In monarchist Thailand, does money now trump a royal title?

Former Princess Srirasmi Suwadee became a commoner last weekend as part of her divorce from the heir to the Thai throne. For more minor royals, a title that once offered social capital and access is being edged out by the glamour and power of a monied elite.

Vincent Thian/AP
In this Aug. 31, 2007 file photo, Thailand's Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, right, chats with then-Princess Srirasmi as they watch a parade in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The former princess was stripped of her royal title, according to an official notice dated Dec. 12, 2014. She has reportedly moved out of the palace of Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the Thai throne.

What’s in a title? In the ranks of Thailand’s royal family, one of the last still standing in Asia, the answer is everything – and nothing.

Just ask former Princess Srirasmi Suwadee who was stripped on Friday of her title as a prelude to a divorce from Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the throne. Ms. Srirasmi, the prince’s third wife, is now a commoner. In recent weeks, several of her family members have been arrested in a crackdown on a police corruption ring that allegedly used royal connections to extort money and favors.

Such falls from grace rarely happen so publicly in Thailand, where criminal defamation laws forbid criticism of the revered monarch and his family. Dozens of people have been jailed in recent years for lesé majesté, and the pace of prosecutions has quickened under the military junta that seized power in May.

Such laws don’t apply, however, to minor royals, mostly the descendants of previous rulers and a mainstay of society pages and art events. To Thais, their titles denote class and breeding; they can be used to rustle up better seats at the theater and other favors.

Critics say such deference constrains social mobility and underpins a hierarchy in which commoners know their place, like the servants in Downton Abbey. Yet a minor title is not what it was, reflecting both a shift in social values and the decline in the monarchy’s relevance. In today's Thailand, what matter most are money and power, and the glamour they generate.     

“It’s so much easier for people to break into high society. Before you couldn’t unless you married into that world,” says Naphalai Areesorn, editor-in-chief of Thailand Tatler, a lifestyle magazine. “You had to have the right family background, education – and money, of course. Lately the boundaries have grown more flexible.”

Are you an MR or an ML?

Thai royal genealogy is complex. Princely titles decline in stature over the generations: A great-grandchild of a prince is called Mom Rajawongse (MR), or Honorable, and a great-great grandchild is Mom Luang (ML), a lesser title. That is the end of the royal line, though the children of ML can amend their name with a dynastic suffix.

And while most European royal family trees are easily traced, Thailand’s polygamous monarchs spawned multiple branches that add to the confusion about who exactly is who. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the ninth in the current dynasty; the third, fourth, and fifth rulers – Rama III, IV, and V – sired 210 children between them, and their descendants run into the thousands. Unlike Britain, Thailand has no aristocratic class who pass on titles to their sons or daughters.

The end of absolute monarchy in Thailand in 1932 revoked many of the privileges of princedom. But the revival of the crown’s prestige under King Bhumibol, the world’s longest ruling monarch, has cast a golden glow on the palace and those associated with it, including minor royals, though they have never been a unified group, says Chris Baker, an independent historian and author of several books on Thailand.

Thongchai Winichakul, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, says the official glorification of Bhumibol and his reign has created a form of “hyper-royalism” in Thailand. For princely descendants, “it’s an indirect benefit of hyper-royalism. People notice their royal lineage."

But, he adds: "In the big picture, I don’t think it means much.”

Bhumibol, a revered symbol of unity for many Thais, is in poor health and rarely appears in public. As a polarized nation has lurched from political crisis to crisis, punctuated by two coups in eight years, concerns have grown more acute over Prince Vajiralongkorn’s suitability as the next ruler. The abrupt dismissal of his third wife, and rumors of another waiting in the wings, has only added to this sense of a passing era.   

Minor royals share these concerns – and with good reason. “They fear that the cachet attached to their names will be diluted, that’s one of the anxieties associated with succession,” says Mr. Baker.

Some have joined the political melee: Anti-government “yellow shirt” protesters who occupied Bangkok in early 2014 played up their royalist credentials by hailing the involvement of various MRs and MLs. The mass protests paved the way for the Army to oust the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and declare martial law, which remains in effect.

'You need to know how to dress'

MR Malinee Chakrabandhu, a great-great granddaughter of Rama IV – “the best line,” she says – insists that family background still matters in Thailand. At her modest home in a ritzy district of Bangkok, she proudly displays handwritten cards from Prince Vajiralongkorn, and photos of her father, a senior civil servant and musician who wrote lyrics for compositions by Bhumibol, a fellow jazz aficionado.

Ms. Malinee’s business card lists her profession as freelance writer, though she admits that she rarely works. Asked about the relevance of royal bloodlines in a materialistic society, she adopts an imperious tone. “You don’t need money. You need to know how to dress. I know that I have taste. I don’t need to buy expensive clothes. When I go to parties, I hold my head up high,” she says.

Malinee’s politics make her an outlier in high society: she supported Ms. Yingluck and declared herself a “red shirt” (she declines to discuss politics under the junta, saying it’s too risky).  It’s also a touchy topic within her family. Her daughter, an ML, married a scion of an ethnic-Chinese whisky tycoon who is one of Thailand’s richest – and firmly in the yellow camp, according to Malinee.

Such intermarriages between Sino-Thai business families and royal bloodlines, bringing together old and new money, have surged in recent decades, says Baker. But it’s the new money that calls the shots.  

Like other longtime observers of Thailand, Baker is skeptical that a sharp decline in royal prestige in itself would upend Thailand’s stratified society. He points to recent academic research showing that the majority of land is in the hands of a tiny coterie of landlords, though the crown is by far the biggest single landowner. Royalty “is the cultural glue for the hierarchy. If you took it away, the inequalities in economic status and access to power would still be there,” he says.

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