Son of Thailand’s king makes shock return after decades in exile

Son of Thailand’s king makes shock return after decades in exile

August 7, 2023

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Singapore: The second son of King Maha Vajiralongkorn has reportedly returned to Thailand after more than a quarter of a century in exile in the United States, sparking feverish speculation about the potential implications for royal succession and the all-powerful role of the monarchy in the South-East Asian nation.

Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse, 42, has lived abroad since the mid-1990s, when, at the age of 14, he and his siblings were banished with their mother, Sujarinee Vivacharawongse, in the fallout of her divorce from the then crown prince, Vajiralongkorn.

Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse, the second son of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn, has been a lawyer in the US.Credit: Facebook

With his royal title downgraded and his diplomatic passport revoked, he grew up abroad and has since forged a career as a lawyer in New York, unable to return home.

After decades away, however, vision emerged of Vacharaesorn arriving at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on Sunday night – the first time he or his exiled mother and three brothers have set foot in Thailand since 1996.

The footage, which has spread on social media, has prompted intense discussion in Thailand, which has been in the midst of a political stalemate since an election in May.

The reformist Move Forward Party captured more seats than any other in those polls, trouncing the conservative parties linked to the armed forces that had ruled since a military coup in 2014.

But having campaigned on a platform that included amending Thailand’s notorious lese-majeste law, under which insulting the monarchy can be penalised with 15 years in prison, Move Forward’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, was blocked from becoming prime minister by Thailand’s military-appointed Senate.

Vacharaesorn’s return also comes nine months after the king’s eldest daughter and possible successor, Princess Bajrakitiyabha, suffered a medical emergency while training her dogs.

The Thai royal palace said at the time that the 44-year-old princess, the only child from King Vajiralongkorn’s first marriage, had lost consciousness and was on life support after being flown to hospital in Bangkok with a heart problem. There has not been an official statement on her condition since January.

“Of course [Vacharaesorn’s] arrival comes at a critical juncture in not only Thai politics but also palace politics, given the condition of the supposed heir apparent, his older sister, has created a question of succession,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Centre for South-East Asian Studies at Kyoto University.

“Maybe he might be the important jigsaw piece that would be put in place to make sure the succession can go ahead.

“In terms of politics, the current deadlock in Thai politics also has a lot to do with the issue of the monarchy. Move Forward is unable to set up the next government, exactly because of Article 112 [the royal defamation law].”

Pavin said the sudden re-emergence of Vacharaesorn could be an opportunity if he showed he was positioned as the heir and was prepared to be more progressive. But he acknowledged the development could also be a hindrance if he adopted the establishment line on deploying the full force of the law to suppress criticism of the monarchy.

Vacharaesorn’s mother, Sujarinee, who was a famous actress, was King Vajiralongkorn’s second wife. Vacharaesorn and his brothers had been studying in Britain in 1996 when they and their mother were instructed not to go back to Thailand. They settled instead in the US. Sujarinee’s other child from the marriage, Princess Sirivannavari, was returned to Thailand by the then-crown prince at the time. A fashion designer, she was this year appointed as a specialist in the Royal Thai Army and given the rank of major general.

Vacharaesorn had never renounced his Thai citizenship despite being cast out for most of his life. His high-profile return was not the one Thais had been anticipating. Self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was planning to arrive back in the country this week for the first time since 2008, his daughter Paetongtarn, a leader of the Pheu Thai Party, said in late July.

However, the billionaire delayed his long-awaited reappearance as uncertainty lingered over Thailand’s political scene. Pheu Thai, which finished a close second in the election, hopes to form government with a new coalition that excludes Move Forward, but an expected vote in parliament last Friday was postponed.

Thaksin, 74, faces 10 years in prison on charges including corruption after being sentenced in absentia.

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