Who is Princess Bha? Thailand’s presumed royal heir is lying in hospital

Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol, 44, has degrees from Cornell and was Thailand’s ambassador to Austria, yet little is known beyond her public image

The American-educated Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol, known by her nickname Princess Bha, is widely viewed as the most viable option to succeed the throne in Thailand. She is the oldest daughter of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his only child from his first marriage.

The king has never declared that the princess would take his place but she is one of just three children with royal titles and is a commander in his bodyguard unit.

Her hospitalisation at the age of 44 has shown that people know little about the princess beyond her public image, which is studded with international accomplishments but little personal detail, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai scholar who works in exile at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

(L-R) Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol, her father, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and Queen Suthida in 2019.
(L-R) Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol, her father, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and Queen Suthida in 2019.
Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The princess is the daughter of the king’s cousin, who was the first of his four wives. As a teenager she was educated at Heathfield school, a prestigious all-girls school in England, before earning two graduate degrees at Cornell University. She served as Thailand’s ambassador to Austria, going on to become an advocate for Thai female prisoners. She has stayed quiet on national politics, including the mass 2020 protests over monarchy reform.

“At this point, at the age of 44, we’ve seen nothing from her,” Chachavalpongpun said. “People hardly know her.”

That changed to a certain extent on Wednesday last week: the princess was training her dogs in a north-eastern province when she collapsed and lost consciousness. Helicopters airlifted her to Bangkok after she received local treatment. The palace’s initial statement about her health was vague, triggering a swirl of online rumours.

Five days passed before the palace broke its silence again, saying on Monday that Princess Bajrakitiyabha was stable “at a certain level” but receiving medication and equipment support for her lung, heart and kidneys.

The same day, the country’s court of justice told its offices to refrain from new year’s celebrations and instead pray for the princess’s recovery. Meanwhile officials and citizens across Thailand hosted activities and prayers for the princess, with her hospital setting up a get-well-soon and bouquet area for visitors, reported Thai outlet Prachatai.

Well-wishers pray for the recovery of Thailand’s Princess Bajrakitiyabha in King Chulalongkorn memorial hospital.
Well-wishers pray for the recovery of Thailand’s Princess Bajrakitiyabha in King Chulalongkorn memorial hospital. Photograph: Diego Azubel/EPA

One government employee who asked for anonymity given the country’s harsh lese-majesty laws on discussion of the royal family said it was “hopeless” to speculate about succession but that group chats and Twitter threads were lighting up about it anyway. “We wish for the monarchy reformation but then, sadly, it’s not up to us,” they said.

The king – who has sole power to decide his successor – has never declared that the princess would take his place. Bajrakitiyabha would be the first woman named sovereign heir if he did.

She is a key figure in her father’s orbit, serving as a commander in the royal bodyguard unit and regularly appearing at events. While Vajiralongkorn went on to have six more children, only two others have retained their formal titles.

The Thai worker said the princess’s accomplishments gave her a generally positive reputation. “But some would say she’s also supporting the lese majeste. Basically, when considering all the other options, she’s the most reasonable one.”

Fiona Kelliher

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Thailand’s hospitals under pressure as Covid crisis deepens
Doctors forced to treat patients in car parks while others turned away as no beds available

Rebecca Ratcliffe and Navaon Siradapuvadol in Bangkok

27, Jul, 2021 @12:00 AM

Article image
Instagran: meet Thailand’s new generation of over-60s influencers
Government scheme links older people with university students who provide mentoring to develop online skills

Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent

25, Jul, 2022 @12:00 AM

Article image
Thailand’s tuk-tuks go green amid rising demand for electric models
Travel without the combustion-engine fumes and noise is increasingly popular in the country with some of the world’s worst air pollution

Rebecca Root in Bangkok

19, Jan, 2023 @4:29 AM

Article image
‘Everything has exploded now’: on the streets with Thailand’s protesters
For the past month, Bangkok’s Din Daeng intersection has been a battleground between police and protesters, angry at economic, health and rights crisis

Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok

24, Sep, 2021 @8:00 PM

Article image
‘Dying of boredom’: the fight to release Thailand’s shopping mall gorilla
Bua Noi has spent decades in a cage in a decaying Bangkok shopping mall. Her owner says is she too old to be transferred to a sanctuary but activists disagree

Rebecca Root in Bangkok

28, Oct, 2022 @2:01 AM

Article image
Sex, laughs and the snip: an audience with Thailand’s ‘Condom King’
Thailand’s population growth has slowed dramatically since the 60s, with a little help from Mechai Viravaidya’s vasectomy festivals and condom-blowing competitions

Rebecca Root in Bangkok

08, Jun, 2022 @11:59 PM

Article image
Thailand’s missing monkeys: why did hundreds of rhesus macaques vanish from a temple?
Police in Loei trying to determine if the animals migrated or were taken as part of a trafficking operation

Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent

26, Feb, 2023 @1:48 AM

Article image
YouTube host faces charges for criticising Thai princess's Miss Universe dress
Online presenter accused of affecting the country’s reputation after suggesting the outfit was ugly

Hannah Ellis-Petersen South-east Asia correspondent

19, Dec, 2018 @5:11 AM

Article image
Thailand protests: everything you need to know
An unprecedented wave of protests is sweeping the nation, with calls for major democratic reforms. Here is all you need to know

Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent

22, Sep, 2020 @5:20 AM

Article image
Thailand's heir apparent Maha Vajiralongkorn raises fears – and eyebrows
Crown prince is best known for making his poodle Foo Foo an air chief marshal, but his darker side has long caused concerns about his potential rule

Staff reporter in London

13, Oct, 2016 @3:43 PM