As he swayed through the streets of Bangkok aboard a gilded litter, Thailand’s newly-crowned King Maha Vajiralongkorn looked down on scenes of deference and rejoicing. Last May’s spectacular coronation had been months in the planning, and the 67-year-old king, despite a reputation for quirkiness, seemed settled on a smooth transition.
Almost nothing since has followed in the discreet ways of the 800-yearold monarchy. Insiders speak of a court in chaos, feuds, betrayals and conspiracies, as four-times married Maha purges the royal ranks, promotes his favourites and seeks to establish himself as a near-absolute monarch.
Prominent among the casualties is the king’s ‘official concubine’, Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, a glamorous 34-yearold former bodyguard, whom he dismissed after publicly accusing her of “disloyalty and ingratitude”. Known around the palace as Koi, the willowy martial arts instructress was appointed to the post three months after Maha’s coronation, and showered with honours including the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant (special class).
Koi’s dismissal sent shockwaves through a nation which had barely absorbed the idea of the king keeping a formal mistress alongside his wife, 41-year-old Queen Suthida. Within hours of Koi’s fall, all references to her disappeared from the palace website, and her photograph was removed from state buildings. “Noble Royal Consort Sineenat is ungrateful and behaves in ways unbecoming of her title,” said a palace statement. “She is not content with the honour bestowed upon her and does everything to rise to the level of the Queen.”
To many royal observers, the wording clearly hinted at a power struggle between the two women in Maha’s life, in which Koi had come off worse. The concubine’s whereabouts and current status are now unknown, with a royal spokesman saying: “This lady is no longer our concern”.
The post of concubine was assumed to have become defunct in Thailand during the Fifth Reign, which lasted from around 1850-1910 and saw the country’s emergence as a modern state under the revered King Rama V. “It’s pretty archaic, and most people today would find it ridiculous,” says Tannawat Suttirat, publisher of a London-based Thai newsletter. “The feeling is that the queen went bananas and forced Koi out, but these days it’s hard to know anything for sure.”
What can be said is that the British and Australian educated Maha is one of the more eccentric monarchs of modern times. His coronation procession through Bangkok, wearing the multi-tiered Great Crown of Victory and accompanied by a troupe of elephants, marked the first time most Thais had set eyes on him. Sustained by a large hereditary fortune, Maha has spent most of his adult years enjoying a leisurely life in Europe and the United States, returning home only for visits and state occasions.
Such word as Thailand had of him was not encouraging. In 2007 he appointed his miniature poodle, Foo Foo, an air chief marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force. A leaked diplomatic cable from Ralph Boyce, US ambassador to Bangkok, recounts Foo Foo attending a gala dinner “in formal attire, complete with white paw mitts”. At one point, recalled the ambassador, the pooch jumped onto the table and began drinking from guests’ glasses. When Foo-Foo died, he was accorded full military and Buddhist honours and days of state mourning.
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