They call her “Phra Thep" — Princess Angel. The most popular of the late Thai king’s children, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has built a reputation as a hardworking and down-to-earth royal.
And although Thailand’s military rulers keep a tight lid on palace politics, many in the country had quietly hoped that she might one day succeed their beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Those hopes appeared to have been dashed Tuesday when Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister and junta leader, said Sirindhorn’s scandal-plagued older brother could ascend to the throne in as little as two weeks.
Prayuth surprised the nation last week when he announced that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64, had asked for time to mourn before he became king. Just how long that might be was not spelled out, prompting speculation among some longtime observers about a behind-the-scenes power struggle.
“Citizens in Thailand and abroad should not be worried or concerned," Prayuth told reporters after a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.
"After at least 15 days of mourning, it will be the appropriate time to enact Section 23 of the constitution," he said, referring to clauses on the succession.
Like her father in his younger years, the 61-year-old Sirindhorn is often spotted, notebook in hand and a camera around her neck, inspecting rural development projects.
Vajiralongkorn, however, has shown little interest in the public duties expected of a monarch. A jet-setter once described by his mother as “a little bit of a Don Juan,” he has divorced three times and spends much of the year in the German countryside.
Few dare to complain openly about the prince because of a strictly enforced law that makes it illegal to insult the royal family; offenders can face up to 15 years in jail. But the distaste and bemusement felt by many are evident in coded comments that frequently appear on social media.
Thais were scandalized in 2007 when a leaked video showed Vajiralongkorn’s third wife, Princess Srirasmi Suwadee, appearing topless at a poolside birthday party. Also in attendance was the prince’s pet poodle, Foo Foo, who, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks, was promoted to the rank of air chief marshal before his death last year.
Although it was never clear who leaked the video, some speculated that it was spread by opponents of the prince in the hopes that his sister might ascend to the throne in his place. Such hopes were spelled out in another leaked cable that described a conversation between then-U.S. Ambassador Eric G. John and the late Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila in 2010.
“Siddhi stated that succession would be a difficult transition time for Thailand,” the cable says. “According to Palace Law, the Crown Prince would succeed his father, but added after a pause, almost hopefully: ‘if the Crown Prince were to die, anything could happen, and maybe Prathep (Sirindhorn) could succeed.’"
In recent months, the country’s military leaders have appeared keen to burnish the reputation of Vajiralongkorn. Prayuth joined the crown prince at a nationally televised mass cycle ride in honor of his mother’s birthday over the summer.
"We know the crown prince has enemies among the Thai establishment, but that's the nature of politics everywhere,” said Patrick Jory, who teaches Thai history at the University of Queensland in Australia.
“There are powerful forces in the military and the bureaucracy who have an interest in a smooth succession,“ Jory said. "The evidence that we do have strongly suggests that the crown prince is in a strong position."
In a sign of Sirindhorn’s importance, the princess will oversee Bhumibol's funeral ceremony in a year's time.
She attended a meeting Monday at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization office in Bangkok, her first public appearance since her father’s death. She was named a “special ambassador for zero hunger.”
Although a change in the Thai Constitution has made it possible for a woman to succeed to the throne, any attempt to get in the way of Vajiralongkorn could be seen as contradicting Bhumibol’s wishes — a risky move for a junta that has promised to return power to civilians and hold elections in 2017.
Bhumibol, who reigned for seven decades and was venerated as a near-deity, named Vajiralongkorn as heir apparent in 1972.
Since the king’s death Thursday at age 88, Thais have lined up by the hundreds of thousands to pay their respects at Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
“I want to come here to give something for the father,” said Nattapsorn Juijuyen, a volunteer who helped distribute food and water to the swelling crowd Monday.
Thousands of Thais lined up outside banks overnight to pick up commemorative currency notes in honor of Bhumibol.
Across Bangkok, shops are running out of black clothing as well as photographs and paintings of the late monarch. Books about him also are in short supply.
“We have nothing left,” said a staff member at the Kinokuniya bookstore in one of the city’s many glossy malls. “We only have books about the other kings from the past.”
At a time of great uncertainty in the country, which is still reeling from a series of coups and political unrest, authorities and members of the public are on the watch for any dissent — including against the future monarch.
Videos of mobs surrounding people accused of anti-royal sentiments have been circling on social media since the weekend. In one clip, an elderly woman is attacked on a bus in Bangkok.
"How could you insult the royal father?” a voice is heard saying. “You shouldn't have been born."
In another, a bloodied man is forced to apologize before an image of the late king, receiving a kick to the head for his troubles.
In statements to the media Tuesday, Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya appeared to endorse such public retribution. "There is no better way to punish these people than to socially sanction them," he said.
The government will also be seeking the extradition of any Thai critics who live abroad, the minister said.
Times staff writer Zavis reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Roughneen from Bangkok.