This Week in Asia

Thailand's Princess Ubolratana is an election game-changer - but don't write off the junta just yet

Thailand's Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, who on Friday caused a political earthquake by announcing her candidacy for prime minister, is unique among the kingdom's deified monarchs: she holds no royal title, had a career as an actress and is an avid social media user.

Her foray into politics in alignment with the Shinawatra clan has shocked the nation " no royal has made such a move since absolute monarchy ended in 1932.

The elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn could, however, emerge as a unifying figure to end two decades of turmoil between pro-royalist urban elites and the powerful Shinawatra clan backed by the rural masses.

The development stunned even the most seasoned watchers of Thai politics, which has had its fair share of twist and turns, with 12 successful coups over the last century. Two of those were in the last decade, against Shinawatra governments.

"To be honest, I am flummoxed. This is a real shock," said Kevin Hewison, an Australian political scientist who has studied Thai politics for four decades.

In light of the speculation the move may have been endorsed by Maha Vajiralongkorn, Hewison said "guesses will be that the king has moved further away" from junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha.

"I'd like to exercise my rights and freedoms as a citizen under the constitution. The [nomination] is my demonstration of my rights, without any special treatment under the constitution," she said.

The junta staged the most recent coup in 2014 in the name of the palace, and the ruling generals have long presented themselves as the guardians of the monarchy amid the country's political turmoil.

Commonly referred to as "Above One's Head" or Toon Kra Mom " a moniker of endearment " Ubolratana is the firstborn child of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the late king who reigned for 70 years before his death in 2016.

Like her father, the princess enjoyed sailing and the duo won a gold medal in the sport at the 1967 Southeast Asian Games.

Upon graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973 with a degree in biochemistry, Ubolratana married US national Peter Jensen and moved to San Diego to raise her family. That decision coincided with her relinquishing almost all her royal titles.

Jansen and Ubolratana had three children: Ployplayin, Poom and Sirikitya.

After her marriage broke down in the late 1990s, Ubolratana filed for divorce and went back to Thailand in 2001.

She returned just as the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra swept to power as prime minister after contesting elections on a platform promising widespread reforms and a war against corruption.

King Mahavajiralongkorn. Photo: EPA

Upon her permanent return, Ubolratana was handed the title "Tunkramom Ying", meaning Daughter to the Queen Regent.

The 2000s were highly eventful for Ubolratana. She launched a career as an actress " starring in television dramas including one co-starring Hong Kong actor Shawn Yue. She also faced tragedy after the 2004 Asian tsunami claimed the life of her son, Poom.

While reviled by the urban elite " and reportedly by some within the royal court " Thaksin, the populist prime minister, maintained strong ties with Ubolratana. Now in exile along with his sister Yingluck, also a former premier, Thaksin was spotted with Ubolratana at last year's World Cup in Russia. Reportedly, Ubolratana has also visited Thaksin in Britain.

Hewison said Ubolratana had in the past shown "red proclivities" " or an inclination to support Thaksin's "red shirts"" which links back to previous suggestions that the ousted prime minister had better ties with the royal court than has been made out in public.

Former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Photo: AFP

"All this is supposition and guessing, but that's how it is with the royal family," he said.

The Thai Raksa Chart party nominated Ubolratana as its prime ministerial candidate " a requirement ahead of the March 24 vote. The party is widely seen as a proxy of the Shinawatras.

The clan's main party is the Pheu Thai party, which Yingluck helmed from 2011 until 2014, when current junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha led a coup against her government after street protests led by anti-Shinawatra "yellow shirts" overran Bangkok.

There was no immediate reaction to the princess's announcement by Prayuth or the leaders of the "yellow shirts".

In a post on Instagram, Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya said: "I have given up my title and am now living as a citizen. Therefore, I'd like to exercise by rights and freedoms as a citizen under the constitution."

Ubolratana uses Instagram. Her account, with the handle @nichax, is private but has nearly 100,000 followers.

On Friday, hundreds of people took to the social media platform to congratulate her.

"I'm happy to hear this news, the new and fresh beginning for all Thais," wrote one Instagram user.

"It's true at last. I am crying," wrote another user.

In a post made after the announcement, Ubolratana thanked Thai people for supporting her political ambitions, and signalled her intention to act for "the betterment of the country".

"I want to see all of us have an opportunity, have the right to have an opportunity and happiness in our country. I'd like to say that I have given up my title and am now living as a citizen," she wrote.

"Therefore, I'd like to exercise by rights and freedoms as a citizen under the constitution. I have agreed for Thai Raksa Chart party to nominate me, which is my demonstration of my rights and freedoms, without any exclusivity according to the constitution. I act according to my sincerity and intention to sacrifice and call for the betterment of the country."

Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Photo: Reuters

She has previously used the platform to discuss Bangkok's smog problem and one of her pet projects " fighting drug use in the kingdom.

In January, one post that caught the eye of the local media was a video of the princess performing body percussions on herself to a song composed by her father.

Local observers say her approachable manner is in contrast to the more aloof conventions of the country's monarchs.

The longer-term question " if the Shinawatra faction triumphs in the election and she becomes prime minister " is whether the blurring of lines between palace and parliament will be the panacea to the country's long-running power struggle.

Also in contention is whether the country's strict lese-majeste laws " which forbid commentary about the royals " will apply to Ubolratana if she becomes premier.

Hewison said: "Interesting questions arise: Ubolratana has a royal title but that is not a 'princess of the line' title, which she gave up in 1972. Can anyone criticise her if she gets the job? [And] is this a palace attempt to control everything?"

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Photo: Reuters

As for Prayuth, until Friday seen as a shoo-in to be the post-election prime minister, analysts say it is not curtains yet " as some have implied on social media.

Observers say the odds are stacked against him if the choice of prime minister " to be picked by 500 elected lawmakers and 250 junta-appointed senators " is between the general and the princess.

He has a glimmer of hope after a loyalist, Paiboon Nititawan, filed a request with the election commission to review whether the princess's candidacy breached rules barring the use of the monarchy in campaigning.

Even if Ubolratana does become premier, it is unlikely Prayuth "would ever be completely thrown under the bus," said Thai politics researcher James Buchanan.

"One scenario for Prayuth is that he would be forced to meekly campaign against the princess, then almost certainly lose, and then be given a seat on the privy council," Buchanan said.

Thailand-based political analyst Paul Chambers dismissed the prospect of the military " for decades front and centre of politics " being "hurt" by the princess's political intervention. He said the specific faction of Prayuth and his top lieutenant Prawit Wongsuwon, the Burapapayak (Eastern Tigers), may be hurt.

But the "pro-king" Wongthewan (King's Guard) faction "benefits from [Ubolratana's] intercession", said Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University's College of Asean Community Studies.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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