“Happy Birthday, father.”
The Facebook greeting was posted on July 27 by the estranged son of King Vajiralongkorn of Thailand. Below the message was a vintage photo of the King wearing a black military uniform. The birthday post ended with a wai emoji, a symbol of respect.
A few days after he sent the greeting, Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse was on a plane bound for Bangkok. “When I looked out of the window before landing I was delighted,” said the 42-year-old lawyer from New York. He was returning after an absence of nearly three decades, having left the country as a teenager soon after his parents’ divorce. Vacharaesorn insisted he was visiting as a private citizen, but his homecoming caused a stir in Thailand’s capital.
A series of recent events have complicated the succession scenario for Thailand’s royal family. The 71-year-old King has not formally named an heir, but his daughter from his first marriage was presumed to be next in line. Last December, however, Princess Bajirakitiyabha collapsed from a “heart-related issue” while working out with her dogs. The palace later confirmed that doctors had placed her on a life support machine. The King’s son from his third consort is his only officially recognized male offspring. But the status of 18-year-old Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti is reportedly uncertain partly because his mother relinquished her royal title in 2014.
Given the uncertainty over the King’s successor, Vacharaesorn’s visit took on added significance. Were his trips to Buddhist temples and charities part of an audition for a more prominent official role? Some royal watchers speculated that a progressive faction at the palace may have paved the way for the exiled son’s return. Significantly, the visit was a prelude to yet another epic homecoming.
On August 22, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned to the Thai capital after 15 years of self-imposed exile in Dubai. That same day, in a “stunning political realignment,” his Pheu Thai Party (PTP) formed a government with its erstwhile rivals. The 11-party coalition included two pro-military parties affiliated with former Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who toppled a government led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2014. The alliance between the opposing camps was a sign that Thailand’s conservative elites had chosen to throw in their lot with pragmatists in the PTP over the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP), which swept to victory in the May election.
A generational tug-of-war had disrupted Thai politics, and the monarchy was caught in the middle. Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the MFP, pledged to amend Article 112 of the Thai penal code, under which criticism of the monarch is a criminal offense. Thailand’s so-called lese-majeste law is one of the strictest in the world but has proved to be surprisingly immune to change despite its unpopularity. The military-appointed Senate blocked Pita’s attempts to form a government, citing changes to Article 112 as one of the main sticking points.
Vacharaesorn did not comment on political matters during his trip. However, in July, he posted a few lines from an article published in The Economist that criticized the Thai military’s attempts to undermine the democratic process through proxies in the Senate.
Vacharaesorn is Pita’s contemporary and appears to favor reform. Despite an early life of privilege, his family faced financial hardship in exile, and “Vach” is eager to dispel the notion that he is an entitled ex-royal. “My first job was selling hot dogs at the Daytona Five Hundred,” he reportedly told an audience at a 2019 Thai community event in New York.
The Vivacharawongse family is closely-knit. Vacharaesorn was joined midway through his trip by his doctor brother Chakrivat, who visited Mahidol University, named after their great grandfather, Prince Mahidol Adulyadej of Songkla, a pioneer of modern medicine in Thailand. Their sister, Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya, is the only family member who returned to Bangkok. She retains her royal title and lives at Sukhothai Palace.
“Back to New York City after a beautiful dream,” wrote Vacharaesorn shortly after the trip. A recent post on Facebook showed him in the hills of Woodstock, Vermont. “Escaped the city for the weekend. I spent time in reflection and meditation,” wrote the King’s son. “So much has happened and there is so much more to face.”