A man prays in front of a portrait of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn at the King Rama I Monument. (Photographer: Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg)

Thai King's Rebuke of Sister Increases Tensions Before Election

(Bloomberg) -- Even for a country where coup attempts, street protests and political intrigue are the norm, Feb. 8 will go down as one of the most dramatic days in Thai history.

It started around 9:15 a.m., when allies of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra -- a tycoon who has lived in exile for more than a decade after repeated clashes with royalists -- said Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya had agreed to stand as prime minister. The move by King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s sister shocked a nation where top royals are officially treated with semi-divine status and protected by strict lese-majeste laws that shield them from criticism.

Thai King's Rebuke of Sister Increases Tensions Before Election

Then some 13 hours later, the king released a late-night statement, known as a royal command, saying Ubolratana’s candidacy was “gravely inappropriate” and a violation of the constitution. He called the monarchy “the center that glues the hearts of the Thai people together,” and said both “the monarch and the royal family members are above politics.”

The fast-moving events have jolted the Thai political landscape ahead of a March 24 election meant to restore democracy, increasing the risk of heightened political tension in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy. They also boost junta chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s chances of staying on as prime minister and could hurt Thaksin and his allies, who have won every election since 2001 only to be thrown out by the courts or military.

“Thaksin-phobia has returned in full swing, and has made the anti-Thaksin, pro-military group more active,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political science lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand. “Whether or not Thaksin’s parties like Pheu Thai can win big like they did before will depend on their key policies during the campaign.”

Political Infighting

Ubolratana, a movie star with a large social media following, on Saturday thanked the Thai people for their "love and support during the past day" in an Instagram post. "I want to see Thailand moving forward, being admired and accepted by other nations," she said. The Thai Raksa Chart, the political party that nominated Ubolratana, expressed gratitude to the princess and said it “accepts His Majesty’s command with loyalty to the king and every single member of the royal family.”

Investors had already taken a cautious stance on Friday even before Vajiralongkorn expressed his views. Thailand’s currency weakened 0.7 percent against the dollar, while the country’s stock market was little changed.

Years of political infighting have eroded Thailand’s competitiveness as a manufacturing base in Southeast Asia, and economic growth is set to slow this year as the U.S.-China trade war hits global demand. Repeated coups have also pushed it away from its traditional alliance with the U.S. and more toward China -- a move many politicians standing in the election oppose.

The new constitution written after Prayuth seized power in 2014 from Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra included a 250-member Senate appointed by the military that would also be able to vote for the prime minister. Ubolratana could’ve taken away votes from the non-elected senators who would otherwise choose Prayuth. On Friday, a party supporting Prayuth filed a petition opposing Ubolratana’s candidacy, arguing it could breach a law that prohibits the use of the monarchy in campaigning.

“This could actually be a boost for Prayuth because now people may see that the king is not supporting his sister,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University’s College of ASEAN Community Studies.

Thaksin Miscalculates

For Thaksin, it amounts to another setback -- one of many since he was first removed in a 2006 coup, in part due to accusations of undermining the monarchy. Aligning with a top royal could’ve potentially cleared the way for his return to Thailand, where he faces jail time for a conviction in a corruption case he has called politically motivated.

His camp has miscalculated in the past in a bid to get him back into Thailand. In 2013, his sister’s government introduced a sweeping amnesty bill that led to months of street protests culminating in the most recent coup.

Ubolratana’s decision to link up with a Thaksin-backed party raised the possibility that she could help push through changes to the constitution that would make it more democratic. Prior to the king’s remarks on Friday night, Ubolratana emphasized that she was a commoner after relinquishing her royal titles, and said she wanted “the opportunity to bring glory to the country.”

‘New Territory’

Since taking the throne in 2016, Vajiralongkorn has changed rules related to royal powers. He gained greater control of the Crown Property Bureau’s billions of dollars in holdings following a legal change in 2017 that transferred ownership of the assets to him. In the past, the bureau was described as managing and preserving crown property that was neither public property nor the private property of the monarch.

Just over a month after ascending to the throne, the military-appointed legislature approved changes to an interim national constitution following suggestions from the king’s office. The most notable adjustment allowed Vajiralongkorn to travel abroad without temporarily handing over power.

In his royal command on Friday, Vajiralongkorn affirmed the traditional divide between the royal family and politicians. And in a country where so much is unclear, one thing has always been certain: The king’s word is final.

“We are in new territory,” said Kevin Hewison, an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has written about Thai politics for decades. “These events are probably not over. There will be fallout. But, because the royal family is usually secretive, we may not hear as much as we’d want.”

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