By Jerome TAYLOR, November 29, 2016
BANGKOK (AFP) - After spending much of his life outside the public eye, Thailand's next monarch Maha Vajiralongkorn has been catapulted into the limelight as future king of a politically fractured nation still grieving for his revered father.
The 64-year-old inherits one of the world's richest monarchies, an opaque institution shielded by a notoriously tough royal defamation law.
Yet the untested heir has enormous shoes to fill following the October 13 death of his father King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who charmed a nation that came to see him as a compassionate and unflashy monarch.
Bhumibol's popularity and moral authority helped him wield vast influence during his seven-decade reign, despite the few legal powers granted to the constitutional monarch.
But he has left behind a deeply polarised country, trapped in a cycle of political protests, coups by an arch-royalist military and entrenched inequality.
Vajiralongkorn does not enjoy his father's level of popularity and has spent much of his life overseas, particularly in Germany.
Rumours over his private life have also trailed him, gilded by three-high profile divorces and a recent police corruption scandal linked to the family of his previous wife.
After his father's passing, he shocked many by requesting to delay his ascension to the throne.
That announcement was delivered on his behalf by junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who said the prince wanted more time to grieve with the nation.
In the past, heirs have typically been proclaimed king shortly after the throne is vacated.
- Competing faction -
The prince's ascension, which is expected within days after the Thai cabinet Tuesday submitted his name to the kingdom's rubber-stamp parliament, stills Thailand's royal rumour mill which for years had spun out theories of a back-room tussle over the succession.
Paul Chambers, a Thailand-based expert on the monarchy, said the Crown Prince's decision to delay his proclamation suggests he "is someone who thinks very carefully before making decisions".
"He appears effective in realising that he must consolidate his power and balance different political sides, thus staying above the fray," he told AFP.
He will also need to manage the various competing factions among Thailand's powerful generals, he added.
Yet frank discussion of the matter in Thailand remains impossible due to the kingdom's harsh lese majeste law, which punishes any perceived criticism of the monarchy with a 15 year prison sentence for each offence.
Use of the law has surged under the ultra-royalist generals that seized power in 2014 -- a coup many believe was staged to ensure a smooth succession.
Since Bhumibol's death, Vajiralongkorn has attended many daily palace funerary rites for his father.
But he has also made at least two trips out the country and placed his younger sister, Princess Sirindhorn, in charge of overseeing the cremation arrangements.
He has also yet to make a statement or public speech about succession since his father's death.
One Thai academic, who asked not to be named, speculated that Vajiralongkorn "is likely to reign at a distance and let his sisters perform the routines."
- Time overseas -
Born on July 28, 1952, Vajiralongkorn completed his secondary education in Britain before training at Australia's Royal Military college and joining the Thai military.
He developed a passion for flying after learning the skill in the United States, piloting fighter jets in Thailand and steering planes for national carrier Thai Airways.
Vajiralongkorn has spent significant periods of his adult life overseas, particularly in Germany, where his personal Boeing was briefly seized in 2011 as part of a financial dispute between the Thai government and a German company.
But in the twilight of his father's reign -- and with Thailand ruled by a royalist junta -- the heir took on a more prominent public role at home.
A fan of the outdoors, the lycra-clad crown prince led two tightly choreographed mass cycling events through Bangkok in 2015, with junta top brass in tow.
But the events were tainted by a corruption scandal when a number of senior officials, including in the military and police, were charged with lese majeste for allegedly using their connections to the prince to profit from the events.
Two of those people, including a fortune teller once close to the prince, died in military custody in the days after their arrest.
That murky episode came several months after the dramatic fall from grace of Vajiralongkorn's ex-wife, Princess Srirasmi.
At least eight of the former princess's family members were imprisoned on lese majeste charges -- including her elderly parents -- after being accused of using their ties to the monarchy for personal gain.
While she was not jailed, Srirasmi was swiftly stripped of her royal title and then divorced by the prince.
Vajiralongkorn has an 11-year-old son from that marriage, plus six other children -- including four estranged sons -- from the two previous wives.
He will now face the challenge of fathering a divided nation where most Thais have never known life under another king.