Royal interventions rock and roil Thai politics
Shawn W. Crispin, Bangkok/Asia Times
A wild and woolly 24-hour period saw a royal princess bid to win the premiership and her kingly younger brother deem the move as ‘inappropriate’
In an unusual intervention in politics, Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn said in a televised address on late Friday (February 8) night that he deemed his elder princess sister’s bid to become prime minister “inappropriate” and counter constitutional provisions that hold the monarchy above politics.
Vajiralongkorn’s firm royal announcement is expected to end Ubolratana Rajakanya’s short-lived bid to win the premiership under a newly formed party aligned with self-exiled, criminally convicted ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
On Saturday (February 9) morning, Ubolratana posted an Instagram message that thanked “all Thais” for their “love and kindness” and “moral support.” The message did not overtly withdraw her candidacy or mention her brother’s message, saying only she wished “to see Thailand move forward to be admired and accepted by the international community.”
The Election Commission must rule on all prime ministerial candidates’ eligibility by February 15.
Ubolratana set Thailand’s political scene ablaze on Friday morning by announcing her candidacy, the first time a royal family member had sought public office since the kingdom became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
Her announcement came the same day as coup-maker Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha announced his candidacy under the newly formed Palang Pracharat party, widely seen as a proxy for his ruling junta to maintain its political role after March 24 elections.
The competing announcements, at least symbolically, unprecedentedly put the military and a royal family member in direct competition for political power. Prayut’s May 2014 coup ousted another Thaksin-aligned party, Peua Thai, and ended a decade of revolving and destabilizing political street protests.One official source claims Ubolratana’s candidacy announcement caught Prayut, a staunch royalist who has presided over a smooth royal transition from deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej to Vajiralongkorn, off-guard. His advisors were trying to confirm the rumors as late as Thursday night, while putting the finishing touches on his candidacy announcement.
One official source who requested anonymity told Asia Times that Vajiralongkorn had previously given his blessing to Prayut to seek the premiership at the polls, thus underscoring his camp’s surprise about Ubolratana’s entry into the electoral race. The source said Prayut was “miffed” by the announcement.
It was unclear to most until Friday’s televised royal announcement if the monarch tacitly supported Ubolratana’s bid to enter politics under a party aligned with Prayut’s and the junta’s sworn enemies, Thaksin, Peua Thai and their aligned Red Shirt protest group. His stern speech on Friday night made it clear to most that that was not the case.Some interpreted the princess’ entry into politics as a royal bid to forge unity between polarized political camps before the elections, with an eye towards the creation of a royally endorsed national unity government that reconciles deeply held political differences through a shared loyalty to the crown.Her announcement had the opposite effect in cyber realms. Social media was abuzz with proliferating anti-monarchy, and specifically anti-Ubolratana materials, in the immediate aftermath of her surprise candidacy announcement.
Many on the nation’s “Yellow” side of the political divide that reviles Thaksin and his political camp posted messages claiming that the princess wouldn’t have dared such a move under Bhumibol, while eulogizing and yearning for the widely revered deceased king who passed away in October 2016. The social media deluge died down soon after Vajiralongkorn’s speech, analysts and officials noted.
Ubolratana’s candidacy announcement had aimed to portray the princess as a commoner that sought to exercise her political rights and leverage her years of experience abroad to lead the country. The announcement noted how she personally worked to put herself through college and graduate school in America, with the subtext she had been cut off from the royal purse.
It thus came to certain officials attention recent meetings Ubolratana held with the self-exiled Thaksin overseas, including in the United Kingdom where he maintains posh residences in London and Birmingham. The princess also met with the ex-premier in Hong Kong in December, according to one informed source.Earlier many anticipated those officially unannounced meetings aimed to keep Thaksin engaged and quiescent under the military’s heavy-handed rule while Vajiralongkorn consolidated his new reign. Few foresaw at the time that the two were most likely negotiating her entry into politics under one of the ex-premier’s aligned proxy parties.
Thaksin is banned by the Election Commission from any involvement with political parties, including Peua Thai and Thai Raksa Chart, and has consistently denied any association or control over them. The EC previously threatened to dissolve Peua Thai when its members met the ex-premier overseas.Much of the social media deluge before Vajiralongkorn’s clarifying announcement expressed conservative fears that an Ubolratana-led government would angle to pardon and rehabilitate Thaksin, bringing him back to the kingdom as a free man.