When Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn last month greeted thousands of supporters at a pro-monarchy rally in Bangkok, the cameras zoomed in on him and Queen Suthida beaming and waving at devotees holding flags and the royal couple’s portraits.
Also in the crowd was royal consort Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, marking her return to the spotlight after almost a year in banishment for disloyalty.
But since her reinstatement in September, she’s been touring Thailand’s provinces in a public relations blitz amid a pro-democracy movement raging across the country.
According to political science academic Puangchon Unchanam from Naresuan University, the public role of Sineenat – known as Koi – is to endear the royals to Thai youths, because “she is young, energetic, beautiful, fit, friendly and sporty”.
The consort’s return, however, has also resurfaced intrigue about the palace, including speculation about a plot by supporters of Queen Suthida to oust her – especially in the wake of a scandal that saw the release of hundreds of intimate photographs featuring Sineenat last month.
On Nov 1, Sineenat was pictured beaming as she greeted supporters in a manner not usually adopted by the royals, including posing for photographs and shaking the hands of fans.
While her apparent humility could be a boon for a family that’s long been viewed as out of touch, her status as a consort – the first in nearly a century – itself poses PR problems, as a new generation of Thais questions the unconditional reverence of the monarchy as part of a wider demand for greater democracy and equality in the country.
“Her status does not fit with the social values of today’s youngsters, who promote monogamy, gender equality, and feminist ideology in Thai society,” Puangchon said.
All the king’s women
Sujarinee, who married the king in 1994, later settled in the US with her sons. They have long been estranged from the palace and abandoned all their titles. When Chakriwat, one of the sons, was last month hospitalised from a serious illness in New York, he did not receive any support from his father, the British Daily Mail tabloid reported.
Sujarinee’s youngest child Princess Sirivannavari, however, continues to have ties with her father. The 33-year-old fashion designer recently became the target of Thailand’s pro-democracy supporters as they staged a demonstration to mock her show in Bangkok.
In 2014, Vajiralongkorn divorced his third wife, Srirasmi Suwadee , after many of her family members were sentenced on charges of fraud and disrespecting the monarchy, in one of the biggest royal purges. The couple had one son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, who is now studying in Germany.
It is unclear when Vajiralongkorn began his relationships with Suthida, 42, and Sineenat, 35 – who are a former Thai Airways flight attendant and a trained nurse, respectively – but as early as 2010, Suthida was working as a royal guard, while Sineenat has been a palace officer since 2012.
Not a role model
In the memory card were “1,443 photographs that had apparently been extracted from three iPhones that Koi used to own”, McGregor Marshall said.
“Most of the images are photographs she took of herself, and dozens of them are very explicit,” he said. “It seems probable that she had taken these explicit photographs of herself to send to Vajiralongkorn.”
On Facebook in November, McGregor Marshall wrote that Sineenat’s return was “bitterly opposed” by loyalists of Queen Suthida and Princess Bajrakitiyabha, the king’s eldest child. “It is highly probable the images of Koi were leaked in an effort to sabotage her return as Vajiralongkorn’s consort.”
McGregor Marshall said the “ugly power struggle” in the palace due to the king’s “complicated sex life” was likely to worsen, as Sineenat and Suthida continued to compete for status and attention.
On social media, admirers have been following the two women’s clothes, hairstyles, and jewellery they wear, many of which belong to past queens or consorts.
On the “Major General Chao Khun Phra Sineenat Bilaskalayani” page on Facebook, a supporter of Sineenat said her decision to wear local Thai outfits during her tour showed she had “done a study on the culture of each province”.
On a Facebook page titled “We love Queen Suthida”, a person noted how the queen had exercised patience when riding past protesters in a motorcade weeks ago and that she would always have her support.
On Instagram, there are no photos of Sineenat on Suthida’s fan pages and vice versa. Both have never intentionally appeared in public together. When they are at the same event, both hardly look at each other, notably during the king’s coronation last year.
Said McGregor Marshall: “Most progressive Thais question why their monarch is able to openly flaunt two official partners, in addition to the many other women in his harem who the palace tries to keep secret.”
Sineenat’s imprisonment had “worsened the reputational damage that the whole saga has done to the Thai monarchy”, McGregor Marshall said, adding that Suthida would be “looking at the fate of Vajiralongkorn’s previous three wives … with great trepidation”.
“It is natural that there will be intense rivalry between the two women, and this will cause factionalism and instability in the palace,” he said. “It’s difficult to see how the situation can end well.”
This article was first published in Asia One . All contents and images are copyright to their respective owners and sources.