Thaksin, ‘seeing him from time to time’. Prem, clearly no fan of either man, cautioned that Thaksin ran the risk of self-delusion if he thought that the Crown Prince would act as his friend/supporter in the future merely because of Thaksin’s monetary support; ‘he does not enjoy that sort of relationship.'”
In the cable, Anand blames the king’s poor health partly on Thaksin, who at the time was acting as a political adviser to the Cambodian government. The king was in hospital in January, exercising 30 minutes a day on a stationary bicycle and passing a medicine ball with a physical therapist to build up strength and regain weight.
Despite their reservations about the crown prince, John’s interlocutors seemed resigned to his becoming king.
“Anand said that he had always believed that the Crown Prince would succeed his father, according to law. However, there could be complicating factors – if Vajiralongkorn proved unable to stay out of politics, or avoid embarrassing financial transactions … The consensus view among many Thai was that the Crown Prince could not stop either, nor would he be able, at age 57, to rectify his behaviour,” the cable reads.
“After another pause, Anand added that someone really should raise the matter with the King, before adding with regret that there really was no one who could raise such a delicate topic (note: implied was the need for an alternative to Vajiralongkorn).”
Royal intrigue is also conveyed in another cable by John in October 2008. This confidential message reports on complaints by Samak Sundaravej, a former prime minister, that Queen Sirikit encouraged the coup that overthrew Thaksin.
“He showed disdain for Queen Sirikit,” John writes, “claiming that she had been responsible for the 2006 coup d’etat as well as the ongoing turmoil generated by PAD [People's Alliance for Democracy] protests. He alleged the Queen operated through privy council president Prem Tinsulanonda who, along with others presenting themselves as royalists, worked with the PAD and other agitators. Citing his own regular meetings with King Bhumibol, Samak claimed he – rather than his opponents – was sincerely loyal to the king and enjoyed the king’s support.”
What constitutes an insult?
The Thai royal family is protected by the country’s lese majesty laws, making it an offence to insult the monarchy.
Under article 112, anyone can file a complaint against someone they consider to have defamed the monarch.
Missing from the code, however, is a definition of what actions constitute defamation or insult. Neither the king nor any member of the royal family has ever filed any charges under this law.
In 2005, King Bhumibol encouraged criticism: “I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know.” He later added: “But the king can do wrong.”
Since 2005, use of the law has been on the rise, for politicians, journalists and activists.
In March 2007, a Swiss, Oliver Jufer, convicted of lese majesty, was sentenced to 10 years for spray-painting graffiti on portraits of the king while drunk. He was pardoned then deported.
In 2008, Jonathan Head, the BBC’s south-east Asia correspondent and vice-president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, was accused of lese majesty by a police colonel, Watanasak Mungkijakarndee. Watanasak said Head’s reporting between 2006 and 2008 had “damaged and insulted the monarchy”. The BBC rejected the charges as groundless.
Also in 2008, Harry Nicolaides, an Australian, was arrested at Bangkok’s international airport and charged with lese majesty, for an offending passage in his self-published book Verismilitude [large PDF download]. After pleading guilty, he was jailed for three years. He was deported last year after being pardoned by the king.
In June, the Thai government, which has removed tens of thousands of web pages in recent years for insulting the royal family, approved the creation of an online crime agency that will pursue alleged violators of the lese majesty laws.