He rode a Tuk-Tuk in Bangkok and ate Thailand’s famous dish, Pad Thai. Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse, the second son of King Vajiralongkorn of Thailand, returned home on August 5 for the first time in twenty-seven years after being disowned by his own father in 1996. At that time, his entire family, except his youngest sister, fled to the United States and became refugees. But last week, Vacharaesorn, after so long in the wilderness, turned up in Bangkok for an unexpected homecoming. What is going on?
In December last year, Princess Bajrakitiyabha, the king’s eldest daughter, collapsed and fell into a coma. While the palace has not revealed details of her illness, the Thai public has speculated that the princess might never recover. Bajarakitiyabha had been tipped to become the next sovereign, defying the traditionally patriarchal rule of succession—although the king had not, and still has not, formally named a successor. Bajarakitiyabha is the first daughter of Vajiralongkorn and his first wife, Princess Soamsawali. Due to her high-born status, Bajrakitiyabha was considered the suitable next monarch. The other two children of Vajiralongkorn considered legitimate from two of his five wives are Princess Sirivannavari and Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti. Although the king has not formally selected an heir apparent, neither was likely to be chosen.
Sirivannavari is Vacharaesorn’s youngest sister. Their mother, Sujarinee, has remained in exile in Florida. Suarinee was married to Vajiralongkorn but later they divorced. Together, they have four sons and one daughter. While Vajiralongkorn disowned the four sons, including Vacharaesorn, he kept the youngest daughter, Sirivannavari, with him and raised her. Dipangkorn, the only male son born to one of the king’s wives, is suffering from some health problems, and the king likely still wants to maintain patriarchal succession if possible. More importantly, the whereabouts of Dipangkorn’s mother, Srirasmi, are unknown. The Thai media reported that she has been put under house arrest after a divorce from Vajralongkorn in 2014.
It has become clear that the Thai royal family has encountered a succession crisis. One key to the survival of monarchies is the ability to have a sizable pool of competent successors. But none of Vajiralongkorn’s legitimate children have gotten married. With Bajrakitiyabha at her sickbed, Vajiralongkorn is under pressure to find a solution to break the succession deadlock. Vacharaesorn could possibly be chosen to fill the vacuum of succession. He is still single but certainly could still marry and produce offspring.
Born in 1981, Vacharaesorn has been the most politically active member of his wing of the family, most of which was long estranged from Thailand and Vajiralongkorn. Practicing law in New York City, Vacharaesorn has in recent years increasingly interacted with Thai and Thai-American communities in the United States, where he is perceived as a long-lost prince. Some Thais and Thai-Americans prostrated before him, a traditional ritual defining the relationship between members of the royal family and their subordinates. With his political ambition in the background, it is hard to imagine that his homecoming last week was just a mere visit without any political implications.
In fact, his week-long visit to Thailand was carefully stage-managed. Except for the one daughter, the Vivacharawongse family had been banned from returning home. Therefore, Vacharaesorn must have been granted permission by the palace for his homecoming. The urgency to find a successor to the throne could have explained this rushed invite to return and to foster some reconciliation between the long-lost prince, the palace, and the Thai public.
Thailand’s palace politics remain intriguing and secretive. Discussing it openly within Thailand can be illegal due to strict lèse-majesté laws. Different palace factions support different candidates for the throne. Conservative elites may prefer Prince Dipangkorn since a weak monarch would potentially give them more power to continue in a strong royalist tradition. Hence, it is possible that a more progressive camp in the palace could have acted as a proxy for the homecoming of Vacharaesorn. After all, Vacharaesorn is a product of years in the United States and has hinted at desires to modernize the Thai monarchy.
While in Bangkok, Vacharaesorn’s activities delivered a satisfying response to the two opposite camps: the conservative and the progressive. He visited several temples, an orphanage house, and the Siriraj hospital built in honor of his great-grandfather, Prince Mahidol Adulyadej. He released fish into a river, a traditional merit-making ceremony. He received royal treatment from the public and attracted substantial media attention.
But he also was harshly criticized by critics of the monarchy for suggesting he might favor a more reformist approach. In Thailand, Vacharaesorn said repeatedly that he was a commoner and rejected subservient rituals. Interestingly, in his final speech in Thailand, he balanced the two opposing views. While thanking his father and expressing his gratitude to Thailand to please the conservative royalists, he emphasized principles of equality, justice, and fairness as a basis for a peaceful and mature society.
At this stage, it is too soon to project his future direction should he become heir apparent and then king. But one thing is certain—there is a growing popular call among many Thais for reform of the monarchy, at a time when the issue of the monarchy is increasingly taking central stage in Thai politics.
The future direction of Vacharaesorn will hence have significant implications for the future of Thai politics. A progressive prince, and possible king, may help democratize Thailand and lead to a more normal and constrained monarchy along the lines of those in Britain or Japan. On the contrary, a prince taking a conservative hardline would lead the nation toward even more authoritarianism
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. His forthcoming book is Rama X: The Thai Monarchy under King Vajiralongkorn (Yale Southeast Asia Studies, winter 2023).