Friday, February 8, 2019 was one of the most astonishing days in Thailand’s modern political history, which has not been lacking in that regard. On that day, not one but two unprecedented events took place that electrified and then mystified the country, the whole country, not only those who pay attention to political nuances.
In the morning, the Thai Raksa Chart political party (meaning, I believe, “Thai Saving the Nation”) – heavily backed by populist billionaire Taksin Shinawatra, former Prime Minister of Thailand and his sister Yingluck, another former PM both elected with large majorities supported by farmers, laborers and “common folks” – announced that they were nominating Ubolrat (Princess Ubolratana Mahidol ) as their candidate for Prime Minister in the national election for members of parliament on March 24. Until that announcement, it was assumed that the current PM would be nominated, and with his military and royal connections he would win sufficient votes to form the new “democratic” government to follow the one he has led as PM for the last four years as head of a military junta that took over Yingluck’s office “to restore peace and order.” It would be more of the same, tied up with a new ribbon. But Ubolrat’s candidacy changed everything.
Suddenly she was the front-runner, and the Shinawatra clan was back on stage, even with its two former PMs in self-imposed exile to avoid imprisonment for “abuse of power” charges brought to strangle their political influence and possibly take over their billions. People understood this move against them was very political, rather than a matter of justice.
Ubolrat was an astounding surprise. People all over the country were talking about it by noon. It was a game changer. It meant, it seemed, that the political process would be opened up again after the imposed restrictions manipulated by the current PM and the junta. She would win, of course, but that would be just the beginning of exciting days ahead.
However, she was a surprising candidate because she is the oldest child of the late King of Thailand and the older sister of the current King. Royalty in Thailand are prevented, under the terms of the constitutional monarchy provisions, from being involved in politics. Ubolrat, responded early Friday afternoon to the current PM’s party saying that she was ineligible to run in the election, by pointing out that she had resigned her royal titles in 1979 when she married an American whom she had met in Massachusetts Institute of Technology when they were both students there. They had three children, one of whom perished in the tsunami in 2004 on the day after Christmas. She announced on Twitter that she was no longer a princess, but was a common citizen under the law.
Nobody thought for a minute that she would have entered the race for Prime Minister without her brother’s endorsement. Since he ascended the throne at the death of his father in October 2016 he has personalized and consolidated his power, taking over the royal treasury, gaining a palace military guard of more than 5000, and taking charge of vast royal properties which he is in the process of redeveloping. Ubolrat and the King are thought to be close. She would not have dared enter politics without his backing.
But hours later on the same day all TV programming stopped so that a palace announcement could be made which renounced Ubolrat’s plan on the basis that although she may have resigned her royal titles, she was in no sense a commoner. She was still a beloved member of the royal family. Moreover, she had been performing royal duties on the same basis as her brother and sisters since she had returned to Thailand in 2001. In the eyes of the country she is royal and the traditions of royalty in Thailand apply to her. All members of the royal family are above public criticism, and therefore her participation in political office would distort normal political debates and activities. So, her candidacy “is highly inappropriate,” the palace announcement said. That announcement was in the name of the King.
For the first time in modern memory a reigning Thai monarch had publically, officially rebuked a sibling. Rumors of previous fussing within the family have circulated, but they were rumors and this was unique.
There has not yet been a clear explanation as to why the King apparently rescinded his agreement with his sister, if there had been one. Perhaps there has been a change in military power at the top, with the new ruling generals not wanting the campaign against the Shinawatra clan to end? The vendetta would have ended if she became PM at the head of the clan’s political party.
In the next few days there was a scramble to regain composure. Thai Raksa Chart withdrew the nomination. Ubolrat explained her desire remains to help the country (but not as Prime Minister, after all). Top military leaders (without any of the junta leaders or the present PM) gathered for a conference with the King, who happens to be in Munich at this time, where he resides when he is not in Thailand. The Election Commission published its list of verified candidates for the coming election, without Ubolrat’s name on the list. Election posters are going up all over the place. Most of the military are busy with joint Thai-USA training exercises called Cobra Gold, which explains their busyness and troop movements as benign.
For a day Thailand’s political future looked exciting.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.