Palace intrigue

Print edition : March 15, 2019

Candidates and officials from various political parties arrive for registration with the election commission in Bangkok on February 4. Photo: AFP

Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, the elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Photo: AP

Gen. Prayut Chan-Ocha, the Prime Minister. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Photo: AP

King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Photo: Sakchai Lalit/ AP

The Thai King bars his sister from contesting the March elections quoting royal tradition, but he does not seem to be constrained by the fact that he is only a "constitutional monarch".

THE brief cameo act by Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, the elder sister of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn, has reinvigorated politics in the country and made the outcome of the elections scheduled in March slightly less predictable. The former princess made a surprise announcement in the second week of February that she would stand for elections and would like to stake a claim for the Prime Minister’s post. Her candidature was put forward by the Thai Raksa Chart Party, one of the two parties floated to contest in the upcoming elections by Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Prime Minister and a larger-than-life figure in the country’s political arena. The second party was created as a fallback measure in case the Thai authorities sought to ban his original party, the Pheu Thai, which was in power until 2014.

When the princess made her bombshell announcement, it was initially presumed that she had done so with the blessing of the King. The siblings are known to be close. 

Thaksin was also reputedly close to the King before he ascended the throne. There was talk that the Thaksin family and the Palace had come to some sort of a political understanding to clip the wings of the dominant military faction, which has been running the country for the past five years. It was also for the first time that a senior figure from the royal family decided to enter the electoral fray. Officials of the Raksa Chart Party claim that it was the princess who had approached them and broached the idea of running for the Prime Minister’s post. 

But the Thai monarch issued a decree within 15 hours stating that members of the royal family were traditionally barred from entering politics. “Involvement of a high-ranking member of the royal family in politics, in any way, is against the royal traditions, customs and culture and is, therefore, considered improper and highly inappropriate,” the statement from the Palace said. Some Thai commentators and experts in the region say that the monarch could have been pressured into issuing the statement barring his sister from contesting. The Constitutional Court in all probability will now ban the Thai Raksa Party from contesting the elections, leaving 75 seats open for candidates supporting the military. 

The King even characterised Ubolratana Barnavadi’s move as “inappropriate” and against “royal norms”. The dutiful sister withdrew from the political fray. Thailand’s election commission followed suit, stating she would never have been allowed to run because of her royal lineage. “All royal family members are above politics and are politically neutral,” it said. “They cannot hold political office because it would be unconstitutional and against the norms of democracy with the King as head of state.” 

The princess had given up her royal titles after marrying a United States national. She returned to Thailand after divorcing her husband and went on to become one of Thailand’s most popular film stars. She is said to be the most popular member of the royal family among the Thai people. The Thai Raksa Chart Party, in a statement, said that she was chosen as the prime ministerial candidate because “she was an educated and skilled person” who was “the most suitable choice”. 

While announcing her candidature, Ubolratana Barnavadi stressed that she was well within her rights to accept the offer of becoming the candidate for Prime Minister as she had relinquished her royal status decades ago. After the statement from the royal court barring her candidature, she continued to maintain that she was a “commoner” and that she enjoyed “no privilege over the Thai people in accordance with the Constitution”. 

Supporters of Thaksin and pro-democracy activists were not happy with the abortive move to draft in a prominent scion of the royal family in the struggle to restore political pluralism in the country. Riding piggyback on a representative of the Bangkok elite to make electoral gains under the shade of the royal umbrella has not gone down well among Thais who want a return to genuine multiparty democracy, in which the Palace has a minimal role.

Since 2014, the military has been running the country after overthrowing the democratically elected government. The Army got the electoral laws rewritten to ensure that a popular electoral mandate would not automatically lead to the victor occupying the Prime Minister’s post. Under the military-drafted Constitution of 2017, the Prime Minister will be elected by members of the Lower House and an enlarged, unelected Senate. The Lower House comprises 500 elected members. The Senate will have 250 members, all of them nominated by the military junta. For the Army to have its preferred candidate as Prime Minister, it will only need minority support from the popularly elected Lower House. The Constitution allows citizens who are not Members of Parliament to become Prime Minister. The Army has imposed a 20-year strategic development plan for the country. All elected governments, irrespective of their ideology, will have to stick to the economic blueprint imposed by the junta.

Successive elections have shown that Thaksin’s popularity remains undiminished, and if given a level playing field, he will emerge as the victor in any electoral contest. Thaksin was overthrown in a military coup in 2006 and has been living in exile since then. But he has remained a key player in Thai politics. Despite the opposition from the military and the influential Bangkok elite, the party or a candidate supported by Thaksin has easily won the election. The last democratically elected government was led by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. 

The current Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the general who led the coup against the civilian government, is aiming to continue in office after the elections in March. Prayuth came to power with a promise “to worship and protect” the monarchy. Freedom of speech remains curtailed and sedition laws continue to be strenuously implemented under military rule. Hundreds of politicians and civil rights activists have been prosecuted. The King, however, has asked the military to stop misusing the lesse majeste laws. Since the beginning of 2018, there have been no arrests under this draconian law.

The new King may have different ideas and does not seem constrained by the fact that he is only a “constitutional monarch”. He forced the junta to rewrite some aspects of the Constitution to give the monarchy a greater hold on the levers of power. The King also saw to it that his confidant, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, was installed as the new chief of the armed forces in 2018. In early January, the monarch appointed Apirat to a senior position in the Crown Property Bureau, which controls property and assets worth more than $30 billion. The King decided to take full control of the institution in 2017. He spends much of his time every year in Germany. 

Supalak Ganjanakhundee, the chief editor of Thailand’s The Nation newspaper, said recently that the country was witnessing a situation “in which the military and the monarchy are in tension over who will control whom. It will take a few years for a clearer picture to emerge.” Many analysts and observers describe the situation in Thailand as “a system of military tutelage under royal command”. According to the German academic Eugenie Merieau, who has worked extensively in Thailand, the commonly held view that the military is in total control is not correct.

“In Thailand, the Army proposes and the King disposes, not the other way around,” she wrote in an opinion piece appearing in The New York Times. She pointed out that though the military nominated the 250 Senators to the Upper House, the King had the right to either approve or reject the nominations. Prior approval of the King was required for all the important steps the government wished to take. “He is entrenching through long-lasting legal changes a deep monarchical state,” Eugenie Merieau said in her article.

In the last week of January, the bodies of two activists who were close associates of Surachai Sae-Dan, a prominent opponent of the Thai monarchy, were found in a mutilated state in an isolated area of southern Thailand. They, along with Surachai, had fled to neighbouring Laos after the military coup in 2014. Surachai’s whereabouts are unknown. His supporters say that he has been either abducted or killed. Thai pro-democracy activists claim that vigilante groups sanctioned by the military government have been targeting them. Surachai, who is in his seventies, has been in jail several times for criticising the monarchy since the 1970s. The military is authorised to interrogate or detain citizens without safeguards against abuse. More than 1,800 Thais are facing prosecution in military courts. Many of them were arrested for demanding the restoration of democracy.

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