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Princess Bajrakitiyabha addresses a U.N. General Assembly high-level meeting on the rule of law at U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 24, 2012. (Courtesy of United Nations.)
Agents of Change 2017

Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol: Thailand's royal diplomat, lawyer, advocate

From public service to her informal lifestyle, princess leads new generation of Thai royalty

BANGKOK -- Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol has a unique position in Thailand, both by birth and from her life experience. She is the oldest child of the country's new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, and was the first grandchild of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit.

A senior diplomat described the princess in 2009 as enjoying "an increasingly high profile and a reputation for being perhaps the sharpest of the royal family members."

She is the daughter of Princess Soamsawali, the first of three wives of then Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Her mother, a niece of Queen Sirikit, remains one of the most active and visible members of the royal family, despite being divorced in 1991.

Princess "Pa," as she is often known, combines a lively social life among high society friends with a more serious side that sees her mixing with soldiers, officials, academics and diplomats. In September, she led a mixed party up Fansipan, in northern Vietnam -- the highest mountain in the Indochina region.

Princess Bajrakitiyabha rides with tens of thousands of cyclists in Bangkok on Dec. 11, 2015.   © Getty Images

At 38, the princess is still single, but there is talk in Bangkok of the possibility of royal weddings after her grandfather's elaborate cremation, probably in October. After a year of national mourning, the final funeral rite will also be followed at some stage by her father's coronation.

Princess Bajrakitiyabha is expected to play a leading role in support of her father, and in buffing the image of the House of Chakri, the Siamese dynasty founded in 1782. "Though the princess has sought to play a low-key role, she may be in the news as Thais focus on the future of the royal family," the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington wrote of her return to Thailand in 2014.

Educated in Thailand and the U.K., the princess is a law graduate from Bangkok's Thammasat University, and has a degree in international relations. She attended Cornell Law School for postgraduate studies in the U.S., earning her doctorate there in 2005, and qualifying as a barrister in Thailand at the same time.

Soon after, she briefly joined the Thai permanent mission to the United Nations in New York as a first secretary, and got a taste of multilateral diplomacy working on the 60th General Assembly. Back in Thailand in 2006, she worked as a prosecutor in the office of the attorney general.

When Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn led over 80,000 cyclists on a record-breaking 43km "Bike for Mom" ride around the capital in August 2015, in honor of his mother's 83rd birthday, it was Princess Bajrakitiyabha who led the second wave of riders.

The lively event (similar to a subsequent mass "bikeathon" to mark King Bhumibol's 88th birthday in December 2015) tapped into the remarkable popularity that cycling has acquired throughout Thailand in recent years. Some 300,000 people around the country reportedly signed up for the first event. It showed a resilient, more youthful side to the royal institution, and revealed the future king in evidently robust health at 63.

For Princess Bajrakitiyabha, the outdoor activity was not unusual. She sometimes joins more low-key, cycling and running events at weekends, and likes to drive herself around in a red Mini Cooper S or a vivid green Volkswagen Beetle.

'Innocent parties'

After returning to the Thai foreign ministry, she chaired the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in 2011. She remained for two more years in Vienna as ambassador to Austria, a post she took up at the unusually young age of 34. She was concurrently Thailand's permanent representative to the U.N. at Vienna, one of the organization's four global headquarters.

In a more personal capacity, she founded the Princess Pa Foundation with her mother in 1995 to help victims of flooding and natural disasters. Some 10 years later she founded and personally funded with 300,000 baht ($8,600) the Kamlangjai (Inspire) Project for women imprisoned with their children -- "innocent parties," as she terms them.

In 2008, she was appointed a goodwill ambassador in Thailand for the U.N. Development Fund for Women. She also founded another prison project: Enhancing Lives of Female Inmates. In 2010, at the 65th U.N. General Assembly, her work with ELFI contributed to the adoption of the U.N.'s Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, known as the "Bangkok Rules," which supplemented U.N. regulations for prisoners dating from 1955.

The treatment of female prisoners nevertheless remains a major issue in Thailand. There was public outrage in early 2016 when it emerged that full cavity searches had been routinely conducted on female students arrested for political protests. "We are not talking about criminals here but dissidents," a local human rights observer told the Nikkei Asian Review.

According to a University of London study published in 2015, more than 700,000 women and girls were imprisoned globally at that time, and their number had risen by 50% since 2000. Nearly 48,000 were in Thailand, ranking it fourth in absolute numbers of female inmates after the U.S., China, and Russia.

Thailand has the world's most draconian law of lese-majeste to protect senior royal figures, making the princess uniquely placed to view both sides of the coin. On one occasion, the Asian Human Rights Commission sent an open letter to her concerning egregious treatment of a female prisoner imprisoned under the law, which carries penalties of up to 15-years in prison.

Princess Bajrakitiyabha has expressed strong views on sustainability, as well as on the rule of law and its effect on development. "Long-term sustainable economic and social development and the establishment of a functioning, efficient, effective and humane criminal justice system have a positive influence on each other," she told a U.N. debate she was chairing during the 2012 General Assembly.

Her opinions based on direct experience as a prosecutor may also affect future prosecutions for drugs offenses. As chair of a special board advising Thailand's Institute of Justice, a non-governmental organization set up in 2011, she could play an influential role in overhauling the country's creaking justice system, although implementation of any proposed reforms may be a different matter. More broadly, the princess is putting an engaged and contemporary face on Thailand's time-honored institution.

<h2 style="margin-top:0;"> <a id="a_title" href="http://asia.nikkei.com/Features/Agents-of-Change-2017" style="font-family:georgia,times new roman,times,serif;font-size:26px;color:#000;">Meet other Agents of Change</a> <p id="p_lede" style="font-family:georgia,times new roman,times,serif;font-size:16px;line-height: 21px;">Business people, innovators, educators and artists to shape new era</p> </td> </h2>

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