When Qantas flight 736 touched down in Sydney just before 8am on Saturday, September 5, 1970, a shy young man was on board. He was carefully guarded, with a king’s most trusted aide on the flight plus a security detail, and his best friend along for the ride. No visa or entry permit was needed as the only son of Thailand’s king was waved through immigration; a diplomatic passport was packed in case it came in handy.
After being greeted at the airport by a group of Thai students, the 18-year-old was escorted to the Wentworth Hotel to get down to the business at hand. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn Mahidol had to get ready for school.
Nearly 50 years later he is King Rama X, a controversial figure who has been the subject of the strongest protests against Thailand’s throne in decades, arguably since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. In nearly four years since his father’s death, Vajiralongkorn has shown himself to be much more overtly interventionist in politics, consolidated army units under his direct command and converted a sovereign wealth fund into a personal fortune.
Vajiralongkorn spent six years in Australia, studying first at the King’s School in Parramatta before four years at the Royal Military College, Duntroon and time with the Special Air Service Regiment in Perth. The National Archives of Australia has 490 pages of declassified cables and memos from that time, detailing how diplomats and bureaucrats concerned themselves with military drills, pocket money and more.
While Vajiralongkorn’s school results have been expunged and other material redacted on the grounds it could harm international relations, the archives reveal the government was worried about everything from rumours of an assassination attempt and political turmoil in Thailand to his older sister’s love life. Looming over all was King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the young man’s father.
Unhappy in its own way
The file begins in December 1968, when ambassador David McNicol dropped off a prospectus for Duntroon at the palace. Bhumibol was hoping military school would make a man of his son, but feared a great power might manipulate the prince for its political ends. It would be helpful too because the armed forces would be the “dominant ruling group for a long time to come”, as an aide said to the ambassador, in a country where “the mass of people were not ready for democracy”.
“The king and queen informed the Australian ambassador in Bangkok that the Crown Prince was [redacted] proud and nationalistic; nevertheless he had his good points,” reads one Department of External Affairs memo from mid-1970.
Thomas Critchley, Canberra’s man in Bangkok from 1969 to 1973, was most often in the middle, typically dealing with the king’s principal private secretary or Bhumibol directly.
Critchley also had to break bad news: entry to Duntroon required graduating high school, and Vajiralongkorn’s results from study in England were not good enough.
The King’s School in Parramatta, with the country’s oldest cadet corps, was an obvious choice. A minor Thai royal, Panadda Diskul, was already a student there, although the palace was keen to keep them in separate houses. (The son of a diplomat, Panadda was a career bureaucrat until drafted into the cabinet after a coup in 2014.)
On Vajiralongkorn’s arrival in Sydney, officials quickly concluded the prince had no chance of matriculating without a full year of high school in 1971. Persuading the palace took some delicacy.
Sir Keith Waller, secretary of the Department of External Affairs, wrote to Critchley that Vajiralongkorn “should not be exposed to the embarrassment of failure in the February 1971 [matriculation] examinations and to commencing the Duntroon course with an inadequate educational background”.
Critchley’s audience with Bhumibol on October 16, 1970, settled it: another year at Parramatta before Duntroon in 1972. “He spoke critically of the schooling in England which the Crown Prince had hated,” Critchley reported. “On the other hand the Crown Prince seemed to be settling in well in Australia and appreciated the friendliness with which he was being received.”
Between five and seven hours a day with tutors plus private study helped. “When he first came to Australia the prince was unable to write more than five or six lines on any topic but is now able to write quite respectable essays,” Sir Keith wrote in a confidential telegram to Bangkok in late 1970.
By the middle of 1971, with the aid of tutors and special attention from teachers, The King’s School was pleased with his improvement and “impeccable” behaviour. “He is not a difficult person,” one heavily edited memo says. “The problem is basically one of determination and attack.”
In September he had an “excellent chance of passing” when the king wondered whether he might send Vajiralongkorn to Britain to launch a frigate being built for Thailand. Sir Keith spoke to Vajiralongkorn, who “clearly does not want to go but will of course comply with the king’s wishes. He is working very hard and although much calmer than he was last year, is suffering from very natural pre-examination tension. The possibility of a trip to England in the present atmosphere is adding to these tensions.”
It was an unnecessary worry. After a phone call, the king changed his mind.
Twists and turns
A sprained ankle during the school holidays meant the prince’s Duntroon days did not get off to a good start. The first five weeks adjusting to college routine were the most difficult, the Bangkok Post reported, as “any cadet falling short of the standards was woken up 30 minutes early and had to stand in the cold, open field with a load of about 16-20 kilograms on his back”.
Whatever progress Vajiralongkorn was making was soon overshadowed by a scandal involving his older sister.
Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, who last made international headlines when Vajiralongkorn kiboshed her attempt to become prime minister in early 2019 and who recently sided with young protesters, was studying in the US in 1972 when she ran off with a man.
Academics at Chulalongkorn University were sharing stories of how the princess had asked for permission to marry a Mexican. When a diplomat refused permission, “the princess said that she was going to be married anyway”. Journalists were sharing similar stories, “except that the press understands her to be marrying a Puerto Rican”.
Sir Keith shared the rumours on July 11 with the commandant of the Royal Military College, Major-General Sandy Pearson, with a word of caution that “any sort of entanglement on the part of the Crown Prince could be a major disaster”.
Two weeks later, Ubolratana resigned her title to become a “common citizen”. Rumours of falling pregnant to her maths tutor at MIT, and of her mother seeking to persuade her to fly to Switzerland “either to have [an] abortion or to release baby for adoption” were reported to Canberra. A few days later they evolved again, with Queen Sirikit apparently bringing Ubolratana home from the US to have the baby privately in a southern palace. (Ubolratana married a fellow student in August 1972; the first of their three children was born more than eight years later. She did not return to Thai public life until after her divorce in 1998.)
As it rocked the palace, the scandal also rattled Australia’s diplomatic ranks. “This development in the royal family will tend to focus attention on the crown prince’s activities in Australia,” charge d’affaires Leslie Gerard Sellars wrote in a confidential memo. Vajiralongkorn’s views of marriage seemed germane; the prince had recently told a reporter he would “accept whoever was chosen” as his wife.
The year ended with Vajiralongkorn returning to Bangkok for a ceremony marking the 20-year-old’s status as heir apparent. Pearson wrote to Critchley beforehand urging against making too much fuss about his progress at Duntroon.
“He is obviously unsure of himself, needs others to lean on and is seeking security,” Pearson wrote. “Should the king wish to hold a ceremony in December installing him as Crown Prince, then I would suggest for the Crown Prince’s sake that it be just that and not to celebrate his passing his first year at Duntroon.”
Life and death threats
At 6.23pm on Thursday, July 5, 1973, a machine in Canberra spat out an urgent message: the managing editor of the Bangkok Post had heard Vajiralongkorn had been shot, “could we please have immediate advice”.
The reply was sent at 7.11pm: “Rumour is completely false repeat false.”
For the rest of the month, however, the embassy was asked one variation of the question or another: was Vajiralongkorn shot in the leg? Did a bodyguard die trying to protect him? Did the queen fly to Australia and on her return try to kill one of the men who orchestrated the attempt?
While none of the above were true, new Duntroon commandant General Bob Hay discussed them with Vajiralongkorn on July 26. In a letter to Critchley the following day, in which he also reported an “acceptable level” of progress in military matters despite a weakness in topography, Hay wrote of the prince’s concerns. “It is clearly an unsettling influence and he has given some thought to the reasons behind it. There are no special security arrangements at the college … it is a pity the source of the rumours cannot be located.”
The stories climaxed at the end of the month when the palace publicly denied them, and having photographs of Vajiralongkorn at Duntroon in the media did dampen some speculation. The Australian embassy said only the prince’s reappearance in Bangkok would put them to rest, and formed the view that the stories had been started to discredit one of the so-called “three tyrants” who had ruled Thailand for a decade. After a student uprising in October, with the backing of Bhumibol, military rule came to a brief end and the “three tyrants” went into exile.
As Thailand underwent upheaval, the prince was deep in rugged terrain south-west of Moruya in NSW. A camp from November 5 to 28 simulated a search-and-clear operation by a battalion against a low-level insurgency. Snakes, flies and mosquitoes were the other enemies, as it was hot and dry for the first 14 days before the weather deteriorated into near-monsoon conditions. “Staff Cadet Mahidol participated quite actively, although he had some difficulty in the rough going because of ankle weakness,” Hay wrote to the palace.
While Vajiralongkorn was in the bush learning the finer points of counter-revolutionary warfare, cables were flying between Canberra and Bangkok about the Crown Prince’s future education. Much of what was discussed is still secret, but the upshot was Vajiralongkorn undertook a different academic course to his peers in the following two years.
Political turmoil prevented Bhumibol from visiting Australia, and appears to be the reason he interrupted his son’s study at the end of 1974. For all the correspondence between diplomats, Vajiralongkorn had received only the occasional phone call and three letters from his father during the first three years at Duntroon. In December and January, they spent a lot of time together.
Vajiralongkorn was ordered home early to accompany the king on all public appearances and a tour of Thailand. Bhumibol gave his son “a strong dressing -down” before sending him back to Duntroon, but let him into a private radio monitoring post where the king listened to the army and police signals through the night.
On return to Australia, Vajiralongkorn confided to his company commander that what he heard through the bank of radios left a profound impression. Sick and fatigued from travel, he was described as “generally in a state of considerable shock as a result of impressions and experiences during his visit home. He had mumbled incoherently a great deal.”
Australian ambassador Marshall Johnston replied that it had been the king’s intention to “draw his attention to the responsibilities of the monarch and he probably found the experience somewhat traumatic, bewildering and overwhelming”.
“The relationship with the king seems a rather formal and distant one,” Johnston wrote. “The prince’s relationship with his mother seems closer although it also appears to an outsider to be lacking in warmth.”
Given the political ructions, Queen Sirikit was invited to attend the graduation ceremony while King Bhumibol stayed behind. The queen danced with her son at the graduation ball, as per tradition, and Vajiralongkorn received a commission as a captain in the Royal Thai Army from governor-general Sir John Kerr.
His academic results were glossed over. Johnston assured the palace the graduation ceremony would not cause any embarrassment to the royal family. “It is most important that the prince should not be made to feel different or inferior or to lose face in any way. If this happened we would risk losing the tremendous goodwill we have built up here by training the prince at Duntroon. I hope, therefore, this question will be approached with imagination and flexibility.”
The file peters out after the ceremony, although we know Vajiralongkorn spent much of 1976 with the SASR in Perth and his years in Australia left him better trained than most in the Thai military. For Thailand, it was also the year an ousted dictator returned from exile with Bhumibol’s blessing and student protests erupted.
On October 6, 1976, police and right-wing militia shot, lynched, burnt and raped students, leaving 45 dead in a massacre that continues to haunt the country. Vajiralongkorn, called back from Australia, had landed in Bangkok only days before.
Michael Ruffles is the chief sub-editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.