Why Thailand’s new king has a troubled history with one of his country’s most important allies

Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn is seen at the monument of King Rama I after signing a new constitution in Bangkok, Thailand on April 6, 2017. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)
Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn is seen at the monument of King Rama I after signing a new constitution in Bangkok, Thailand on April 6, 2017. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

The royal cremation of Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej ended with a grand spectacle last month. King Bhumibol passed away on Oct. 13, 2016, ending his 70-year-reign. Now King Vajiralongkorn, Bhumibol’s son, is on the throne. But Vajiralongkorn’s lack of moral authority and his controversial lifestyle — both in sharp contrast to his father — have begun to worry Thais. The stability of the monarchy has long been the key to the stability of Thai politics.

Thailand’s friends have recently started to readjust their policy to cope with the new reign of Vajiralongkorn, which remains highly unpredictable. Japan, one of Thailand’s most crucial allies and economic partners, is also in the process of renewing its ties with the Bangkok monarchy — ties that were rock-solid during the Bhumibol era. But Japan may find it difficult to adapt to the new monarch. Why?

A bit of history. In 1987, Vajiralongkorn, then the young crown prince, was invited to visit Japan to mark the centennial of bilateral relations. Meanwhile, Japan dispatched Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to Bangkok to celebrate the occasion there. The two events were simultaneously broadcast live on national television. The Thai and Japanese prime ministers exchanged platitudes on the Bangkok end and the crown princes of Japan and Thailand did likewise from Tokyo.

Yet what was supposed to be a festive occasion ended with Vajiralongkorn cutting short his planned eight-day visit by three days, claiming “important duties awaiting him in Bangkok.” The Thai Foreign Ministry demanded an official apology from the Japanese government for the allegedly “inappropriate treatment” accorded the crown prince during his trip. A diplomatic storm blew up between Thailand and Japan over what the Thai-language newspapers reported as “slights” to Vajiralongkorn.

It was reported that his Japanese hosts had managed to infuriate Vajiralongkorn during his trip. Among other things, he was angry that a Japanese driver in his motorcade stopped on the side of a highway to urinate. The Japanese government later claimed that that the Japanese chauffeur felt ill and had to be replaced, forcing the motorcade to stop at a motorway tollbooth. (Unfortunately, it’s a bit hard to know at this point whose version was true.)

On other occasions, Vajiralongkorn was reported to have been given an inappropriate chair to sit on, forcing him to reach down to the floor to pick up a cord to unveil a memorial. The crown prince was also upset when the Japanese scheduled a visit for him to a temple for married Buddhist monks.

The diplomatic furor compelled Prime Minister Nakasone to issue a public statement. “We sincerely offered as much hospitality as possible [to the prince] as an official guest,” he said. “However, during his stay in Japan there was some trouble.” Nakasone added, “I regret that the trouble made the crown prince uncomfortable.” Nakasone was clearly keen to prevent the matter from damaging Thai-Japanese relations.

Thailand eventually retracted its demands for an apology after Vajiralongkorn released a letter indicating that he “wished to see the matter dropped so as to preserve good bilateral relations.” The Japanese were clearly relieved.

Yet subsequent events suggested that the crown prince apparently harbored a lingering grudge. Paul Handley, the author of the controversial book “The King Never Smiles,” wrote that Vajiralongkorn finally took revenge against Japan in 1996. In March that year, Thailand hosted the leaders of Asian and European nations at a summit meeting. King Bhumibol put on a grand reception for the visiting presidents and premiers. But Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn gave Japanese Prime Minister Ryotaro Hashimoto a rather different kind of welcome.

Hashimoto’s Boeing 747 landed at a Thai airport and began taxiing toward the red carpet laid out for the plane’s high-ranking guests. But then the jumbo jet was conspicuously blocked by three F-5 fighter planes led by Vajiralongkorn himself. Photographers at the arrival point were forced to put down their cameras as the prince held the Japanese delegation on the tarmac for 20 minutes before breaking away.

“The Prince was apparently avenging his alleged mistreatment on his Japan visit in 1987,” Handley noted. Both the Thai and Japanese governments were hugely embarrassed, and the Japanese diplomatically let the incident stand without protest or comment.

Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne on Dec. 1, 2016. In March 2017, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited Thailand to pay their respects to the grand coffin of Bhumibol at the Dusit Maha Prasart Throne Hall. They also held a private discussion with Thailand’s new king. The Japanese Imperial Household Agency declared afterwards that Vajiralongkorn went out of his way to treat the visiting royals as his honored guests.

After the royal audience, King Vajiralongkorn was seen bowing deeply toward the emperor and empress as their car pulled away from the entrance of the royal residence. But some observers, citing the briefness of the encounter, concluded that it wasn’t exactly warm.

It remains to be seen how Japan will define its relationship to Thailand’s new monarch. This is a crucial issue at a moment when Thailand finds itself in the middle of an intensifying geopolitical tug-of-war, with Beijing luring Bangkok deeper into its orbit. Can Japan live with a new regional order in which China dominates? In the past, the strong royal ties between Thailand and Japan helped guarantee Japanese interests in the kingdom. Many Thais now wonder if Vajiralongkorn will be capable of maintaining good relations with the Japanese.

It all depends on how Vajiralongkorn wishes to engage with Japan in the future. Has he overcome his disappointment with Japan, or will he continue to nourish a sense of grievance? How he chooses could one day have an important effect on the balance of power in Southeast Asia.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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