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Secret American Marriage Could Blow Up Thai Royal Succession

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

The Thai royal family could be thrown into a succession crisis because the hot favorite to become the next king married an American woman, according to records reviewed by The Daily Beast. Marriage to a foreign citizen is a bar to taking the throne under Thai law.

The couple also have two children, who are U.S. citizens, which would further complicate the succession plan as they would not be able to inherit the throne and thus hurl the scandal-hit Thai royal family into yet more uncertainty.

The Daily Beast has learned that Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse, nicknamed Vach (pronounced ‘Vatch’), is being pursued for $94,000 in unpaid credit card charges by American Express and is being sued for 2.55 million Canadian dollars (U.S. $1.88 million) in a dispute with a law firm.

These are trifling sums in comparison to his father’s astonishing $40 billion fortune, which he would inherit were he to become king.

His marriage to Elisa Garafano, a civil servant in White Plains, New York, makes Vach, a lawyer, vulnerable to attempts to usurp his position as crown prince-apparent, however. He has told friends that he is now divorced from Garafano, which would make him eligible for the throne, but the alleged divorce is not a matter of public record and he did not repeat that claim to The Daily Beast, saying only that divorce proceedings were underway.

The Daily Beast understands that Garafano did file for divorce, under seal. But two sources said that she suspended the divorce proceedings she initiated, and has told allies that they are not divorced and wants to be recognized along with her children.

Sources say that Vach, 42, has sworn loyalty to Garafano and his children and regards the Cape-style brick house in Mount Vernon as their family home.

A source who knows the family said: “Vach is still married to Elisa and they do still live together, but he very much wants to keep that fact, and the fact of their children, secret because of the impact it would have on his ambition to win the throne.”

The current king, the violent and mercurial Maha Vajiralongkorn, became the oldest monarch ever to ascend to the Thai throne in 2016 at the age of 64. His reign has been plagued by rumors of ill-health, adding a great sense of urgency to the search for his successor.

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Vach’s marriage has not been reported on in fawning coverage of him by the Thai media. This is hardly unexpected as it is illegal to criticize the monarchy in Thailand, with offenders often thrown in jail for breaking strict lèse-majesté rules. More surprisingly, however, his marriage has also not been reported on by mainstream media overseas, including the BBC and CNN, in recent profiles of Vach.

A second source told The Daily Beast: “Vach and Elisa were openly married for years, but since he started competing for the throne he began trying to keep it hidden, and has told people he is now divorced, even in public comments on social media.”

The source added: “Elisa insists they are still married.”

Records from Westchester County, just north of New York City, show that matrimonial actions, including the filing of the type of forms used when minor children are involved in a divorce, were filed, but under seal. The actions were subsequently discontinued.

Garafano declined to comment but Vach told The Daily Beast, via email, “Action for divorce was filed and was not withdrawn.”

When The Daily Beast asked whether this meant he conceded that any divorce was not settled, and that he was still legally married to Elisa, Vach responded: “I am not conceding anything. I have no further comments on the intricacies of my private life and family arrangements. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have an ideal family situation.”

Vach told The Daily Beast that he was no longer living at their matrimonial home in a modest suburb of New York City, saying he had moved into a separate apartment, and sharing a screenshot of an email he said was from a broker congratulating him on the rental.

Public records, however, suggest that Vach is still recorded as living at the address and he answered the door when a reporter from The Daily Beast knocked at the one-story home the couple own together in Mount Vernon. Records suggest that they have lived there for at least nine years.

The house occupies a corner lot opposite far larger and grander abodes, and a sparse cedar hedge encircles the backyard. Vach declined to answer questions at the time and asked the reporter to leave, saying he was “resting.”

In an email, Vach later said: “​​I do not live with Elisa. I have another rented residence. We have a cordial relationship and I am at the address quite often. Mr. Bredderman happened to catch me while I was present at the residence for a personal errand on an afternoon when no one else was there.”

But The Daily Beast wasn’t alone in catching Vach at the house—a process server reported handing him legal papers related to the American Express lawsuit at the address in January. The signed affidavit of service filed with the court reads “identity confirmed by subject stating their name.” Legal filings show the financial giant is pursuing Vach for $94,768.83 in unpaid credit card bills.

Vach insisted to the The Daily Beast that he “was not the person that received the service of process,” adding, “Under NY law you can serve anyone at the abode, as long as it is a grown up who lives there. Being that I used to live there, I could have moved to quash service but that’s a waste of time and money.”

In early February, court records show that Vach was served again at this address with a judicial document by international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright. A summary of the document seen by The Daily Beast specified that it related to proceedings concerning allegations of “fraudulent misrepresentations and malpractice” and added that C$2,555,190.33 are being sought “for damages caused by defendant.”

When asked about the case via email, Vach replied: “There is indeed an ongoing claim by Norton Rose against me (and several other law firm defendants) in Canada over two matters on which the law firms and I advised as legal counsel from 2017-2019. This is an ongoing matter so I naturally cannot comment on it further at this stage.”

Further, public records show property tax bills are still jointly addressed to the couple at the home.

Garafano may have considerable leverage over Vach if he is indeed seeking a divorce. Section 11 of the Thai law of succession states that descendants of the royal family “shall be excluded from the line of succession” if they are “married to a foreign consort” i.e. a woman whose nationality is originally not Thai.

A woman who answered at a cell number listed for Garafano sighed and hung up when a reporter for The Daily Beast introduced themselves. She did not respond to subsequent text messages.

The current King Vajiralongkorn’s elder sister, Ubolratana, was stripped of her royal titles by their father, King Bhumibol, in 1972 because of her marriage to Peter Jensen, an American she met at MIT.

It is possible for the law to be rewritten by the king but it has been widely assumed that Vach’s older brother Juthavachara “Max” Vivacharawongse has been ruled out as a potential successor to their father because he is also married to an American woman, Riya Gough.

Vach’s emergence in recent months as the frontrunner for the throne represents an extraordinary turn of events for the second son of the present king of Thailand.

Vacharaesorn Vivacharawongse walks next to monks and people in Thailand.

Vach makes his unexpected return to Bangkok last year.

Lillian Suwanrumpha/Getty Images

As a teenager, Vach was exiled from the country after Vajiralongkorn divorced his mother, Sujarinee, who was nicknamed Benz for her love of luxury goods.

Not content with banning Vach from the country along with his four siblings, his father refused to pay his fees at the posh English school Harrow.

Vach’s half-sister from the king’s next marriage, Princess Bajrakitiyabha, was ultimately installed as heir apparent instead of him after a series of feuds in the court of Thailand’s royal family.

But everything changed in December 2022 when Bajrakitiyabha was struck down by what is thought to have been a massive brain aneurysm while out walking her dog. She is now widely believed to be in an irreversible somatic coma, although the palace has not confirmed this.

A few months later, Vach arrived at Bangkok airport after an absence of almost three decades. He was feted by the state-allied media and was soon being openly talked about as the new heir apparent, with reports of ordinary Thais weeping at the possibility of a liberal, progressive, American-educated monarch succeeding the regressive proto-medievalism of King Vajiralongkorn’s reign.

Vajiralongkorn’s dramatic embrace of the reforming Vach was seen in some quarters as an attempt to head off growing anti-monarchy sentiment.

In May last year, an anti-establishment and anti-royal political party, Move Forward, won a sweeping electoral victory, on a ticket of reining in the vast power of the royal family, fuelled in part by the information vacuum around the succession, as well as a half-decade of stories about the king’s excesses and eccentricities.

The eye-watering tales included the king buying a fleet of 38 jets for his personal use and renting out entire floors of German hotels for months on end to house his multiple wives and concubines.

The Thai monarch’s vast wealth stems from the fact that, in 2018, the country’s entire sovereign wealth fund (estimated at $40 billion at the time) was effectively transferred to the king’s personal control.

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The king’s riches have done little to endear him with his countrymen, nor have extraordinary stories about his personal life and rage-fuelled tantrums, including persistent rumors that he is dying of HIV-related illnesses, and the allegation that he broke his sister’s ankles by jumping on her legs after she failed to approach him by crawling on her belly as custom dictates.

It was hardly a great shock when the Move Forward party won 151 out of 500 seats in the House of Representatives last year, and subsequently put together a pro-reform coalition of 312 seats. Equally unsurprising was that the 250-seat senate, stuffed with royal and military appointees, refused to confirm Move Forward’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, as prime minister, installing a conservative instead.

Time magazine reports that a top court in Thailand has now ordered the Move Forward Party to cease all attempts to amend the country’s stringent royal insult law, a centerpiece of its reformist agenda that helped lead it to electoral success.

If Vach is knocked out of the game of thrones, attention will turn to his three male full siblings, but there will be problems with installing any one of them as heir apparent.

Max, who works in the aviation industry, has the same American wife issue.

Vach is the second son. A third brother Chakriwat, aka “Ong,” is much liked, but suffers from a genetic condition, type II neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors in the brain, spinal cord and nervous system. He has extremely poor hearing and a slightly unusual appearance as a result. He visited Thailand in 2023 with Vach, and is thought to also fancy his chances as monarch.

The youngest son, Vatchrawee, is thought to have little chance of succeeding.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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