Thailand's crown prince and the woman who would have been on the throne next to him are now officially divorced, the palace announced today in a move that many observers see as a precursor to a possible succession struggle.
Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, son of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and his now ex-wife, Princess Srirasmi, were married for 13 years, but have been estranged in recent months. It was Vajiralongkorn's third marriage. Along with the divorce, Srirasmi has relinquished her royal title.
Bhumibol, 87, who is the world's longest-reigning living monarch, has all but disappeared from public view amid reports of illness. Last week, he cancelled an appearance for his birthday on advice from his doctors. As Reuters reports "The cancellation fueled concern over the health of King Bhumibol, who is regarded as almost divine by many Thais and is widely seen as a unifying figure through years of political unrest."
While Vajiralongkorn is widely expected to succeed his father, he is reportedly not popular among the faction in the military that seized power earlier this year in a coup. However, taking the temperature on attitudes about the monarchy in Thailand is nearly impossible because of a harsh law that prohibits any criticism of the royal family.
The Diplomat, summarizing arguments made by author Andrew MacGregor Marshall in a new book A Kingdom in Crisis, says "traditional elites harbor hopes that, in the succession, they will be able to maneuver the king's daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, into power as the ruling monarch."
For the prince, the timing of the divorce may be a move to tidy up his personal life ahead of the possible succession showdown.
The Vajiralongkorn-Sirindhorn rivalry, may also have larger implications for the country's politics and the military's continued role in governance, because the siblings are believed to be allied with differing factions that have fought for control in recent years.
Vajiralongkorn, is seen as close to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, former premier Yingluck Shinawatra, both ousted by the military. Sirindhorn, on the other hand, is identified with the pro-coup "yellow shirt" faction that has been fiercely opposed to the Shinawatra clan.