By: John Berthelsen

It appears that an audacious gambit by Thaksin Shinawatra to use a royal princess to resume center stage in Thai politics may have been ended by King Vajiralongkorn, who issued a statement in Germany on Feb. 9 that her plan to head a party aligned with the former premier was inappropriate and unconstitutional.

The sudden announcement yesterday of Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, the king’s 67-year-old elder sister that she would head the Thai Raksa Chart Party in general elections scheduled for March 24 threw the country’s political situation into chaos with its implication that military, which has run the country since a 2014 coup would almost certainly have been ousted.

However, the plan by Thaksin, the country’s wiliest politician, appears to have ended with the king’s televised statement.  What happened is unclear, and it is unclear today if Ubolratana will abide by her brother’s command to leave the political arena.

It would have been audacious if Thaksin had somehow persuaded Ubolratana, a political neophyte, to run for office without the king’s approval. Despite Thaksin’s status on the run from a corruption charge in Thailand, the two have long been friends, appearing together last year at the World Cup football contest in Moscow. As an astute strategist, it seems certain that Thaksin would have consulted with Ubolratana’s royal brother, making it likely that for unknown reasons the king backed away at the last minute. 

However, Vajiralongkorn indicated in an interview that “Involvement of a high-ranking member of the royal family in politics, in whatever way, is an act that conflicts with the country’s traditions, customs and culture and therefore is considered extremely inappropriate.”

As Andrew MacGregor Marshall, the former Reuters bureau chief who wrote an extremely critical book on Thailand titled “A Kingdom in Crisis,” said on Facebook: “Royalists who had been appalled by the prospect of a political deal with Thaksin are now rejoicing, while Thais who believed the deal heralded an end to political conflict are heartbroken. It remains unknown if the royalist elite and junta have somehow managed to intervene and persuade Vajiralongkorn to reconsider, or if he really was not consulted about his sister’s plans in advance.”

The king, Marshall wrote, “is signaling a split in the royal family, and once again overtly intervening in Thai politics. There has often been vicious infighting in the Thai royal family but never in the country’s modern history has it exploded into the open so dramatically.”

It is inconceivable that Ubolratana would defy her powerful brother and go ahead with plans to enter politics without his approval. However, it still leaves political questions up in the air.  With an electorate growing increasingly disenchanted with the military’s stewardship of the country and by ostentatious displays of corruption on the part of the generals, as well as a lackluster economy that isn’t expected to post significant growth in a cooling world economy, the parties aligned with Thaksin’s surrogate Pheu Thai had been expected to win a plurality in the lower house of parliament.

However, 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 if 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 would have been almost certain to upend the junta’s plans. Her presence at the head of Thai Raksa Chart Thai, aligned with Pheu Thai, would have presented 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, in exile in Dubai, has since he was ousted by military coup in 2006 sought a return to power – and to recoup more than US$1 billion of his personal fortune lost when he was convicted of corruption in absentia.  His popularity with the rural poor has never flagged after he pushed through a phenomenally popular a series of social uplift programs 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. 

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” until Prayuth’s coup ousted her. She was also tried for corruption but fled the country.

Although Thailand’s royal family have always held themselves above politics publicly – while being deeply involved behind the scenes – Ubolratana renounced her royal trappings when she married an American after her graduation from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She divorced in 1998 and returned to Thailand in 2001.

The big question is whether Thaksin had made a deal with the king, who has long been viewed by insiders as unpredictable and impulsive, for the princess to head the pro-Thaksin political parties, only to have him walk away, possibly under fevered entreaties from Prayuth and the junta.