Earlier this week, Thailand’s Royal Household Bureau released more than 60 photos of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and his consort, on their website, and quite literally broke the internet — the pictures ended up being so popular that on Monday, the website crashed.
But these weren’t your average royal portraits: In addition to the formal shots we’ve come to expect from members of a monarchy, there were also more unusual images, including ones of the consort — Maj. Gen. Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi — wearing a camouflage sports bra in an airplane cockpit, as well as others of her in military gear holding a dog.
Though the website also released a lengthy biography of Sineenat (currently only available in Thai), the whole display has raised many questions: Who is Sineenat? What is her role in the Thai monarchy? Is wearing a sports bra as a top acceptable attire in a military aircraft? And, most notably, what exactly is a consort, and why hasn’t there been one in Thailand for almost 100 years?
First, some background. King Maha Vajiralongkorn currently has both a queen and a consort. He married Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya a few days prior to his coronation in May 2019. The king was previously married — and subsequently divorced — three times before marrying Queen Suthida. Then, two months later, King Maha Vajiralongkorn named General Sineenat his official consort. Now, thanks to the newly released images and biography, the public is learning a bit more about her.
According to her official royal bio, General Sineenat was born on January 26th, 1985 in the northern Thai province of Nan. She graduated from the Army Nursing College in 2008, and has completed several military courses, in areas such as jungle warfare, combat, night parachuting, as well as training to be a private pilot.
The term “consort” can, in some contexts, simply mean the spouse of a reigning monarch. However, according to Tamara Loos, Ph.D., professor of history and Asian studies at Cornell University, in the Thai monarchy it refers to one type of wife in a historical system that included both queens and consorts in a polygynous relationship with the king.
“If you just go back about a hundred years or more, polygyny performed a political function,” Loos tells Rolling Stone, referring to the type of polygamy that involves a man having more than one wife. Given the expansive geography of Southeast Asia, allowing the king multiple spouses served as a way to integrate the different settlements into a kingdom. “It wasn’t about sex, it wasn’t about depravity — and I’m not saying that didn’t happen, but, it really served an important political purpose,” she says.
The last time there was a consort to serve this original political purpose was at the turn of the 20th century, during the rule of King Rama V, who had more than 150 consorts. However, technically, the last polygynous king to have an official consort was King Rama VI. According to Loos, he was rumored to be gay and married a second wife towards the end of his life and reign — both of which ended in 1925 — for the purpose of having a son to be his heir.
At this point, it is unclear what General Sineenat’s official duties as consort will be, but Loos says that her actual role matters less than the optics of releasing these photos. “He’s very boldly and publicly displaying the fact that he is a polygynous king,” she explains.
It’s also unclear why a Thai king has appointed a consort for the first time in nearly a century, but Loos points to the country’s strict lese majeste laws — draconian measures that prohibits discussing the royal family and carries a jail penalty of up to 15 years for each infraction. In other words, anyone on the inside who is privy to why the king decided to appoint a consort now would not be free to speak about it.
But what is clear is that these unusual photos of General Sineenat have been released for a reason. “The photos cover the major types of royal photography in use today,” Amanda Kennell, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor with the Asian studies program at the University at Buffalo tells Rolling Stone. “There are candid shots, which have been deployed especially well by Britain’s Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge to help citizens feel connected to their sovereigns…Coming so soon after the King bestowed her title, it is possible that the package of photographs is intended to introduce Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi to the public as a royal consort.”
Today, some Muslim kingdoms practice polygynous relationships, Loos says, but those function differently than consorts to Thai kings. And since much of the rest of the world does not operate under a system where the ruler is involved in legitimate polygynous relationships, Loos explains that King Maha Vajiralongkorn is likely doing this as a statement. “Even if he tries to argue this is part of Thai political tradition, it’s completely divorced from the function that polygyny used to serve in that tradition,” she explains.