from Asia Unbound

Thai Royalty Becomes More Openly Involved in Politics

January 21, 2014

Anti-government protesters celebrate under portraits of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit as they enter the area near the Government house in Bangkok on December 3, 2013. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)
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Despite officially being a constitutional monarchy and supposedly no different than the monarchies of Britain, the Netherlands, or modern-day Japan, Thailand’s royal family has, during the reign of King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, always been far more closely involved in Thai politics than any constitutional monarch would be. However, until the past decade, the royal family usually conducted its interventions behind the scenes. The king and his allies normally acted behind at least a veil of deniability, so that in times of crisis, the king could potentially play the role of mediator and neutral-broker.

A recent post on New Mandala by Professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University highlights how, over the past decade, as the king’s health has declined and speculation has erupted about the eventual royal succession and its implications for Thai politics, other members of the royal family have become openly political, a contrast from the past. Prof. Pavin’s essay analyzes the barely concealed online political discourse of Princess Chulabhon, who in recent weeks has appeared in a wide variety of social media touting her disapproval of the government and support of demonstrators in the streets of Bangkok. Her activities follow on the heels of Queen Sirikit’s open rhetorical support of the previous generation of anti-Shinawatra/royalist/Yellow Shirt protesters—the type of open political involvement that supposedly has infuriated the king.

As Pavin notes, along with Princess Chulabhon,  Queen Sirikit “attended the controversial funeral of Nong Bo, a yellow-shirt member. In that event, Sirikit praised the courage of Nong Bo who met with an untimely death while participating in the royalist mob led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). A large number of red shirts were enraged by the obvious partiality of the Queen and Chulabhorn. That event now serves as ‘National Enlightenment Day.’”

To some observers of Thai politics, the open politicization of the royal family is a disaster—a shift that further undermines civilian, democratic leaders and reduces the monarchy’s ability to play a neutral, mediating, above-politics function. But, in the long run, this politicization, combined with the eventual reign of a king who enjoys far less public trust and love than Rama IX, could actually be a net positive for Thai democracy. As the monarchy loses some degree of public trust, other democratic institutions eventually will have to assume the role of mediator and crisis-solver, and a real constitutional monarchy can develop in Thailand.