Updated Oct. 13, 2016 4:48 p.m. ET
BANGKOK—Following in the steps of a father is seldom easy. Thailand’s Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, though, is following in those of a man who reigned as king for 70 years and was regarded by many here as father to the entire nation.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died aged 88 on Thursday, was seen by a great number of his subjects as the embodiment of ancient Siamese values as Thailand morphed into a modern-day manufacturing and tourism hub. His attendants at the royal palace worked hard to portray him as a Dhammaraja, or holy king, an ascetic Buddhist ruler whose sole priority was the uplift of his people. His picture is displayed in many Thai homes.
How the thrice-married, 64-year-old Prince Vajiralongkorn steps up to the challenge of succeeding King Bhumibol could determine the future rule of Thailand’s monarchy, which, while lacking any formal power, has exercised decisive moral authority to calm some of the more turbulent moments in the country’s recent history.
John Ciorciari, professor and expert on Southeast Asia at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, said it would be difficult for the prince to attain similar levels of adulation as his father because King Bhumibol has been the linchpin of the Thai political system for decades. “His successor will almost certainly not enjoy the same prestige or sway,” he said.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army general who seized power in a coup two years ago, indicated after the announcement of King Bhumibol’s death that his designated heir, the prince, would become king in accordance with the constitution. In doing so he swatted aside speculation that royalists might attempt to install another member of the royal family as monarch or as a regent.
The prime minister told reporters late Thursday that the prince had asked for time to grieve for the king along with other Thais before succeeding him as monarch.
Gen. Prayuth declared a one-year period of mourning for King Bhumibol, the length of which might help prepare the way for Prince Vajiralongkorn to take over, some political analysts said. “The emotions will be authentic, but they can also help legitimize the next king, and the military,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
The prince, the only son of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, has previously acknowledged that he has been perceived as a something of a black sheep. The four sons and one daughter he had with his second wife were born before he was divorced from his first wife, for instance. His mother once described him to reporters during a visit to the U.S. as “a little bit of a Don Juan.”
In an interview with society magazine Dichan in 1986, he observed wryly that his reputation might even serve a useful purpose. “Black sheep help those not-too-white ones seem whiter,” he said.
As a teenager, the prince became an officer in Thailand’s army, navy and air force, where he discovered a lifelong interest in aviation. He went to a boarding school in England and later entered Australia’s Royal Military College before marrying his first wife, a cousin, in 1977.
His most recent marriage, with Sirarasmi Suwadee, ended in 2014 after some of her relatives were arrested and later convicted for using the prince’s name to run an extortion racket.
Prince Vajiralongkorn also has spent much of his time in recent years in Germany, away from the spotlight in Thailand and the duties that come with being a leading member of the country’s royal family.
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- From the Archives: A Personal Look at Thailand’s King (June 7, 1996)
But as his father’s health deteriorated, the prince took on more of the customary royal duties performed by the Thai monarch. Some people familiar with the situation say he is familiarizing himself with the workings of the Crown Property Bureau, one of the country’s most important landowners and the holding vehicle for much for the monarchy’s wealth. Academic Porphant Ouyyanont values its assets at over $35 billion, more than the wealth of Britain’s royal family or that of Saudi Arabia’s royals.
In December, the prince played a prominent role at the funeral rites for the Supreme Patriarch, the head of the Buddhist clergy in Thailand. The same month he led a cycling procession of tens of thousands of people through the streets of Bangkok in a birthday tribute to King Bhumibol.
“He has been preparing. The time abroad might even have been good for him,” said one diplomat.
Wearing tightfitting cycling attire, a trim Prince Vajiralongkorn cut a modern figure at the event. Or at least he did until some people in the watching crowds began prostrating themselves on the ground as he walked past.
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