From visiting an orphanage for children to riding a Tuk Tuk like any normal tourist in Bangkok to discussing Dharma with senior monks, the one-week visit of former Prince Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse who last saw Thailand when he left 27 years ago to attend school at Harrow, has sparked speculation as to the succession in the kingdom.

The casual and popular return of the second son of Thailand’s monarch King Maha Vajiralongkorn has sparked mounting speculation about the succession following the sudden collapse of Princess Bajrakitiyabha Narendira Debyavat last December. The beloved eldest daughter of the King remains on life support in a Bangkok hospital. Since Sunday, the movements of 42-year-old Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse, the second son of Rama X who was stripped of his royal title in 1996 and who has made a career for himself in the United States, have been warmly received by the public and doors appear to have been opened.

42-year-old Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse during his visit to Bangkok this week, where he attended a care centre for young children and various temples to meet monks and take part in traditional Buddhist rituals after 27 years in exile, having left Thailand in 1996 to return to school in Harrow.

The return to Thailand last Sunday of Mr Vacharaesorn, the 42-year-old second eldest son of King Maha Vajiralongkorn has sparked speculation on the succession and the future of Thailand’s revered monarchy.

The former prince was effectively exiled from Thailand in 1996, when his mother, Sujarinee Vivacharawongse, then consort of the Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, took flight from the kingdom for the United Kingdom after a relationship breakdown and divorce.

Mother of Vacharaesorn was the companion of the Crown Prince until their marriage in 1994 which was followed by separation and divorce in 1996

She was his companion before marrying the then Crown Prince in 1994.

The couple were together from the late 70s with the now 60-year-old former actress then known as Yuvadhida Polpraserth, who retired from the entertainment industry in 1979.

The King’s former wife went into exile first in the United Kingdom and later moved to the United States with her four sons.

In 2005, the King’s daughter from this marriage, Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya who had previously returned to Thailand to live with her father, was elevated to the rank of princess by her grandfather King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

She has since become a leading light of the Thai Royal Family representing Thailand in badminton and equestrian sports, as well as being an accomplished fashion designer.

Princess Sirivannavari has just recently, in April 2023, been promoted to the rank of Major General in the Thai Armed Forces. 

Educated as a lawyer in the United States

Prince Vacharaesorn went to primary school in Bangkok, Harrow in the United Kingdom and Trinity Preparatory School in the US state of Florida.

He later graduated with a Master’s Degree from Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Florida.

The former prince is a leading figure in the Thai expatriate community in the United States, which in recent decades has grown substantially.

He is a well-known participant in Thai social and cultural events stateside where he is known for his ardent devotion to the monarchy.

Among other endeavours, Prince Vacharaesorn established a Heritage Scholarship fund in New York for Thai students to become cultural ambassadors for the kingdom while also contributing to the nation.

Low profile arrival on Sunday at Suvarnabhumi Airport where he was recognised and welcomed warmly as a private citizen visiting after 27 years away

The 27-year-old arrived in a low-profile fashion at Suvarnabhumi airport on Sunday like any other visitor and was expected to stay one week.

He was recognised by many at the airport and given a warm, spontaneous welcome. 

Since then he has been seen out and about in Bangkok almost as a normal tourist riding a Tuk Tuk and visiting the Grand Palace where he entered the Wat Phra Kaew, a deeply significant temple in the capital as well as an orphanage dedicated to slum children supported by the Royal Family in Bangkok, the Foundation for Slum Child Care.

There, the avuncular prince took time to speak with young children who appeared excited to meet him, a feeling expressed by many of the public in Bangkok who are impressed by his cheerful and humble style. 

As the visit has progressed, speculation as to its meaning has risen, particularly as it comes at a time when the royal family has been somewhat in turmoil after the sudden collapse of Princess Bajrakitiyabha Narendira Debyavat in December last year.

Illness developed by Princess Bajrakitiyabha last year left a question mark over the succession which is the sole prerogative of the monarch in Thailand

The 44-year-old princess who was the King’s eldest daughter and reportedly very close to him, was rushed to Bangkok where she remains in a coma with doctors attending to her on a daily basis and issuing regular updates.

Since then, the princess is believed to be on life support with the latest statement coming last January informing that she remains unconscious and is being kept alive by the use of equipment which are supporting the functions of her heart, lung and kidney.

Under Thai law, succession is the prerogative of the reigning monarch and King Maha Vajiralongkorn or Rama X has not yet made any definite pronouncement. 

Speculation that Princess Bajrakitiyabha was the leading contender to become Queen and her father’s successor had been gaining ground.

King and Queen visit Princess Bajrakitiyabha at a Bangkok hospital after she took ill on Wednesday

As the visit moved on this week with a large array of photo opportunities including a visit by Prince Vacharaesorn to the Supreme Patriarch Amborn Prasatthaphong as well as visits to key temples where the royal visitor spoke Dharma with leading members of the clergy, the visit began to look more significant. 

Academic thinks the visit is significant but warns that predicting a possible outcome or course of progress would be impossible due to complex factors

A Thai associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, in one media interview said he thought the visit may be somewhat linked to the royal succession. 

‘This is open to the possibility of royal succession,’ he said but cautioned that the politics of the situation may be both complex and unpredictable.

The visit of Prince Vacharaesornhas has not been commented on by the Royal Palace and while doors have been opened to the 42-year-old Prince, he appears to be emphasising the private nature of the visit.

He thanked the public and everyone concerned for the welcome he had received in Thailand. 

‘I have been away for a long time, 27 years. It’s a dream come true that I have returned. When I looked out of the window before landing I was delighted,’ he declared. ‘Even though I have been abroad for a long time, I have never once forgotten that I am a Thai person. I have never forgotten how important our culture is.’

Monarchy strives to be above politics at all times but this year’s election aftermath has become embroiled with the issue of the lèse-majesté law

The visit is also coming at a time in Thai politics when the political sphere appears to be dragging the monarchy into its discourse, particularly with the politicisation of Article 112 of the Criminal Code relating to lèse-majesté, a dangerous and unwelcome development as the revered institution strives to transcend politics at all times.

It also comes with the Kingdom at a crossroads between moving towards a more democratic form of governance or authoritarianism, represented on one side by the United States and the other by China.

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Many astute observers are looking more closely at the 42-year-old’s career to date as a community leader and legal adviser in the United States.

A cheerful story amid the acrimony of Thai politics

They noted that Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1927.

They are comparing the accomplished Prince to Princess Bajrakitiyabha who was also a trained lawyer and who worked with the United Nations while at one time taking on the role of Thailand’s ambassador to Austria.

The photos emerging this week of the prince enjoying Thai food in Bangkok, riding on a tuk-tuk and talking animatedly with young children at a children’s care centre are without a doubt a positive new image for the monarchy, some moments of lighthanded cheer contrasting with the increasingly fractious, acrimonious and gridlocked political situation in the country since the May 14th General Election.

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