The future Queen Sirikit was born on 12 August 1932 as the daughter of Prince Nakkhatra Mangkala Kitiyakara and Mom Luang Bua Snidvongs at the home of her maternal grandfather. She had two elder brothers, Mom Rajawongse Kalyanakit Kitiyakara (1929-1987) and Mom Rajawongse Adulakit Kitiyakara (1930-2004) and a younger sister, Mom Rajawongse Busba Kitiyakara (1934). The title of Mom Rajawongse is translated as The Honourable and is granted to children of a male carrying the Mom Chao style, meaning Serene Highness. Her grandfather Kitiyakara Voralaksana, Prince of Chanthaburi I was the 12th son of King Chulalongkorn, also known as King Rama V. Sirikit grew up in the Deves Palace, near the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.
From the age of four, she attended the Kindergarten College at Rajini School. During the Pacific War, she moved to the Saint Francis Xavier Convent School which was nearer to the palace. At the end of the war, she and her family moved to the United Kingdom because her father was appointed as ambassador. Sirikit became fluent in England and French. Because of her father’s work, they moved around a lot, and it was in France that she met her future husband, the young King Bhumibol Adulyadej (also known as King Rama IX) of Thailand. Sirikit was studying to become a pianist in France, and she was still only 15 years old. Nevertheless, Sirikit accompanied Bhumibol as he visited tourist attractions in Paris.
A short while later, Bhumibol was involved in a serious car accident in which he injured his back and cost him most of the sight in one eye. During his time in the hospital, Sirikit visited him often and eventually, he asked her mother if she could study closer to him so they could get to know each other better. Sirikit moved into a boarding school in Lausanne. Their engagement was announced on 19 July 1949. Sirikit later recalled their first meeting for the BBC: “It was hate at first sight… because he said he would arrive at four o’clock in the afternoon. He arrived at seven o’clock, kept me standing there, practising curtsey, and curtsey. But the next time, it was love…”
They were married the following year on 28 April 1950 at the Srapathum Palace. Sirikit was not yet 18 years old, and her parents also signed the marriage certificate. On 5 May 1950, her husband had his coronation, and Sirikit received the title of Somdet Phra Borommarachini. Following a short honeymoon at Hua Hin, the newlyweds returned to Switzerland to continue their education.
Their first child was born in Lausanne on 5 April 1951, and she was named Princess Ubol Ratana. By the time of the birth of their second child, they were back in Thailand. The future King Maha Vajiralongkorn (or King Rama X) was born on 28 July 1952. Their popularity increased without them even trying. Two more daughters followed, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn was born in 1955, and Princess Chulabhorn Walailak was born in 1957. In 1956, King Bhumibol became a monk for a short period, and during this time Sirikit acted as regent.
In 1966, the family spent several weeks in England, living in the London mansion of the Maharajah of Jaipur. They went sailing, and the Bhumibol studied the painting at the British Museum. During an interview with ABC, Sirikit brushed off comparisons to Jaqueline Kennedy. But as imagines of this holiday appeared to show the perfect royal family, the situation in Thailand was at odds with the reality at home. Much of the country had not seen a lot of progress since the Second World War, and poverty was widespread. Sirikit was constantly in the Thai media and was portrayed as the model wife and mother, but in reality, their children were raised by others. Vajiralongkorn could not tie his own shoelaces at the age of 12 because they were always tied for him. Also, despite Sirikit being just 25 years old, Chulabhorn was her last child. Though a decent size for a modern family, it was a far cry from his grandfather’s 77 children from 92 consorts. If there were physical difficulties, they were not publicly revealed, but the court would undoubtedly have objected to Sirikit deciding it herself. Thai culture would have accepted Bhumibol having several wives, but he never married more than once. He may have had some discrete affairs – some rumours even suggest that he was the father of Sirikit’s sister Busba’s daughter.
By the early 1970s, the prestige of the dynasty itself was at stake. Their only son Vajiralongkorn had not inherited his parents’ charm and diplomatic skills and was disliked, but the Palace Law of Succession 1924 allowed only male descendants of King Chulalongkorn by his official Queens to ascend the throne. There was no viable back-up for Vajiralongkorn. Allowing a female successor would solve this problem and would make their eldest popular daughter Ubol Ratana second in line. However, she began dating an American classmate named Peter Jensen, and both Bhumibol and Sirikit tried to block their relationship. When she announced her intention to marry Peter Jensen, Bhumibol stripped her of her title, and she did not return to Thailand for eight years. The following change in law added that, in the absence of a Prince, the national assembly may select a daughter of the King. When Bhumibol fell ill in 1975, combined with an insurgency, worries about the succession and frustration with capitalism, things all fell apart. He and Sirikit turned to a violent conservatism that ultimately led to the Thammasat massacre.
Student protesters had staged a mock hanging of Prince Vajiralongkorn and the following day military and police surrounded the university. Just before dawn, the attack on the students began, and the result was carnage. Students who dove into the river to escape were shot by navy vessels. Those who surrendered were beaten, often to death. Some were burned alive. Female students were raped – alive or dead. Officially there were 46 fatalities – but survivors say that the number is well over 100. The government justified the attack as protecting the monarchy and the lèse-majesté laws became even stricter.1