Is Vajiralongkorn facing a health crisis?

Rumours about the monarch are at fever pitch in Thailand, but there’s no evidence so far that his reign could be ending

Earlier this week, rumours began flying around on social media and in LINE and Telegram chat groups that King Vajiralongkorn is severely ill. It became the main trending topic on Thai Twitter, with the hashtag #ข่าวลือ — #rumour.

Somsak Jeamteerasakul, who has excellent sources, mentioned the rumours a couple of days ago, but noted that they were not confirmed.

I’ve been trying to find out more, but it’s exceptionally difficult to contact palace insiders these days because of the extreme risks they face if they are suspected of talking to journalists.

However, trusted sources have told me that Vajiralongkorn did indeed seek treatment earlier this month at Bangkok Hospital, where he prefers to go for all his medical procedures, and that his condition became so serious that he had to be transferred to an intensive care unit at Siriraj Hospital.

According to these sources, the king was having trouble breathing, and was believed to be suffering from pneumonia or tuberculosis. Respiratory problems are among the main symptoms of the coronavirus, but there is no confirmation that Vajiralongkorn has been diagnosed with covid-19, and it would seem unlikely as it’s plausible to assume he was inoculated months ago, although we don’t know what vaccine was used.

My sources can’t confirm the king’s current condition, and people who went to look around Siriraj Hospital over the past couple of days saw no sign of a heightened security presence. So it’s possible he has mostly recovered, and he may have already left hospital.

But more sensational rumours are swirling, claiming that he is still seriously ill, and has suffered acute renal failure or even something more severe. There is unusually persistent and widespread gossip that he’s dying or dead.

I have seen no evidence that this is true, and nor have any of my trusted sources.

If the king was believed to be on the verge of death, we would expect to see signs of intense activity by the Thai regime, significant military manoeuvres in Bangkok, and the return of Prince Dipangkorn from Germany, but so far none of this has happened.

(A Thai Airways flight, TG921, took off on Friday afternoon from Frankfurt to Suvarnabhumi, but had been scheduled weeks ago, and Dipangkorn usually uses a different plane, the Royal Thai Air Force VVIP Airbus A340-541, with registration HS-TYV, which is currently parked at Don Muang. I checked with airline sources, who confirmed Dipangkorn was not among the 127 passengers aboard TG921.)

There have been rumours about Vajiralongkorn’s health for decades. There’s strong circumstantial evidence that he was infected with HIV in the late 1990s, but with his huge wealth and modern medical advances this is a condition that can be effectively managed. It is also widely suspected that he has had some form of leukaemia and has been keeping it in remission with the help of regular blood transfusions in Germany. This was mentioned in a secret US cable in 2009, published by WikiLeaks, which said:

Vajiralongkorn is believed to be suffering from a blood-related medical condition (varying sources claim he is either: HIV positive; has Hepatitis C; is afflicted by a rare form of “blood cancer,” or some combination which leads to regular blood transfusions).

Several of my own sources have confirmed that Vajiralongkorn has frequent blood transfusions in Germany, and has also sought unconventional stem cell therapy, but it remains unknown if this is for legitimate medical reasons or just a bogus miracle cure treatment which several private German clinics offer to ultra-wealthy Asian clients.

It’s clear from what trusted sources have told me and from other evidence that the king has faced some kind of health issue recently. He has not been seen on royal news broadcasts doing any official duties since the start of May. He did not appear for the second anniversary of his coronation on May 4, and did not join the Royal Ploughing Ceremony on May 10.

The king’s private secretary, Air Chief Marshal Satitpong Sukvimol, announced in a letter on April 27 that the Coronation Day and Royal Ploughing ceremonies had been cancelled, along with Visakha Bucha Day rituals on May 26, because of the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic which Thailand has not yet managed to get under control.

However, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony actually took place after all, at Chitralada Palace, presided over by the 77-year-old Privy Council chief Surayud Chulanont, with various officials in attendance including notorious convicted drug smuggler Tamanat Prompow. No royals joined the ceremony. The fact it went ahead, though without a royal presence, shows that the palace was not being honest that ceremonies were being cancelled because of the pandemic.

Some royal sources are insisting, in private conversations with me and others, that the king is absolutely fine.

The Royal Household Bureau has not released any statement so far, but the usually well-informed monarchist Royal World Thailand social media site reported yesterday that a palace source had told them: “Everything is still fine.” It said Vajiralongkorn was claimed to be exercising regularly at Amphorn Sathan Palace, his home when he’s in Bangkok. However, the post was written in a strikingly ambivalent way, noting that Vajiralongkorn has had respiratory problems in the past, and that palace officials often don’t tell the truth.

Bangkok Post military correspondent Wassana Nanuam, a favoured palace conduit for royal news, also claimed the king is doing fine, and even that he is regularly playing volleyball and basketball, which would be impressive for a 68-year-old who has looked unsteady and unwell during recent public appearances.

But we know from past experience that the palace cannot be trusted to give accurate updates on the health of the Thai royals. Health bulletins from the Royal Household Bureau are almost always totally misleading.

H.G. Quaritch Wales, an advisor to King Vajiravudh and King Prajadhipok last century, wrote in his 1931 book Siamese State Ceremonies that royal health was a taboo issue because acknowledging that “the King could be subject to the ills of the flesh as were ordinary mortals” contradicted the mythology that Thai monarchs were semi-divine beings. It was also forbidden to mention that one day the king would die, and so euphemisms had to be used, and this practice has continued into the 21st century. In the final years of King Bhumibol’s reign, even most foreign media discussion of his impending death preferred to use phrases like “passes from the scene” or “leaves the scene”. Thai media avoided mentioning the subject at all.

King Chulalongkorn’s death from kidney failure in October 1910 came as a shock to Thais — and even to his son and heir Prince Vajiravudh — who had been totally unaware how serious his condition was. As Walter Vella wrote in his 1978 book Chaiyo!: King Vajiravudh and the Development of Thai Nationalism:

When Chulalongkorn died on October 23, 1910, he had been king for forty-two years. Most of his subjects could remember no other. The special royal word for the death of a king (sawannakhot) felt strange on the lips to older courtiers; it was meaningless to the young.

Despite the length of his rule—the longest in Thai history—the King was not old; his death was totally unexpected. Chulalongkorn had celebrated his fifty-seventh birthday a month before his death. Although he had had periodic bouts of illness over the years, he had not been ill for some time before his fatal attack. The progress from the first complaint of “stomach trouble” to coma and death was but a week. Not even the highest princes in the court knew the seriousness of the King’s condition. Less than forty-eight hours before he died the First Queen had reported that “His Majesty has improved in all respects.”

Crown Prince Vajiravudh, whose residence at Saranrom Palace put him some distance away from Dusit Palace, where the King had been staying, was probably less well informed about his father’s illness than most. In fact, on the morning of the King’s final day, Vajiravudh had had to be awakened to be summoned to Dusit Palace.

Paul Handley reported in The King Never Smiles that at times when when King Bhumibol was seriously unwell with heart problems during the 1990s, the palace tried to hide the severity of his condition, releasing staged images and footage allegedly showing him hard at work with no sign of any health issues.

In the last decades of Bhumibol’s life, the palace continued to routinely lie about his health, as leaked US cables show. When Bhumibol was hospitalised in October 2007, the Royal Household Bureau said the problem was “inadequate blood flow to his left cerebral cortex, resulting in weakness on the right side of his body”. In fact, as palace officials acknowledged to the US ambassador, Bhumibol had suffered a stroke.

The palace also lied when the king was hospitalised on September 16, 2009 — it waited four days to make a statement, and then falsely gave September 19 as the date he entered hospital.

In a meeting with the US ambassador in November 2007, Bhumibol’s deputy principal private secretary, Tej Bunnag, said the topic of the king’s death was so taboo that no official planning could take place for it, or even for the funeral of the monarch’s sister, Princess Galyani. The discussion was recorded in a secret cable.

Of course, plenty of people in the Thai elite were planning and plotting how to handle the succession, but none of this could be done officially, because it was regarded as blasphemous to formally prepare for Bhumibol’s death.

As Bhumibol sank deeper into decrepitude and senility, official health bulletins from the palace always claimed that his condition was improving, although they began to list a longer litany of ailments. Regardless of how badly his health was deteriorating, the official statements remained relentlessly upbeat, and completely untrue.

It was only on October 9, 2016, just four days before his death, that the Royal Household Bureau announced he was so ill that doctors had advised him to stop working, and for the first time failed to say his condition was improving. This announcement was pure fiction too — Bhumibol had been comatose for months by this stage, and had not done any real work for years — but the fact the palace was belatedly admitting that the king was no longer tirelessly performing his duties was a coded signal that the end was near.

After Bhumibol died, Thai newspapers published absurd stories claiming that he “never stopped toiling” right until he took his last breath.

Thais were not told the truth about Queen Sirikit’s severe stroke either, after she collapsed in the grounds of Siriraj Hospital in July 2012. The statement from the palace deliberately downplayed the seriousness of her condition, as AP’s report shows:

Doctors have advised Thailand’s Queen Sirikit to rest after an exam showed a slight reduction in blood flow to her brain.

The Royal Palace announced Sunday that the 79-year-old queen had felt dizziness and staggered slightly while walking for exercise a day earlier. However, she remained conscious and could speak.

It said a physical examination and a magnetic resonance imaging scan showed a slight shortage of blood in the cerebellum, but no hemorrhaging.

In fact, she was totally incapacitated for weeks, unable to even speak, and has never really recovered. She has never taken part in a public royal ceremony ever since.

The palace has also never explained what condition has affected the development of Prince Dipangkorn, heir apparent to the throne.

So it’s clear that whatever the current state of Vajiralongkorn’s health, we can’t expect honest information from the Royal Household Bureau. If they start releasing statements confirming he is ill, that will be a sign that his condition is very serious, much more severe than the palace is officially reporting. In the meantime, we can’t draw any useful conclusions from the official silence and bland comments from palace officials to royalist reporters claiming he is “fine”. Maybe he is, but it’s very unlikely they would tell us if he wasn’t.

The fact that official royal statements can’t be trusted to tell the truth — and indeed, almost never come even close to telling the truth — means rumours and gossip thrive.

Some of the rumours may be deliberately spread by enemies of Vajiralongkorn. It would not be the first time this has happened. In 2007, very senior establishment sources claimed Vajiralongkorn had died of AIDS, around the same time that an infamous video was leaked of the 2001 birthday party of his third wife Srirasmi, during a period of intense palace infighting. As the Asia Sentinel news website reported at the time:

The rumors were widespread, persistent and confirmed by military and diplomatic sources to foreign newswires and top editors of local newspapers, which would never dare print the information anyway until receiving confirmation from the palace.

It’s unclear who started the rumor campaign or why, but many observers said that something was certainly amiss. Even so, the opacity surrounding Thailand’s monarchy allows rumors like this to fester as all official public information is tightly controlled.

It’s possible that something similar is happening again, and that the seriousness of Vajiralongkorn’s health condition is being exaggerated by some of his opponents.

The job of journalists like me is to try to separate fact from rumour and establish what’s really going on inside the Thai royal family. It’s a really difficult task. So far, all I can say with confidence at this stage is that the king has had a fairly serious health scare, but we don’t yet know how severe it was, or if it is still ongoing. I’ll continue to seek information and post updates on whatever I can find out.

Meanwhile, for anyone interested, earlier this year I wrote an analysis of royal succession dynamics after Vajiralongkorn’s death. There is also a Thai translation.

As Somsak said on social media today, one way the Royal Household Bureau dispelled health speculation during the previous reign was by sharing footage and photographs of the monarch walking around and looking healthy.

However, given the notorious dishonesty of the palace, and the ease with which footage can be faked or old pictures recycled, it may be difficult for the Royal Household Bureau to end rumours about Vajiralongkorn’s health unless they can show him clearly looking fit and well at an event that we know just took place. (If they showed him playing volleyball or basketball at a public event, that would be particularly effective, but is clearly not going to happen.)

For now, we just have to try our best to decode what little evidence we have, and wait and see how the situation develops.

Thais deserve to know the truth, but unfortunately the palace has no interest in telling it to them.