There are many reasons why King Maha Vajiralongkorn of Thailand may not inspire unwavering respect from his 70 million subjects.
To begin with, there is his penchant for wearing teeny-weeny crop tops, very low-slung jeans and enormous fake tattoos.
Then there is his messy love life — the 68-year-old is on his fourth wife, whose company he shares with his official concubine, recently back in favor after a brief and brutal hiatus.
And there is his bizarre obsession with his late poodle Foo Foo, whom he liked to dress in full Royal Thai Air Force regalia, including ‘paw mitts’, and seat at official dinners.
Maha also regularly insists that courtiers crawl on their knees toward him, orders anyone out of his favor to have their head shaved, and once made a wife eat out of Foo Foo’s dog bowl while she was semi-naked.
Oh, and he has disowned at least four of his children, refusing to pay their school fees, despite sitting on a $39 billion fortune.
All of which has made him an international laughingstock: Prince ‘Bling Bling’, the bully playboy. But never at home.
Because in Thailand the laws of lèse-majesté (offending the dignity of a reigning monarch) ensure the royal family is held above criticism, let alone mockery.
There is his bizarre obsession with his late poodle Foo Foo, whom he liked to dress in full Royal Thai Air Force regalia and seat at official dinners.
There, the monarchy have godlike status. They are worshipped and idolized: saying one word against the king, queen, heir apparent or regent — or even their pets — has traditionally led to 15 years in prison.
Until now. Because a groundswell of unrest is surging in Thailand, where the vital tourism industry has been hammered by Covid. Thais are growing increasingly irritated, weary and embarrassed by King Maha.
Last week, things came to a head.
Maha, who had spent much of this year holed up in splendor with a vast entourage (including 20 ‘military-themed’ concubines) in a luxury hotel in Bavaria, Germany, found his European welcome cooling when the German government decided they could no longer continue to host him on their democratic soil.
So Maha left for home — no doubt in his personalized Boeing 737 — and is now ensconced in one of the Thai royal family’s many palaces, as increasingly outspoken and violent demonstrations take place in the streets.
Since he took the throne four years ago, Maha has steadily amassed power, taking personal control of crown property and all royal funds, assuming direct command of troops, meddling in the supposedly democratic process of government and even amending Thailand’s constitution to allow him to rule from abroad.
In recent years, the UN has called on Thailand to amend its draconian lèse-majesté laws, but to little effect. Dissenters now risk being ‘disappeared’ altogether.
When Maha finally returned home last week, he was greeted by more than 10,000 protesters, who marched through Bangkok demanding a new constitution.
Dozens hurled abuse at Maha’s white Rolls-Royce and a state of emergency was declared. It was a shocking turnaround for a country where people are taught from birth to worship the monarch, plaster homes and public buildings with his image, celebrate Father’s Day on his birthday and leap to their feet for the national anthem.
Because while technically Thailand (like Britain) is a constitutional monarchy, in practice ancient structures still exist.
Under the rule of Maha’s late father King Bhumibol, who reigned from 1946 until his death in 2016, this was easier to swallow.
Bhumibol may have been the richest monarch in the world, with a lifestyle to match, but his people believed he was a good man and respected him all the more when, in 2005, he accepted that even he was not perfect.
‘I must also be criticized,’ he said. ‘I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong … the king can do wrong.’
That has never been a sentiment embraced by his only son.
It was a shocking turnaround for a country where people are taught from birth to worship the monarch.
Thailand’s elites have long loathed Maha’s violent mood swings, odd fetishes and the scandals in which he became mired.
At school — he was educated at King’s Mead School in East Sussex and later boarded at Millfield in Somerset — he was a tubby bully, reportedly not liked and so spoiled that at the age of 12, he still couldn’t tie his own shoelaces because courtiers always did it for him.
But none of that held him back with the ladies. Even his mother likened him to Don Juan.
In 1977, after attending military school in Australia, he wed his cousin, Princess Soamsawali Kitiyakara, with whom he had a daughter. But the marriage ended in divorce — perhaps in part because, besides being unfaithful, Maha fathered four sons and a daughter with his mistress, actress Yuvadhida Polpraserth, whom he married in 1994.
Alas, that didn’t work out either and when, two years later, she fled to the UK, he disowned four of their five children and stopped paying their school fees.
It was with his third wife, Srirasmi Suwadee, a former waitress who had been in his service since 1992, that he bought Foo Foo, the white toy poodle that in 2007 — and by then elevated to Air Chief Marshal — was an official guest at a reception held by the U.S. Ambassador, Ralph Boyce.
In a leaked document, Mr Boyce said: ‘Foo Foo was present at the event, dressed in formal evening attire complete with paw mitts. At one point during the band’s second number, he jumped up onto the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses, including my own.’
The pecking order at home was all too clear. In 2009, leaked images of Foo Foo’s birthday celebrations showed Maha’s wife Suwadee crouched on the floor, in little more than a G-string, apparently eating dog food as the king looked on (she was later stripped of her titles and family members were imprisoned).
When Foo Foo passed away in 2015, Maha gave the dog a lavish four-day funeral.
Life can’t have been easy for any of Maha’s wives, especially given his desire to base himself increasingly in Bavaria, where he sent one of his sons to school. They also had to compete with his extensive harem, most of whom were recruited from military units and organized into their own regiment.
Maha’s fourth wife, former air stewardess Suthida Tidjai, tied the knot with him in 2019. But only months later he elevated his favorite concubine, a former nurse, to the status of ‘royal noble consort’, the first woman to hold this title since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. To mark the occasion, Maha released a glossy photo of her flying a plane while wearing a camouflage-pattern sports bra.
What with all that going on, and somehow finding time to indulge his passion for mountain-biking and driving fast cars, perhaps it’s little wonder that, when his father died, Maha asked for ‘time to mourn his loss with the people’ before finally taking up the reins in 2019 with a three-day, $29.9 million coronation involving a gold crown weighing over 15lb.
King Bling’s ostentation is matched only by the aggression with which he pursues anyone who criticizes him.
In 2017, a man was sentenced to 35 years in jail for posting critical comments online about the Thai royal family. Just this summer, a young man who wore a T-shirt with an anti-royal message was sent to a secure psychiatric unit. Many others have disappeared.
Even Facebook was forced to shut down a group with a million members that had been set up to discuss the monarchy — but the Internet giant has since sued the Thai government, calling the move a contravention of international human rights law.
Now, with crowds baying in the streets, King Maha might do well to step back and reconsider his golden furniture, lackeys and harem. Or he could risk losing his crown altogether.