King's sacking of consort highlights power of Thai monarchy

Guardian reporter
Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

When Thailand’s 67-year-old King Maha Vajiralongkorn stripped his royal consort of her titles on Monday, it sent shockwaves through Thai society. Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi had spent several years as a companion to the monarch alongside the now queen, but had only been given her official title in July.

The palace claimed her title was stripped because Sineenat, 34, tried to convince the king to elevate her to the same standing as his fourth wife and current queen, Suthida Tidjai, 41.

All images of her disappeared from the palace website and an unverified Instagram account in her name was shut down overnight.

Thai kings were historically polygamous, with consorts appointed in addition to queens, but until this year the title had not been used since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

While Sineenat was the first officially named consort to a Thai king since the 1920s, she was not the first woman in Vajiralongkorn’s life to lose her position. In 2014 he stripped Srirasmi Akrapongpreecha, his third wife, of most of her titles and had members of her family arrested. His second wife, Sujarinee Vivacharawongse, fled to the US after Vajiralongkorn denounced her in 1996 and disowned their four sons.

Vajiralongkorn and Sineenat in a photo released by the Thai royal palace in August. Photograph: Reuters

The king was able to do all this because he wields enormous power over politicians, the press and the legal system. Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws make it illegal to criticise the monarchy to any degree.

According to her official royal biography, now removed from the palace website, Sineenat, nicknamed Koi, was formerly known as Niramon Ounprom. She was born in north Thailand’s Nan province on 26 January 1985. In 2008 she graduated with a nursing degree from Bangkok’s Royal Thai Army nursing college, then worked as a nurse at the Phramongkutklao and Ananda Mahidol hospitals.

In 2015 she signed up to the Ratchawallop police retainers, a unit acting as a pool of bodyguards to Vajiralongkorn that reportedly has hundreds of thousands of members. Sineenat received military training and obtained a private pilot’s licence.

By 2016, the year in which Vajiralongkorn became king, video and photos of him and Sineenat together in Germany started appearing online. They showed the pair wearing skimpy clothes and fake tattoos as they cruised malls and tourist spots.

Sineenat takes part in the cremation ceremony of Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok, October 2017. Photograph: Damir Šagolj/Reuters

Sineenat’s appointment on 28 July this year made Vajiralongkorn the first Thai monarch since King Rama VI, who ruled from 1910 to 1925, to publicly acknowledge multiple female companions. Her consort ceremony was followed by the palace releasing images of her piloting a military plane and shooting a gun. Such images previously had been reserved for the king’s close relatives, and they resembled the military-style photos of Queen Suthida released for her birthday.

The palace said Sineenat had “expressed her opposition and exerted her pressure in every possible way” with regards to Suthida being crowned queen in May this year.

Vajiralongkorn’s power shows no sign of abating and he has proved to be an assertive constitutional monarch. His face peers from shrines and billboard advertisements in Bangkok, the latter placed by companies declaring loyalty. A schmaltzy video montage of the king growing up, featuring images of members of the public crawling at his feet, plays in cinemas before film screenings. Audience members are compelled to stand for it.

This month he demanded that some of Thailand’s most powerful army units come under his command, giving him military control unprecedented for a monarch in the country in modern times. This met almost no resistance in parliament.