Thailand’s Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, a three-times divorced playboy who made his pet poodle an air chief marshal, poses a major challenge for the unsettled country when he becomes king in the coming weeks.
His father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has died aged 88, after seven decades on the throne. Bhumibol was universally known as “Dad” – a unifying father figure as Thailand underwent more than a dozen coups since he came to power in 1946, aged 18.
Bhumibol was the world’s longest-reigning monarch. That honour passes to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, who has reigned for 64 years 250 days.
Vajiralongkorn, 64, was born to be king. He trained at Australia’s Duntroon military college and holds military titles and a pilot’s licence, but has shown little interest in the public duties expected of one of the world’s most revered monarchies.
He has a reputation for womanising, extravagance, bizarre self-indulgence and occasional cruelty. Several of his children have been stripped of their names and titles and live in exile.
In 2007 a leaked video showed his then-wife Princess Srirasm performing near-naked at a birthday party with his poodle Foo Foo. Air Chief Marshal Foo Foo died last year and was cremated after four days of Buddhist funeral ceremonies.
Recently the prince was photographed at Munich airport, accepting salutes from the aircraft crew. He was dressed in jeans and a tight crop top which showed his torso covered in temporary tattoos.
Fierce laws designed to protect his much-loved father and his family from defamation have kept the prince’s stranger exploits out of the Thai media.
However, Vajiralongkorn’s lifestyle and darker exploits are the subject of gossip. He is loathed by many of his future subjects, including the elite circles expected to help him rule.
In 2010, a leaked US diplomatic cable revealed members of the Thai royal council openly discussing their concerns. These included meddling in politics and embarrassing financial transactions.
Thai officials told the then-US ambassador that the elite hoped Bhumipol would appoint his widely respected daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, as heir. Thailand has never had a ruling queen, and the laws of succession specify a male heir.
The main concern about Vajiralongkorn was his personal relationship with the controversial former prime minister and business tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed from power in a 2006 coup and then jailed for corruption. His sister Yingluck became prime minister and was toppled in the military’s 2014 coup.
Recently, the ruling generals have been courting Vajiralongkorn in case he is tempted by offers to support an exiled political rival.
Their efforts include a public relations campaign to improve his reputation, including mass bike rides as tributes to his parents. The manufactured images of devotion were designed to overcome another leaked US diplomatic cable revealing stories of decadence and rumours of ill-health.
At the same time, the generals have been concerned about the prince’s growing taste for power, using fear and intimidation to bolster his position. In recent months he has purged members of his own and his father’s inner circle, and his ex-wife’s family.
Commentators worry this ruthlessness could destabilise Thailand – especially if the generals, widely viewed as incompetent to rule the country, are seen to be propping up a hated king.
They fear a civilian uprising, and yet more turmoil in the South-east Asian nation which has seen decades of power struggles between the military and civilian supporters of a more modern democratic constitution.