The sudden entry today (Feb.8) of Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, the 67-year-old elder sister of King Vajiralongkorn, into Thai politics, with the announcement that she would head the Thai Raksa Chart Party, is almost certain to bring Thaksin Shinawatra, the country’s wiliest politician, back to the center of power, to the utter dismay of the military which has run the country since a 2014 coup.
The election, scheduled for March 24, was widely expected to leave the country in the hands of the junta even though opposition parties were believed capable of winning a plurality in the lower house of the parliament, despite an electorate largely fed up with the military’s stewardship of the country and by ostentatious displays of corruption on the part of the generals.
Nonetheless, a rigged constitution promulgated by the military was designed to keep Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup that ended parliamentary democracy, in power. It was assumed that even the opposition won a plurality, the 250-member upper house, made up of junta appointees, would add their votes to sympathizers in the 500-member lower house keep him in power.
Ubolratana’s appearance on the scene is almost certain to upend the junta’s plans unless Prayuth can pull some as-yet unimaginable rabbit out of his hat. Her presence at the head of Thai Raksa Chart Thai presents Prayuth with an enormous problem of running against the royal family in a country where arguably the world’s stiffest lèse-majesté laws make any criticism of the monarchy virtually impossible without daring long prison sentences.
Thaksin, described as a “businessman, politician, visiting professor and fugitive from Thai justice,” served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006 before being deposed. He became phenomenally popular through a series of social uplift programs for the country’s poor that were designed to reduce poverty, expand infrastructure promote small business and provide universal health care coverage, which earned him the enmity of the political and business elite in Bangkok.
He was also the author of a “drug war” that took the lives of 2,800 supposed drug users – many of whom were found to be merely people the police wanted to get rid of – that has been copied and multiplied with ghastly results by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Thaksin has disappeared repeatedly but has always been there if invisible. He earned enough enmity on the part of the elites by changing the political equation in Bangkok that he was deposed via military coup in 2006 despite his popularity with the poor, his party was banned, and he was barred from politics. Later he was convicted of corruption in absentia and he has remained overseas ever since. But he has continued to rule Thai political sentiment ever since.
Surrogate parties that were patently Thaksin creations continued to win elections, the last one being Pheu Thai, headed by his sister Yingluck, which came to power in 2011 and was piloted by him from his bolt-hole in Dubai under the slogan “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai Acts.” Steering the party on the platform Thaksin had formulated, Yingluck was equally as popular as he was in Isaan, the poverty-stricken northeastern section of the country, which remains loyal to the two of them to this day. Thai Raksa Thai is one of several parties that are considered proxies for the Thaksin family.
Continued ferocious violence fomented and carried out for months by the so-called Yellow Shirts supposedly aligned with the royalty eventually gave Prayuth and the military the pretext to bring down Pheu Thai in May 2014. Yingluck was arrested along with party allies and was tried on corruption charges in August of 2017 although she had fled the country earlier. The Red Shirt allies of the Thaksins were intimidated or dispersed and many fled the country, with the military making vain attempts to persuade foreign governments to send them back.
Both siblings, however, have continued to have considerable influence in the country despite the attempts by the military to eradicate their clout.
Although Thaksin has often appeared in Hong Kong, Singapore, Cambodia or other nearby ports of call, he was largely thought to have been a spent force. But the sudden appearance on the scene of the 67-year-old Princess Ubolratana (pronounced Ubolrat), joining a party clearly aligned with the Thaksin forces, is an indication that Thaksin has to be considered a major force. He probably has mended his relations with the 66-year-old King Vajiralongkorn, who came to power in 2016 upon the death of his revered father, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
It may well be that Ubolratana, a former actress, singer and activist, was encouraged to enter politics by her brother, who is using her as a weapon in consolidating his formidable power in the country, but it is almost certain that Thaksin played a major role in the decision.
The Yellow Shirts thus face an equal quandary to the militaries. If Thaksin maneuvers himself back into the country, which seems likely, they are likely to be constrained from use of the street violence – billed as a “popular” uprising – that characterized their actions in 2013 and 2014 and that drove the Thaksin surrogate parties from power. That kind of protest, artificial or real, is utterly impossible in a country as thoroughly dominated by the royal zeitgeist.
How Thaksin can re-emerge – if he does – remains to be seen. It will have to be carefully calibrated. But in Thailand, where what goes on at the surface has nothing to do with what goes on behind the scenes, it will be entertaining to watch. Ubolratana may present the public face of Thai Raksa Chart Party, Pheu Thai and the others in the coalition. But somewhere behind the scenes, what has happened over this week will change the equation, and Thaksin will be at the center of power.
Whether Ubolratana or Thaksin is de facto in charge, the government will face seemingly intractable major issues well beyond energetic political corruption, a substandard education system, infrastructure bulging at the seams and a rural northern area that remains mired in poverty. And the country will urgently face dealing with some sort of reconciliation process in a deeply polarized society, royalty or no royalty.