BANGKOK – Thailand’s new king, who succeeded his late father last year, has tightened control over what is reputed to be the world’s richest royal fortune, estimated to be worth more than $30 billion.
A law that became effective Monday places the Crown Property Bureau, essentially a holding company for the royal palace’s assets, under King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun’s direct control.
The bureau’s assets represent the lion’s share of the royal family’s wealth, which Forbes magazine in 2011 estimated at more than $30 billion, much of it in real estate.
Previously the bureau was technically under the government’s control, with the finance minister in the position of board chairman.
The new law allows the king to manage the Crown Property Bureau as he sees fit, which includes appointments of the agency’s administrative members. The wording suggests that there are no restrictions on how he chooses to exercise his authority.
Previous shake-ups under the new king gave him control of palace agencies that had been under government, military and police authority, with their staff members considered civil servants or state officials.
Vajiralongkorn’s father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in practice could also exercise ultimate authority over the various agencies, even if indirectly, because of the prestige commanded by the throne and his personal popularity. However, he is generally believed to have left those agencies to be run by the professionals in charge of them, who in many cases were trusted aides who had served him for years.
The 2011 Forbes article estimating the palace’s wealth earned a written rebuke from the Thai Embassy in Washington, which emphasized that the royal assets held by the bureau are not the king’s personal property, but belong to the institution of the monarchy and are “held in trust for the nation.”
After 70 years on the throne Bhumibol had won the trust and devotion of most of his countrymen, who knew no other monarch. Vajiralongkorn, however, with a reputation as somewhat of a playboy, seems not to have earned the same respect as his father. Eager to secure his authority, he has also replaced some of his father’s old loyalists with his own appointees.
Vajiralongkorn’s position is also complicated by his inheriting the throne under a military government that came to power in a 2014 coup. His father’s relationship with the military was complicated, evolving from a measure of dependence on the army when Thailand had a strongman dictator, to holding the upper hand over them.
Thailand’s fractious politics of the past decade, including street violence, strengthened the generals’ position, with an ailing Bhumibol unable to effectively exercise his influence. Vajiralongkorn’s relationship with the army is still in the formative stage.