Thailand’s king stunned observers on Monday by stripping his royal consort of her rank and titles, just months after she was granted the honours.
It was only in July when Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi was named as “official consort” alongside the new queen – but the palace said she was punished for trying to elevate herself to “the same state as the queen”.
For some observers her downfall says as much about the direction of Thailand’s monarchy as it does about her alleged offences.
The new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, ascended the throne in 2016 when his father died – the country’s lese-majeste law forbids any criticism of the monarchy and carries a hefty prison sentence.
What is a consort?
A consort generally refers to a wife, husband or companion of a reigning monarch – but in this case in Thailand “royal consort” was used as a term for a companion or partner in addition to the king’s wife.
Sineenat, 34, was the first royal consort in Thailand for almost a century. When she was given the title in July, it made her an official companion – but not a queen – of the king shortly after he married his fourth wife, Queen Suthida.
Historically, polygamy and the taking of royal consorts was used by Thailand’s royals to assure the allegiance of powerful families across the provinces of the large kingdom.
Thai kings throughout the centuries took multiple wives – or consorts. The last time a Thai king took an official consort was in the 1920s and the title has not been used since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
What do we know about Sineenat?
Information on her background is sketchy except for biographical information released by the court at the time.
“We only know about her past whatever the royal household wanted us to know,” explains Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Associate Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.
Born in 1985, she is from northern Thailand and first worked as a nurse. Once in a relationship with the then-crown prince Vajiralongkorn, her life became woven into the royal military and security apparatus.
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She became a bodyguard, pilot, parachutist and joined the royal guards. Earlier this year, she was appointed a major-general.
The array of honours and titles given by the court was topped by her becoming the first Royal Noble Consort in nearly a century in July.
Shortly afterwards she was notably pictured posing in a fighter jet when the palace released a series of action images of her along with an official biography. These have now been removed from the official website.
What has happened to her now?
Sineenat has been stripped of her rank and titles for “misbehaviour and disloyalty against the monarch,” according to a detailed official announcement in the royal court’s gazette.
The statement said she had been “ambitious” and tried to “elevate herself to the same state as the queen”.
“The royal consort’s behaviours were considered disrespectful,” showing “disobedience against the king and the queen” and abusing her power to give orders on the king’s behalf.
The king, the statement said, had learned “she neither was grateful to the title bestowed upon her, nor did she behave appropriately according to her status”.
Tamara Loos, professor of history and Thai studies at Cornell University, suggests the lack of transparency over what exactly happened is key to understanding it.
“In any situation like that you find a system of patronage behind the scenes. Sineenat might have been part of that system of patronage and she might have played it in a way that didn’t work well for her,” she says, hinting at possible factionalism in the court.
She adds that the language of the declaration setting out her demotion is “reminiscent of an era in which women could not have direct political power and so the ways you talked about women with ‘influence’ was that they were ambitious”.
For Ms Loos, the statement is in line with what she identifies as the “rise of a modern absolute monarchy in Thailand”.
What is in store for her?
So far, the fallen consort has only been stripped of her titles and it’s unclear what more awaits her.
“We have no idea what will happen to her,” explains Mr Pavin, who adds that the proceedings are unlikely to be transparent.
As much as the narrative of her past was controlled by the court, the same will likely be the case for her future.
The sudden demotion of Sineenat has echoes of what happened to two of King Vajiralongkorn’s former wives.
In 1996, he denounced his second wife, Sujarinee Vivacharawongse – who fled to the United States – and disowned four sons he had with her.
In 2014, his third wife Srirasmi Suwadee – whose whereabouts are unknown – was stripped of all her titles and banished from court while her parents were arrested and imprisoned for lese-majeste. Their son, who is now 14, has been brought up by him.
His previous wives have never issued any statements about their particular circumstances.
What more does this tell us?
Since coming to power, King Vajiralongkorn has exercised his powers in a more direct way than his father.
Earlier this year, the two most important army units in the capital Bangkok were placed directly under his command, showing a concentration of military power in royal hands unprecedented in modern Thailand.
“The brutal and blunt language used by the court to denounce Sineenat is how the king wants to legitimise the punishment for her,” explains Mr Pavin.
Ms Loos agrees the king is sending a message that goes beyond just falling out with his mistress.
“The king is sending a signal that he can’t be touched and that once you’re out of favour with him, you have no control over your destiny.
“Each move of his, whether economic, military or familial, reveals his unfettered abuse of power,” she adds.
Under the country’s lese-majeste law, the controversial demotion cannot be discussed publicly in the country – but observers believe this dramatic fall from grace will be uppermost in many people’s minds.