from Asia Unbound

What the Turmoil in Thailand Reveals About the Thai Monarchy

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn marches during a procession to transfer the royal relics and ashes of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej from the crematorium to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, on October 27, 2017. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

February 13, 2019

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn marches during a procession to transfer the royal relics and ashes of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej from the crematorium to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, on October 27, 2017. Damir Sagolj/Reuters
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By Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Thai politics continues to be drawn along the monarchy’s fault lines, following the recent dramatic events, which exposed deep conflicts between opposing monarchical factions. The newly established party of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thai Raksa Chart, tested the waters by proposing a candidate for the premiership. This candidate happened to be the eldest daughter of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Princess Ubolratana.

Princess Ubolratana accepted the invitation of the Thai Raksa Chart Party to serve as a candidate for the premiership in the upcoming elections to be held on March 24. Soon after the news was made public, the responses from Thais were mixed. Certainly, supporters of the Shinawatras were delighted, reasoning that Thaksin might finally make peace with the palace. Meanwhile, enemies of Thaksin condemned the party and him for politicizing the royal institution.

As public debate went wild about the grand entrance of Ubolratana into the political ring, another event further shocked Thais. King Vajiralongkorn, younger brother of Ubolratana, released a statement preventing her from participating in electoral politics and essentially telling her to withdraw—claiming that her action defied the supposed tradition of the monarchy staying above Thai politics. The statement could be viewed as somewhat ironic given the fact that some members of the royal family have long interfered in Thai politics.

There are two schools of thought about what happened with the nomination—and then rejection—of the princess’s candidacy. One school of thought is that Thaksin sought approval from King Vajiralongkorn for Ubolratana’s newfound role in politics. After all, Thaksin has wanted to reconcile with the monarchy rather than challenging it, and he needs a royal pardon in order to return to Thailand, after more than a decade living outside the kingdom as a fugitive from Thai justice. Somehow, the deal collapsed, perhaps simply because the palace underestimated the relatively positive popular response to the idea of Ubolratana’s political role. In other words, in this scenario the king approved the move, but then after Ubolratana’s popularity became apparent, the palace recanted—it feared a prime minister Ubolratana could reduce the power of the king and possibly bolster Thaksin’s position as the country’s most powerful leader.

The other school of thought about what happened is that both Thaksin and Ubolratana ignored the king and made their dramatic move without obtaining his permission in advance. Her candidacy therefore surprised the palace and was seen as a direct challenge to the king and his allies in the military, where the king is consolidating power—as he is with other institutions in Thailand, as researcher Eugenie Merieau has shown. Hence, it was obligatory for Vajiralongkorn to condemn Thaksin for the politicization of the monarchy, Ubolratana for allowing herself to be manipulated, and the Thai Raksa Chart Party for breaking the royal tradition of supposedly avoiding politics—moves that allowed the king to portray himself as standing up for the monarchy’s constitutional role while simultaneously eliminating a threat to his power, at a time when the monarchy is becoming more clearly and deeply involved in politics.

As this time, Thailand’s Constitutional Court, the top court, is considering whether to disband the Thai Raksa Chart Party. Should the party be dissolved, the other pro-Thaksin party, Puea Thai, would be politically vulnerable—by itself it might not be able to win a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament, and it too could face efforts to remove its members from politics or even dissolve it after the election in March.

Meanwhile, Thaksin’s move to bring Ubolratana into politics might, in the long run, actually damage the power of the Thai monarch—even if, right now, the king is gaining strength and control of politics. The Ubolratana incident demonstrated certain fissures within Thai royalty—challenges that could eventually undermine the powerful institution. For one, the incident further revealed a seeming lack of unity within the royal family. Second, even if pro-Thaksin parties wind up banned or otherwise damaged by the Ubolratana incident, the event forced the king to directly involve himself in politics, fully revealing that the monarchy is not really a constitutional monarchy, and does not truly stand above politics. In so doing, the event may have further damaged the king’s credibility and, in the long run, made it easier for Thais to view the monarchy as simply another political actor.

For many Thais, too, the Ubolratana incident reaffirmed that the monarchy and Thaksin are equally divisive, and both are willing to take major decisions about the future of the country without any consultation with the broader populace. Politics remain an almost entirely elite-dominated affair, precluding real democracy, no matter what happens in the March election. The incident also reminds Thais that the deep divisions that have corroded Thai politics for more than a decade will continue.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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