Thailand's King Vajiralongkorn is seen paying respects at the statue of King Rama I after signing the military-backed constitution in Bangkok on April 6, 2017. Photo: AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha

In an unusual intervention in politics, Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn said in a televised address on late Friday (February 8) night that he deemed his elder princess sister’s bid to become prime minister “inappropriate” and counter constitutional provisions that hold the monarchy above politics.

Vajiralongkorn’s firm royal announcement is expected to end Ubolratana Rajakanya’s short-lived bid to win the premiership under a newly formed party aligned with self-exiled, criminally convicted ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

On Saturday (February 9) morning, Ubolratana posted an Instagram message that thanked “all Thais” for their “love and kindness” and “moral support.” The message did not overtly withdraw her candidacy or mention her brother’s message, saying only she wished “to see Thailand move forward to be admired and accepted by the international community.”

The Election Commission must rule on all prime ministerial candidates’ eligibility by February 15.

Ubolratana set Thailand’s political scene ablaze on Friday morning by announcing her candidacy, the first time a royal family member had sought public office since the kingdom became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Her announcement came the same day as coup-maker Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha announced his candidacy under the newly formed Palang Pracharat party, widely seen as a proxy for his ruling junta to maintain its political role after March 24 elections.

A campaign portrait for Princess Ubolratana under the Thai Raksa Chart party banner. Photo: Facebook

The competing announcements, at least symbolically, unprecedentedly put the military and a royal family member in direct competition for political power. Prayut’s May 2014 coup ousted another Thaksin-aligned party, Peua Thai, and ended a decade of revolving and destabilizing political street protests.

One official source claims Ubolratana’s candidacy announcement caught Prayut, a staunch royalist who has presided over a smooth royal transition from deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej to Vajiralongkorn, off-guard. His advisors were trying to confirm the rumors as late as Thursday night, while putting the finishing touches on his candidacy announcement.

One official source who requested anonymity told Asia Times that Vajiralongkorn had previously given his blessing to Prayut to seek the premiership at the polls, thus underscoring his camp’s surprise about Ubolratana’s entry into the electoral race. The source said Prayut was “miffed” by the announcement.

It was unclear to most until Friday’s televised royal announcement if the monarch tacitly supported Ubolratana’s bid to enter politics under a party aligned with Prayut’s and the junta’s sworn enemies, Thaksin, Peua Thai and their aligned Red Shirt protest group. His stern speech on Friday night made it clear to most that that was not the case.

Some interpreted the princess’ entry into politics as a royal bid to forge unity between polarized political camps before the elections, with an eye towards the creation of a royally endorsed national unity government that reconciles deeply held political differences through a shared loyalty to the crown.

Her announcement had the opposite effect in cyber realms. Social media was abuzz with proliferating anti-monarchy, and specifically anti-Ubolratana materials, in the immediate aftermath of her surprise candidacy announcement.

Many on the nation’s “Yellow” side of the political divide that reviles Thaksin and his political camp posted messages claiming that the princess wouldn’t have dared such a move under Bhumibol, while eulogizing and yearning for the widely revered deceased king who passed away in October 2016. The social media deluge died down soon after Vajiralongkorn’s speech, analysts and officials noted.

Ubolratana’s candidacy announcement had aimed to portray the princess as a commoner that sought to exercise her political rights and leverage her years of experience abroad to lead the country. The announcement noted how she personally worked to put herself through college and graduate school in America, with the subtext she had been cut off from the royal purse.

People’s Democratic Reform Committee supporters at an anti-Yingluck rally on 14 May 2014. Photo: Bangkok Post via AFP Forum/ Patipat Janthong

Ubolratana, Vajiralongkorn’s elder sister and still officially a princess, relinquished certain of her royal titles in 1972 upon marrying an American doctor she divorced 16 years later. She is expected to have those titles fully restored at or after Vajiralongkorn’s official May 4-6 coronation ceremony.

Since returning to Thailand in 2001, Ubolratana has been accorded royal family privileges, including closures of local traffic when traveling in royal caravans in Bangkok and Foreign Ministry obeisance when traveling overseas.

It thus came to certain officials attention recent meetings Ubolratana held with the self-exiled Thaksin overseas, including in the United Kingdom where he maintains posh residences in London and Birmingham. The princess also met with the ex-premier in Hong Kong in December, according to one informed source.

Earlier many anticipated those officially unannounced meetings aimed to keep Thaksin engaged and quiescent under the military’s heavy-handed rule while Vajiralongkorn consolidated his new reign. Few foresaw at the time that the two were most likely negotiating her entry into politics under one of the ex-premier’s aligned proxy parties.

Thaksin is banned by the Election Commission from any involvement with political parties, including Peua Thai and Thai Raksa Chart, and has consistently denied any association or control over them. The EC previously threatened to dissolve Peua Thai when its members met the ex-premier overseas.

Thailand’s former premier Thaksin Shinawatra speaks during a group interview in Tokyo August 23, 2011. Photo: Reuters/Yuriko Nakao/File Photo

Much of the social media deluge before Vajiralongkorn’s clarifying announcement expressed conservative fears that an Ubolratana-led government would angle to pardon and rehabilitate Thaksin, bringing him back to the kingdom as a free man.

The messages underscored still deep-rooted fears that the ex-premier would eventually outmaneuver any limitations imposed on his return, possibly via royal pardon, and exact revenge against the ruling military junta’s members and their conservative allies.

Thaksin is known by associates to harbor particularly strong resentment for the junta’s criminal conviction of his ex-premier sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who now also resides in self-exile. In an Instagram post around the time of Yingluck’s flight from the country in 2017, the princess encouraged the Shinawatras to “fight, fight”, or “su, su” in Thai

Those believed to be in Thaksin’s sights include the powerful Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, a staunch Prayut ally with deep reservoirs of loyalty in the armed forces who has recently traded barbs with Thaksin in media comments and on social media as the polls have approached.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (R) and Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan Government House, Bangkok, January 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Observers believe Prawit would most likely be the fall guy on corruption allegations if a Peua Thai-led coalition is installed after the election, as most believe likely if the vote is held free and fair. Prawit will have certain protection from a military-appointed Senate which controls appointments to independent agencies, including the Anti-Corruption Commission.

The question now is whether Thaksin overreached by playing politics with the monarchy, a sensitive charge that contributed to his overthrow in a 2006 coup and was heatedly revived on Facebook pages with Ubolratana’s candidacy announcement, at a time his political allies are on the verge of retaking elected power.

While those critical messages will die down with Vajiralongkorn’s strong message and intervention, hotly revived fears of a Thaksin return and Peua Thai’s post-election political revenge could yet be leveraged by the junta, in the name of maintaining peace and stability, to yet again postpone the polls.

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