- Arthur Kleinman
The Reason for the Thai Royalty’s Family Feud
Like many of its South-East Asian counterparts, Thailand is a state that, while possessing pretensions for democracy, has never fully quite made the socio-cultural transition necessary for a long-term shift from authoritarian rule. On paper, the country is a constitutional monarchy, in which political power is mainly reserved for those democratically elected to the country’s parliament; however, as is seemingly the case for many rules written on paper, this has often failed to manifest in reality. The paper in this instance was also burnt in 2014, when a military junta assumed power through a coup scrapping the democratic provisions outlined in the country’s constitution. Regrettably, for the domestic population such an occurrence might as well be a normality: since 1912, the country has endured at least 30 coup attempts.
Yet, just two weeks ago, something unprecedented occurred in Thai politics – an event which might have even disrupted this vicious cycle of military rule for good. By this, I refer to the announcement by the Thai Princess Ubolratana of her intent to run in the elections being held next month, which not only entailed her challenging the military junta that has governed the nation for the last five years with the often overt approval of her younger brother, the King Vajiralonkorn, but doing so under the banner of the Thai Raksa Chart party, a reincarnation of the political movement that has served as the main adversary to the traditional elite throughout the last two decades.
Awareness of the enduring influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, the most influential leader of this aforementioned movement, is crucial to understand the significance of this unorthodox alliance. First elected to office under the Thai Rak Thai banner in 2001 with a convincing majority (an occurrence which at that point was fairly uncommon for Thai democracy), Thaksin was an unabashed populist who enjoyed significant support among the lower classes, largely in credit to his sweeping economic reforms. Most notably, he would implement a subsidised healthcare programme which offered consultations for under a dollar each – a policy that it is difficult to overstate the significance of in a country that hitherto had no social security infrastructure. Initiatives such as this would consolidate his popular support, handing him a landslide victories in successive elections.
Nevertheless, Thaksin’s enthusiastic reforms would not enjoy support from every corner of Thai society; in particular, the conservative upper classes would increasingly become a source of resentment. This can in part be attributed to his brash style – journalist Michael Vatikiotis likens him to the Italian businessman-playboy turned politician Silvio Berlusconi, insofar as he conflated his success as a businessman with a mandate to rule as he pleased – and to the allegations of corruption that would dog his presidency; he would receive multiple indictments on charges of tax avoidance (procedures which he claimed to be rigged). However, it was Thaksin’s distinctive, populist charisma that would be perceived as the greatest threat, due to its fragmentation of the lower classes’ loyalty to the monarchy, whom up until the emergence of the Thai Rak Thai movement were squarely pre-eminent in Thai cultural life.
With this in mind, one can imagine the horror with which the military junta, led by ex-general Prayuth Chan-ocha, and the conservative establishment viewed the announcement by Ubolratana of her intent to enter the upcoming election in a political alliance with Thaksin (who is currently exiled in Dubai). While Thaksin and his associates are reviled as populists by significant chunks of the population, the 67 year old princess cuts an immensely popular figure; relinquishing her royal title to marry an American in 1972, her exploits range from a career in film and philanthropic initiatives, to interacting with her hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.
It would only be a matter of hours before the King publicly admonished her candidacy as both unconstitutional and “highly inappropriate”, effectively vetoing it. However, while Ubolratana still effectively enjoys royal status in the public eye, as mentioned earlier, she is no longer formally a royal – thus rendering her decision to participate in the election as technically legitimate. Taking this into account, it is logical to pose the question – on what grounds did the King reject the candidacy? Simple: he knew that if any one individual was capable of defeating the junta, even with the restrictions it has imposed over the new electoral process (which, for example, grants it the ability to arbitrarily choose a third of the new parliament’s members), it would be his older sibling. This theory is rendered all the more feasible when one considers the common presumption that Prayuth’s junta rules with the King’s blessing, generally attributed to the perceived threat to his authority posed by the charismatic Thaksin. If the masses were to lose faith in the monarchy and pledge their faith to an alternative figurehead, the country’s hitherto rigid, traditional social fabric would be placed under immense strain (as already illustrated by Thaksin’s enduring popularity); however, it is these very power structures that the continuing dominance of the conservative elite, constituting the upper classes, the military and the monarchy, is predicated on. An Ubolratana-Thaksin pairing would constitute the gravest existential threat to said structures that the elite have faced in generations – thus, for this reason, she could not be allowed to run.