Hugs and Instagram selfies: Thai King's coronation gives glimpses of royal relations

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn hugs his sister, Princess Ubolratana, during a ceremony in the Grand Palace in Bangkok on May 3, 2019, ahead of his royal coronation.
Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn hugs his sister, Princess Ubolratana, during a ceremony in the Grand Palace in Bangkok on May 3, 2019, ahead of his royal coronation.PHOTOS: AFP/THAI TV POOL

BANGKOK (AFP) - A normally inscrutable king pulls his sister in for a hug and selfies of royal siblings rebound across Instagram - the coronation of King Rama X has provided Thais rare glimpses into a highly private family cocooned by palace protocols.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 66, was crowned on Saturday (May 4) in a sumptuous ceremony rich in symbolism and ritual.

The monarchy is the apex of Thai society and projections of its power are unmissable in the kingdom, from towering portraits of the stern-faced king, to stiff-backed rituals and public appearances relayed nightly on television news.

But King Rama X remains an intensely private figure, spending much of his time overseas.

The enigma of the new king is double-locked by one of the world's harshest royal defamation laws, which keep a tight lid on the dissemination of royal gossip and prevent public criticism inside the kingdom.

His coronation, the first in 69 years and given blanket coverage on Thai TV, has stirred curiosity over the goings-on inside the royal court.

"I would like to see them loosen up a bit more so we can get to know them," 22-year-old student Jin said near the Grand Palace, declining to give her full name.

The introduction of King Vajiralongkorn's fourth wife Queen Suthida, a flight attendant turned royal bodyguard whose marriage to the king was unexpectedly announced last Wednesday after years of conjecture about her status, piqued the interest of the watching public.

Jin said she was "wowed" by the king's marriage to a commoner.



King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida (centre right), accompanied by Princess Bajrakitiyabha Manidol, arrive at the Chakrapat Biman Royal Residence in the Grand Palace in Bangkok on May 4, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

INTIMATE RITUALS

Throughout the coronation formalities the king has remained unsmiling - befitting the sombre, symbol-laden ceremonies held in front of a coterie of palace officials and generals.

But Saturday's rituals, symbolising his transformation from human to the divine, provided intimate imagery of the monarch.

A water purification ceremony led by Hindu Brahmins saw the king wear a white robe with one shoulder exposed, a modest moment from a monarch normally seen during official duties in military uniform.


A water purification ceremony led by Hindu Brahmins saw the king wear a white robe with one shoulder exposed, a modest moment from a monarch normally seen during official duties in military uniform. PHOTO: EPA-EFE/ROYAL HOUSEHOLD BUREAU

Unguarded interactions have also set tongues wagging.

Newspapers ran photos of a warm meeting late on Friday between the king and his family in a palace hall.

There were big smiles and a hug for Princess Ubolratana, his colourful Instagram-posting elder sister, while his fashion designer daughter Sirivannavari, 32, and 14-year-old son Dipangkorn - children from his second and third wives - looked on.


There were big smiles and a hug for Princess Ubolratana. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

True to form, Princess Ubolratana - seen as one of the more approachable royals - posted beaming selfies with her younger sister Princess Sirindhorn.

Then on Sunday she released a mobile phone photo of her brother wearing the 7.3kg tiered golden crown, hashtagging it #coronationday and #onceinalifetime.

Ubolratana's warm exchange with her brother comes after he dashed her political aspirations in the lead-up to March 24 elections, torpedoing her nomination as a prime ministerial candidate by a now-dissolved political party.

Also taking to social media was daughter Sirivannavari, posting studio photos of herself wearing an elegant golden traditional dress for the ceremonies on Facebook.

There is no indication whether the flickers of informality herald a new direction by the palace PR machine, or just a coincidence of modernity from royals armed with smartphones.

But observers say the effect could serve to open a channel of communication with the public.

"The images of King Vajiralongkorn wearing a sacred crown and then socialising with family members serve the dual purpose of rendering him both divine and relatively approachable," said anthropologist Edoardo Siani of Kyoto University.

 
 
 

Older Thais are more accustomed to their royals holding a remote, venerated position.

There should be a "distance" between royals and the public, said 80-year-old Kanha Kitvej as she watched soldiers march by the Grand Palace.

"I am his (the king's) subject." Madam Aunyaporn Wisanurak, 62, who had volunteered to hand out food during the coronation, echoed the sentiment, insisting nightly royal news bulletins provided ample insight.

"Thai people already know every activity of their king," she said.