The personal Boeing 737 of Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has been impounded at Munich airport by liquidators trying to recover debts owed to collapsed German construction conglomerate Walter Bau AG. The plane was seized due to a financial claim against the Thai state – and specifically the Department of Highways – and does not involve a personal debt owed by the crown prince. However, liquidators for the German firm impounded the plane on Tuesday in an aggressive move to embarrass Thailand into paying up.
The debt relates to Walter Bau’s 10 percent stake in the Don Muang Tollway Co, which built and operated the elevated highway from central Bangok to the Thai capital’s old international airport. Walter Bau went bankrupt in 2005 and liquidators trying to recover funds for the firm’s creditors pursued a claim against Thailand for changing terms of the contract to build the highway and for refusing to allow increases in the toll payable by vehicles using the road, which rendered the project unprofitable. In 2009, an international arbitration tribunal ordered Thailand to pay 29.2 million euros compensation plus 1.98 million euros in partial costs for breaching the contract: the full decision, and the tortured history of the troubled Don Muang Tollway project can be read here; it’s an all-too-familiar saga of official incompetence and corruption. The arbitration panel found in particular that a toll reduction announced by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2004 breached the terms of the agreement with Walter Bau. When the tribunal decision was announced, then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the Thai government did not accept it, and vowed to fight it by doing what Thai politicians almost always do when faced with a problem – setting up a committee to bury the issue in interminable bureaucracy. Transport Minister Sophon Zarum accused the German company of “dirty tricks”.
With the compensation ordered by the tribunal still unpaid, Augsburg auditor Werner Schneider, who is the insolvency administrator for Walter Bau, decided to seek the seizure of the plane to use as leverage to force Thailand to come up with the money. His spokesman has confirmed the plane has been impounded; a report on the story can also be found on the Financial Times Deutschland website. The Financial Times says the seizure of the plane had to be planned carefully as the prince had flown around a variety of German airports in recent weeks including Dresden, Saarbrücken, Nuremberg and Berlin-Tegel; it adds that Vajiralongkorn recently visited a Dresden porcelain factory with an entourage of 40 people. He was not warned in advance about the seizure of the plane. the Financial Times reports.
As Eric G. John, former U.S. ambassador to Thailand, wrote in a secret diplomatic cable in November 2009, Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time in Germany:
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has spent most (up to 75%) of the past two years based in Europe (primarily at a villa at a medicinal spa 20km outside of Munich), with his leading mistress and beloved white poodle Fufu. Vajiralongkorn is believed to be suffering from a blood-related medical condition… His current (third) wife Srirasmi and 4 year old son… known as Ong Ti, reside in his Sukhothai Palace in Bangkok, but when Vajiralongkorn travels back to Bangkok, he stays with his second mistress in the retrofitted Air Force VIP lounge at Wing Six, Don Muang Airport (note: both mistresses are Thai Airways stewardesses; the Crown Prince has shifted from flying F5s to Thai Airways Boeings and Airbuses in recent years. End note). Long known for violent and unpredictable mood swings, the Crown Prince has few people who have stayed long in his inner circle.
The prince pilots his personal 737 in his trips between Thailand and Germany: it appears regularly on planespotter websites.
Given Vajiralongkorn’s reputation for violent rages, it is likely that Thai and German officials are scrambling to resolve the situation. The prince has a history of diplomatic disasters. In September 1987, he made a state visit to Japan. Ahead of the trip, he demanded that his then-mistress accompany him in an official capacity instead of his wife; the Japanese refused for reasons of protocol. Once he arrived, things went from bad to worse, as Barbara Crosette reported in the New York Times:
A diplomatic storm blew up between Tokyo and Bangkok over what Thai-language newspapers reported as “slights” to the Crown Prince, a pilot and army major general who commands his own regiment, during an official visit to Japan.
A Japanese chauffeur driving the Thai Prince’s car apparently stopped at a motorway tollbooth to relieve himself – Japanese officials say the man felt ill and had to be replaced. On other occasions, the Prince was said to have been given an inappropriate chair to sit on and to have been forced to reach down to the floor to pick up a cord to unveil a memorial. The prince came home three days earlier than scheduled, leaving a diplomatic crisis in his wake.
The prince got his revenge nine years later, in 1996, as Paul Handley writes in The King Never Smiles, his pioneering academic biography of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej:
On March 1-2, Thailand hosted the leaders of Asian and European nations for an inaugural summit meeting. It was a great status-booster for Thailand, and the king put on a grand reception for visiting presidents and premiers. The prince gave Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto another kind of welcome. When Hashimoto’s Boeing 747 landed at Don Muang airport on February 28, before it reached the red carpet for disembarkation, the jet was blocked very publicly by three F-5 fighter jets led by the crown prince himself. Photographers at the arrival point were forced to put down their cameras as the prince held the Japanese delegation hostage on the tarmac for twenty minutes before breaking away. The prince was apparently avenging his alleged mistreatment on his Japan visit in 1987. As then, the Thai and Japanese governments were both hugely embarrassed, and the Japanese diplomatically let the incident stand without protest or comment.
Another leaked U.S. cable says a planned trip to China by Vajiralongkorn in 2007 had to be shelved due to his demands for special treatment:
A planned visit by the Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to take place early this year has been postponed…. The crown prince was “angry” that he was refused his request for “special VIP treatment” while visiting China. This would have been his first trip to the PRC; his sister, Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, visited China a number of times and speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese.
The prince will undoubtedly regard the seizing of his plane as an unprecedented outrage. The question now is how he reacts, and how quickly Thai officials can fix the mess.