Analysis: Thailand politics in unprecedented territory, as King lambastes ‘highly inappropriate’ move to make sister PM

Thailand King Maha Vajiralongkorn in 2018. Photo: Panupong Changchai / Thai News Pix / AFP

Thailand’s powerful King Maha Vajiralongkorn late Friday described an unprecedented move to make his older sister Princess Ubolratana prime minister as “highly inappropriate” and against “royal traditions”.

Ubolratana, 67, the older sister of Vajiralongkorn, was announced hours earlier as a candidate in the upcoming elections for the Thai Raksa Chart party, which is steered by the divisive Shinawatra political clan.

Her shock entrance into frontline Thai politics was a first by a member of the powerful royal family and promised to reshape the political landscape of the country.

But a late-night statement from the palace left no doubt over the King’s displeasure at the move.

“The king and royal family exist in a status above politics,” said the statement, published in the Royal Gazette and given blanket television coverage.

The statement did not criticize Ubolratana, instead praising her public work.

But it appeared aimed at those behind her sudden stride into politics.

“To bring a senior royal family member into the political system in any way is against royal traditions and the nation’s culture… which is highly inappropriate.”

In a day of high drama, junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha also declared his candidacy for premier, running for the pro-military Phalang Pracharat party, moments after the princess’s announcement.

Election authorities have a week to review which candidates put up by each party are allowed to run for premier after the March 24 poll.

Political drama

Ubolratana’s candidacy had electrified the build-up to the election, which has long seemed poised to return the ruling junta and its proxies to power.

Her involvement gave a royal sheen to the political machine of Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled billionaire whose parties have won every election since 2001.

The princess, who gave up her royal titles to marry a foreigner, took to Instagram earlier Friday to say she was allowed to run under the constitution as a “commoner” had “allowed Thai Raksa Chart Party to use” her name.

The party falls under the tutelage of Thaksin, who stands at the heart of Thailand’s bitter political schism — loathed by the army and Bangkok elite, yet adored by the rural poor for health, welfare and education schemes.

The announcement appeared set to thrust him back onto the center stage of Thailand’s political drama.

He was toppled in a 2006 coup, while his sister Yingluck was booted from power in a 2014 military takeover and forced into exile to avoid a jail term.

The King’s intervention has cast Thaksin’s future role in politics into doubt.

Colorful royal

Ubolratana, a colourful, public-facing royal in contrast to her more restrained brother King Maha Vajiralongkorn, relinquished her royal titles after marrying the American Peter Jensen in 1972.

But the couple divorced and she moved back to Thailand where she is still considered part of the royal family.

In Thailand, she experienced tragedy, losing her autistic son Poom to the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Known to the public for lead roles in Thai films, onstage singing performances, a vibrant fashion sense and a sizeable Instagram following, Ubolratana is the first-born child of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The stride into politics by a royal left Thais scrambling to work out what it may mean for the nation’s tattered democracy.

“This is quite unprecedented and nobody is prepared for this,” Professor Anusorn Unno of Thammasat University told AFP.”I don’t think it’s the victory for the people, I think this is part of the adaptation of the ruling elite in terms of changing the landscape of politics.”

How is the junta affected?

The moment the princess entered the fray, for the Thai Raksa Chart party, junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha looked to be on the ropes.

He agreed to be a candidate for premier shortly after her, in a move putting him in direct rivalry with a member of the institution he seized power vowing to defend.

But the statement late Friday from the palace condemned the move, dimming the prospects of her running.

That would put Prayut back in the driver’s seat.

“She supported Thaksin and wanted to participate in politics,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University. “He (the king) was against regal involvement in elections.”

Election Authorities have a week to review which candidates are allowed to stand for prime minister after the March 24 vote.

How will this affect Thailand’s political divides?

For the princess, coming out on the side of the Shinawatras will further complicate Thailand’s troubled politics, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.

“Thai politics has been drawn along the monarchy fault line and the latest move has further deepened that line.”

Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932.

Some initially viewed Ubolratana’s entry as deft political strategy by Thaksin and a sign of a backroom deal to revive his political fortunes.

But the palace statement casts serious doubt on the efficacy of Thaksin’s strategy.

Does the princess have a background in politics?

Her experience is limited, but the Shinawatras have a deep pool of political know-how.

Thaksin and his sister Yingluck were both ousted in military coups, in 2006 and 2014 respectively. Still, their parties have won every election since 2001.

Ubolratana is well-known among the Thai public, having appeared in movies, stage performances and maintaining an active, vibrant social media presence.

“I feel great. And I think she’s a suitable choice,” Thai homemaker Nirinsiri Chanboriboon, 41, told AFP after the announcement of her candidacy earlier Friday.

But she is still untested politically and Thai social media was full of scepticism over the move — with many unsure what to make of it.

The monarchy is revered in Thailand, and is protected by some of the harshest lese majeste laws in the world.

Story by Aidan Jones / Sippachai Kunnawong / AFP

 

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