In this 2 March 2020 file photo released by the Ministry of Justice, Princess Bajrakitiyabha presides over a royal donation of medical equipment to a prison in Phitsanulok province.

Princess’ sudden illness puts royal succession under spotlight

As Princess Bajrakitiyabha remains hospitalised on Friday, attention on social media is turning to her status as the presumed heiress to the throne – a role never formally acknowledged that is taken seriously by many analysts.

In this 10 November 2020 file photo released by the Royal Household Bureau, Princess Bajrakitiyabha visits an exhibition at Siam Paragon shopping mall in Bangkok. 

44-year-old Princess Bajrakitiyabha Narendira Debyavati, known to Thais as Princess Bha, collapsed while training her dog at a military facility in Nakhon Ratchasima on Thursday, according to a palace statement. The palace did not mention whether she had regained consciousness, or when  she will make a full recovery. 

Given Princess Bajrakitiyabha’s unique role in the institution, the lack of information is likely to fuel anxieties over the future of the Royal Family.  Although the king has yet to formally name a successor, the princess has been recognised by observers of the Thai monarchy as the most viable candidate for a number of reasons. 

“At this point, there is no designated Heir Apparent, [but] much of the public hypothesised that Princess Bha will be the next royal successor,” Japan-based academic and monarchy critic Pavin Chachavalpongpun wrote in a Facebook post, which gained over 21,000 reactions. 

Pavin noted her birthright, among other things. Princess Bajrakitiyabha is the eldest child of King Vajiralongkorn and also his only issue whose parents retain their royal titles to this day.

In this 14 March 2021 file photo released by the Royal Household Bureau, Princess Bajrakitiyabha presents a lecture on Thai law to a selected group of students in Rayong province. 

The princess was born in 1978 to then-Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and his wife, Princess Soamsawali, who was also his cousin. Although the pair later divorced in 1991, Princess Soamsawali remains a key member of the Royal Family. 

She also often appears at important royal events and performs royal duties alongside her daughter, Princess Bajrakitiyabha, such as last week’s exhibition for a charity foundation they set up together. 

Parentage sets Princess Bajrakitiyabha apart from her half-siblings: Princess Sirivannavari (born in 1987 to the king’s second wife) and Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti (born in 2005 to His Majesty’s third marriage).

Princess Sirivannavari’s mother, Sujarinee, lost her royal title in 1996 following allegations that she embezzled palace funds and engaged in inappropriate conduct with an official. 

A similar fate befell Prince Dipangkorn’s mother in 2015, when members of her family were arrested for allegedly running crime syndicates and exploiting royal connections for financial gains. The king eventually divorced her and stripped her of royal titles. 

Although Sujarinee and the king had four sons together, they are believed to be residing overseas as commoners – Sirivannavari is the sole child from that marriage to retain royal title – without any known plan to return to Thailand. 

In keeping with her status as heir-apparent, Princess Bajrakitiyabha has in recent years also cultivated an image befitting a benevolent ruler. The flurry of public roles and causes taken up by the princess include legal reform, the welfare of female convicts, and the overhaul of Thailand’s notoriously overcrowded prisons. 

A Cornell graduate with a law degree, Princess Bajrakitiyabha is listed as a public prosecutor based in eastern Thailand. In early 2021, she received the rank of general from the king and was appointed to command an elite royal bodyguard unit. 

That same year, the princess surprised the public by doing away with her long hair and adopting the military haircut preferred by royal guardswomen. The change was seen by many as an indication of her dedication to the new role and a display of her deep personal connection with the King.  

In this image taken from the Royal Household’s news broadcast on 12 February 2021, Princess Bajrakitiyabha lights candles during a Chinese New Year ritual at a palace in Bangkok.  

While her gender may run against tradition – Thailand has never had a woman as a designated heiress to the throne, let alone a reigning Queen – the law appear to be on her side. Constitutional amendments passed in 1978, and adopted in all subsequent charters, affirm the ruling monarch’s authority to name a male or female successor. 

Summarising Princess Bha’s viability as a potential royal successor, Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a former Reuters journalist who now operates online newsletters about the Thai Royal Family, asserts that: “Bajrakitiyabha remains a strong contender.”

“She has backing from the wider royal family, her mother remains a senior member of the monarchy,” Marshall, who lives in the UK, wrote in his blog post. “And the fact she’s a woman is unlikely to be a major obstacle in the 21st century, because the changes in the constitution since 1974 show that the palace has already accepted that in the modern world there is no reason to only have male monarchs.”

Thailand’s draconian royal defamation or lèse majesté law, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, means that discussion about the succession pathway remains a sensitive topic in the country. Exceptions like Marshall and Pavin, noted above, do exist, but both are currently living outside Thailand. 

According to a tally by the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 220 people have been charged and tried for lèse-majesté since strict application of the law was reintroduced in late 2020. The authorities have interpreted the offence to include any remark or action deemed to be negative toward the monarchy. 

Due to the scope of the lèse majesté prosecution, Prachatai English cannot include links to the writings of Pavin and Marshall, who were designated persona non grata by the government in 2017. It is also withholding some parts of the online discussions about Princess Bajrakitiyabha and other members of the Royal Family that may run afoul of the law. 

No new statement

Across the country, activities and calls of prayers are being organised to wish Princess Bajrakitiyabha a speedy recovery. 

King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital, where Princess Bajrakitiyabha is receiving her treatment, set up a venue today for delegates from the public and private sectors to write get-well messages and present their flowers. 

People write their messages for Princess Bajrakitiyabha at King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital.

Key members of the Royal Family who have visited the hospital so far include the King, Queen Suthida, and Princess Sirivannavari. On Friday, a number of senior family members remained overseas. Princess Ubolratana was photographed for her social media account while in South Korea. Princess Chulabhorn is currently on an official visit to Japan. 

Thailand’s Supreme Patriarch, the head of the country’s Buddhism sangha, issued a statement on Thursday night instructing monks here and overseas to offer prayers twice a day at their temples for the stricken princess. Sheik-ul-Islam, leader of the state-sanctioned governing body for Islamic affairs, made a similar call for prayers from Muslims nationwide. 

As of publication time, the royal palace has yet to release an update on Princess Bajrakitiyabha’s condition on Friday. The royal news bulletins are usually aired nightly at 8pm. 

Note: A grammar-proof version has been uploaded at 14.37 of 17 December 2022.

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