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A Princess in Thailand Cannot Become Prime Minister

Thailand's junta-appointed Election Commission
disqualified a princess from running for prime minister in next
month's polls, after her surprise candidacy displeased her powerful
brother King Maha Vajiralongkorn and dangerously divided this country.

"All members of the royal family must abide by the king's principle of
staying above politics, maintaining political impartiality, and they
cannot take up political office," the commission said February 11.

The coup-installed military government meanwhile was investigating an
allegedly forged official document which appeared on social media
claiming Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha fired Army Chief Gen. Apirat
Kongsompong and other armed forces officers.

"Rumors. We are investigating. Fake news," Mr. Prayuth told reporters
February 11, referring to the alleged document which sparked Twitter
to trend #coup all night February 10.

Tanks rumbling through Lopburi city's streets tried to calm the public
by pasting pieces of paper saying "For Training" on the tanks' metal
sides.

Princess Ubolratana Mahidol's failed election attempt would have
challenged Mr. Prayuth who is trying to extend his prime ministry in
the House of Representatives election March 24, after nearly five
years in power.

The commission approved Mr. Prayuth and all other prime ministerial
candidates February 11.

The fate of the new Thai Raksa Chart party which had nominated the
princess remains to be decided. The party said it was "accepting the
royal command with loyalty toward His Majesty," after the king
expressed displeasure.

Princess Ubolratana's anti-junta supporters experienced only one day
of euphoria February 8 when she shocked the public by announcing her
candidacy.

They were convinced she would defeat Mr. Prayuth, but their dreams
ended near midnight the same day.

King Vajiralongkorn announced on all Thai TV networks that his
sister's involvement in politics "breaches time-honored royal
traditions, customs and national culture. Such action must be deemed a
transgression and most inappropriate.

"Despite the fact that Princess Ubolratana had relinquished her title
in writing, in compliance with Palace Laws, she has been maintaining
her status as a member of the Chakri Royal Family," the king said
according to a Foreign Ministry translation.

"The monarch and senior members of the Royal Family always hold
themselves above politics."

The unprecedented developments triggered many Thais.

People for and against Princess Ubolratana expressed devotional
support or harsh condemnation about her on social media and in private
conversations.

Lined up against Princess Ubolratana were Mr. Prayuth's supporters,
royalists, Thailand's so-called "old money" elite, troops and officers
in the U.S.-trained military, and Bangkok's middle-class.

Her one-day campaign attracted Thailand's large pro-democracy movement
including northeast voters, lower-classes, and a new generation
demanding free speech and other human rights which vanished after Mr.
Prayuth's 2014 coup.

Before the coup, periodic street clashes in Bangkok for and against
elections killed more than 100 people, mostly pro-democracy civilians.

As a result of the latest political turmoil, Thailand is suffering a
"complete reigniting of the smoldering volcano of political hatred on
both sides," said Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior columnist at Khaosod
English news.

The princess was perceived as a way for former Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra to lead his candidates to victory after the military
overthrew him in a 2006 coup.

The princess had no political experience. Mr. Thaksin helped set up
her Thai Raksa Chart party.

"Ubolratana represented perhaps the only person who could clearly
upstage Prayuth in the polls, especially since the junta controls the
election machinery," said Paul Chambers, Paul Chambers an
international affairs advisor at Naresuan University.

Mr. Thaksin and his sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra,
are international fugitives avoiding prison sentences for corruption
committed during their administrations. Mr. Prayuth toppled Ms.
Yingluck's government in his 2014 putsch.

Princess Ubolratana's election attempt "brought back to the surface
the bitter enmity between the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps like nothing
else since the May 2014 coup," Mr. Pravit said.

Mr. Thaksin still has candidates in his popular Pheu Thai party,
including three possible prime ministers.

If Pheu Thai forms a coalition with other parties, they could dominate
the House.

Against them, after the election, will be a junta-appointed Senate.

Mr. Prayuth and his new pro-military Palang Pracharath party could
extend his prime ministry, boosted by the entire Senate and
pro-military parties in the House.

The House and Senate decide who becomes prime minister.

If he wins, Mr. Prayuth may be politically crippled by a frustrated
pro-Thaksin electorate and dissent within the House.

"Chin up and keep moving forward!" Mr. Thaksin tweeted after the
king's announcement.

"We learn from past experiences but live for today and the future.
Cheer up! Life must go on!" Mr. Thaksin said from an undisclosed
location.

Princess Ubolratana is the glamorous, extroverted, eldest daughter of
widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej who died in 2017.

After the royal succession, her younger brother is now king.

Born in 1951, she studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
before completing a master's degree in public health at the University
of California at Los Angeles.

She relinquished her royal status in 1972 when she married American
Peter Jensen and lived in the U.S.

They divorced in 1998. The princess returned to Thailand with her
three children in 2001, including a son who drowned in the 2004 Indian
Ocean tsunami.

"I would like to exercise my right and my freedom as a commoner under
the constitution," the princess wrote on Instagram February 8 before
the king disapproved of her candidacy.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. Thais and foreigners critical
of the royal family suffer arrest, expensive and debilitating legal
cases, and often lengthy imprisonment.

Dissidents are meanwhile not pleased with the way election campaigning
has proceeded.

"The election [campaign] is not fair, Prayuth has all the advantages
including full authoritative power and the support from the army and
civil servants," Kittithat Sumalnop said in an interview before the
princess became a one-day candidate.

Mr. Kittithat is a pro-democracy activist nicknamed "Champ" who was
yanked off a sidewalk and detained in 2014 one month after the coup,
for silently reading George Orwell's "1984" in public.

Mr. Prayuth regarded the reader's symbolic protest as a dangerous
anti-junta stunt violating the regime's harsh censorship and
anti-politics laws.

"I was detained by plainclothes officers, very likely from the
military. There a no formal punishment, but I was hit many times, both
on my head and my body with their punches, kicks, and elbows, to
subdue me and intimidate me," he said.

He and other detained activists were taken to the Royal Thai Army's
sports stadium "to be interrogated by the military. We were there six
hours in total before they made us sign a contract not to engage in
political actions again, and released us."

If he is able to stay on as prime minister, "Prayuth won't have the
full power as the junta head, and will have to deal with more
opposition," Mr. Kittithat said.

"If Prayuth wins through the election 'fairly', i.e. no major cheating
or harassing the oppositions, the U.S. will welcome him like other
elected prime ministers. After all, they still welcome him while he is
a dictator.

"But if Prayuth decides to play dirty or stay in power through a
legislative loophole and political deadlock, the U.S. will treat him
the same way, or maybe worse," Mr. Kittithat said.

"Pro-democracy activists are disappointed about the U.S. support, but
they're not going to vote for Prayuth anyway. The conservative
high-class and middle-class people who support Prayuth condemn the
U.S. for their opposition to Prayuth after the coup," when Barack
Obama was president. "After Trump showed his support, those people
welcome it. They are going to vote for him nonetheless," he said.

"In private, even the most conservative and reactionary politicians
seek support from the U.S. After all, the U.S. supported them in the
past during the Cold War against the progressives, socialists and
communists. Only after the U.S. became a pro-liberal democracy and
[President George W. Bush] condemned the 2006 coup, they had a falling
out. Yet they always hope for the return to normal relations between
the two countries," Mr. Kittithat said.

"The most important issue is economy, since it got worse under the
junta. Another one is democracy and the end of military rule, which is
only important ideologically. Ordinary people only care about the
first. Political-minded people also care about the second.

"Even the Prayuth-aligned Palang Pracharath party admits that poor
people are suffering under the junta's rule. Also, the demand for a
comprehensive welfare state has been growing from the left-wing
progressives. Prominent political parties, big and small, are trying
to promote different degrees of welfare and economic policies," Mr.
Kittithat said.

Relations linking Washington and Bangkok meanwhile appear to be
improving, and the elections are expected to help.

Thailand's "constitutional and election framework...is obviously
designed to ensure continued military leadership," Benjamin Zawacki,
Southeast Asia analyst and author of "Thailand: Shifting Ground
Between the U.S. and a Rising China," said in an interview before the
princess was nominated.

"In many respects, the United States needs -- and judging by low
levels of demand and dissent among the Thai populace, wants -- the
elections more than Thailand does.
America's ability to fully re-engage with Thailand hinges on the
polls, and given increasingly pressing concerns in the region, such
re-engagement is squarely in the U.S.'s interest.

"In that sense, the U.S. will readily accept any outcome broadly
within Thailand's new constitutional and election framework, which is
obviously designed to ensure continued military leadership. Whether
the premiership is retained by Prayuth or by another officer, by a man
in uniform or in mufti, will matter little to how Thailand is governed
and how its relations with the U.S. proceed," he said.

"While most American leadership, President Trump likely excepted,
would prefer a truly civilian Thai administration, the Americans won't
press their case if an election is held.

"So long as some semblance of campaigning is permitted before March
24, and the polls themselves do not face direct interference or
violence, the U.S. will accept them as 'free and fair'.

"Historically, the Democrat Party is slightly 'closer' to the U.S.
than the others in the race, but most of those connections have either
lapsed or been replaced by Thailand's 21st-century embrace of a more
authoritarian model of governance," Mr. Zawacki said.

Washington "welcomes the official announcement that Thailand will hold
elections on March 24," the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said in January.

"We look forward to a result that reflects open debate and the will of
the Thai people."

President Trump hosted a delighted Mr. Prayuth in the White House in 2017.

For decades, the Pentagon has trained Thailand's military which is
bleeding in a stalemate against Muslim Malay-Thai separatist
guerrillas in the south, where more than 7,000 people have died on all
sides since 2004.

"We notice a significant drift towards China in political, military
and economical terms under the junta," said Arnaud Dubus, author of
several books on Thai politics.

"A new government headed by Prayuth would probably extend and
consolidate this drift. A government under a civilian prime minister
would very likely try to re-balance the relationships with the U.S.
and China," Mr. Dubus said in an interview.

The "political power of the military, improvement of the daily life of
the people, and fight against corruption across the board -- not
excluding the military, as is the case today," are the biggest
election issues, he said.

The leading opposition Pheu Thai party will reportedly name three
prime ministerial candidates: Sudarat Keyuraphan, former transport
minister Chadchart Sittipunt, and former justice minister Chaikasem
Nitisiri.

"Obviously, the Pheu Thai is the strongest opponent of political power
of the military. The stance of the Democrat party is less clear and
they could probably ally with military if it is beneficial for them,
as in 2008," Mr. Dubus said before the princess's candidacy.

"The constitution, the constituencies' [geographic] drawing, and the
use of government money and apparatus by the pro-junta party show
clearly that the elections' format is biased. But not to the point of
blocking the expression of the choice of the majority.

"The result will reflect this choice, but the main problem is the
military-appointed Senate which will allow a minority government to
lead the country. Unavoidably, instability will follow," he said.

"If Prayuth stays as prime minister, I expect political instability
and a progressive worsening of political tensions, with a possible
violent crisis in one or two years.
If Pheu Thai leads the government, there will be also instability,"
Mr. Dubus said.

Meanwhile the Democrat Party, trailing a distant second place, is
keeping its military-friendly former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva
as its sole prime ministerial candidate.

Mr. Prayuth's military government will announce election results by
May 9, officials said.

The delay is to avoid post-election turbulence before King
Vajiralongkorn's May 4-6 coronation.

A new government should be installed by mid-2019.

"A very important issue that the parties and candidates have not
addressed sufficiently is the current serious air pollution in
Bangkok," Rand Corp. member and former foreign minister Kantathi
Suphamongkhon said in an interview.

"It was reported that Bangkok had the ninth dirtiest air of all the
cities in the world. It was good that the Thai and international
press are bringing this vitally important subject up now.

"The air pollution in Bangkok, especially the abundance of PM 2.5
dust, is serious and detrimental to people's health both short-term
and long-term. Political parties and the government should formulate
comprehensive policy proposals to effectively tackle this problem most
urgently," Mr. Kantathi said.

"Can the winning party govern and maintain the current non-violent
situation, and will the army -- if it loses -- really let go of
power?" political analyst Tom Kruesopon said in an interview.

"I see nothing but more of the same after this election. This election
is just the transition election, until the people realize that the
entire system is badly broken and real changes must occur," Mr.
Kruesopon said.

***

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco,
California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia
University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He co-authored three
non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!'
Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60
Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News
Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter "Ceremonies
and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King
Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in
Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest book, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor
Mask & President Akimbo" portrays a 22-year-old American female mental
patient who is abducted to Asia by her abusive San Francisco
psychiatrist.

His online sites are:

https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

https://www.amazon.com/Hello-Big-Honey-Revealing-Interviews/dp/1717006418

https://www.amazon.com/Sheila-Carfenders-Doctor-President-Akimbo/dp/1973789353/

https://www.facebook.com/SheilaCarfenders


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