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Maha Vajiralongkorn is the crown prince of Thailand and will become king when his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, dies.

Vajiralongkorn ("Maha" is a title that means "great") was born in 1953 in Bangkok, Thailand, second child of the king and queen; he is the only son of the royal couple, and has one older and two younger sisters. Unlike his father, who came to throne unexpectedly, this prince was raised to become king one day.

His initial schooling took place in the palace, and he was apparently taken with planes from an early age. He graduated from the Royal Australian Military College in Duntroon, trained with the Special Air Service regiment in Perth, and today is a general in the Royal Thai Air Force and a commander of a regiment of the King’s Own Body Guards. He is an accomplished pilot.

In 1972 in an elaborate investiture ceremony the king conferred upon his son the title "Chakri Nares Yupharaj Visuth Siam Makut Rajakumar", thus formally affirming the prince's claim to the Chakri dynasty and the crown of the kingdom. That same year the Thai constitution was amended to allow women to become monarchs, and some years later the immensely popular second daughter of the king, princess Sirindhorn, was given the title "Siam Borom Rajakumari"; she is often referred to in English as the crown princess. But as her title is smaller, so is the likelihood that she will inherit the throne; it is the prince whose claim is paramount.

In 1977 the prince married princess Soamsavali Kitiyakara; the two have one daughter, Bajrakitiyabha, who was born in 1978. But in 1979 Vajiralongkorn risked public censure by taking a mistress, the actress Yuvadhida Polpraserth; over the next decade she bore him five children, four sons and a daughter.

Historically, royal polygamy was the rule rather than the exception, and men of power in Thailand today, as in the past, amass wives and consorts as a visible demonstration of their wealth and importance. However, the much-revered king has broken with this tradition, making his son's extra-marital behaviour appear more tawdry and immoral by comparison. When I moved to Thailand over a decade ago, everyone gossipped about the illicit relationship and contrasted it to the prince's "official" marriage, widely thought to be loveless; but by the time I left five years later the second relationship was gaining an air of legitimacy and the boys even began to appear in public with their father.

In the end, however, the relationship came to an acrimonious halt in 1996. Yuvadhida was visiting her children in England, where they were being exiled, with the air chief marshall, when the prince summarily cancelled her travel documents as well as those of her sons and the air marshall (with the implication that there was hanky panky going on behind the prince's back). Today she and the boys live abroad, and only the youngest child, a daughter called Siriwan, remains with the crown prince.

Gossip about the royal family is officially illegal - lese majeste laws are severe in Thailand - but it is an exceedingly popular pastime. The prince is whispered to be arrogant, temperamental, fond of drink, overly attached to western goods, and of course a womanizer; recent rumours are that he has contracted HIV. He does not enjoy the aura of morality and virtue that seems to settle effortlessly on his father and sister. Nevertheless, the forgiving and easy-going Thai seem willing, by and large, to allow the prince to put his tarnished past behind him, perhaps pragmatically recognizing that when the current king, the longest-serving monarch in the world, finally passes away, they will need a symbol of stability to help them move forward.

Though destined, it seems, never to be as beloved as his father, he is more and more in the public eye as he attends endless state, diplomatic, and Buddhist functions in the ailing king's place. He has been raised for, and is growing into, the position he will one day inherit, and when he does, he will be known in English as Rama X.

and an email message from a Thai who knows the prince's sons

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