News about Thailand’s royal family, the country’s most venerated institution, is difficult to come by, thanks to tight secrecy, a culture of reverence around the monarchy and strict censorship laws. But a growing corruption scandal involving relatives of the crown princess has opened a small window into some of the drama unfolding inside the palace walls.
The turmoil comes at a particularly delicate time for the monarchy as it gears up for a long-feared succession that could push the country’s bitter political divisions to the brink of chaos.
A high-level graft investigation has enveloped several senior police and military officials, and has implicated seven relatives of Princess Srirasmi, the third wife of Thailand’s assumed heir to the throne, Crown Prince Maha Chakri Vajiralongkorn. A vast, sordid range of charges includes money laundering, oil smuggling, extortion and illegal casino running. The alleged ringleader of the operation, Lt. Gen. Pongpat Chayapan, is Srirasmi’s uncle.
The so-called lèse-majesté law, which prohibits any insult to the monarchy, also plays directly in the allegations themselves. The law is often used as a political weapon as citizens can sue one another for defaming the royal family, but in a twist, several suspects are accused of referencing the royal family in threats to collect bribes. A violation of the law calls for a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison.
Following the arrests, palace officials ordered that the government strip the arrested of their royally given name, “Akharapongpreecha,” which was given to them after Princess Srirasmi married the crown prince in 2001. The move is widely speculated to be Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s first step toward initiating a divorce, as he is already estranged from his wife.
For now, Srirasmi is maintaining her princess title and her use of the royal family’s surname, "Mahidol," but in the event of a divorce she will likely revert to commoner status. Meanwhile, the fate of their 9-year-old son, who is next in the succession after the crown prince, will be left up to his father. Vajiralongkorn previously cut all ties with his second wife and disowned their four sons, who now live in exile in the United States.
The monarchy is considered to be crucial in maintaining stability as Thailand grapples with the aftermath of yet another military coup earlier this year, the 12th successful coup since the 1930s. For seven decades, the widely beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been able to step into the midst of mass unrest and political crises to call for peace. But speculation over the king’s fragile health, a highly sensitive and tightly controlled topic, has been swirling for years, and it’s unclear how much longer the world’s longest-serving monarch (he turns 87 on Friday) will maintain the throne.
The Thai public, for the most part, does not have such warm feelings toward the crown prince. “Long known for violent and unpredictable mood swings, the crown prince has few people who have stayed long in his inner circle,” noted a secret U.S. diplomatic cable uncovered by Wikileaks in 2009. (Wikileaks also obtained a controversial home video depicting both the crown prince and a mostly naked Princess Srirasmi at a lavish party thrown for his white poodle, Fufu, who officially holds the rank of air chief marshal.)
While the corruption probe has made headlines across Thailand, the lèse-majesté law has also prevented local news outlets from reporting directly on the royal family’s involvement. The Bangkok Post, an English-language daily that has billed itself as a relatively less restrained outlet in a heavily censored news landscape, made no mention at all of the royal family’s role in the investigation, noting only that the "Akharapongpreecha" name had been removed from the national registry.