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The Big Story

Staying above Thai politics has its challenges

The palace and military government do not always play from the same score

DOMINIC FAULDER, Associate editor, Nikkei Asian Review | Thailand

BANGKOK -- Thailand's royal family officially keeps its distance from politics, but twice already this year politics and the palace have tripped over each other.

In January, an overdue election was again postponed following the unexpected announcement of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun's coronation in May.

In February, Thungkramon Ying Ubolratana Rajakanya, the king's older sister, an unconventional, media-loving 67-year-old, announced her bid for the premiership with Thai Raksa Chart, a party linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is the nemesis of the military and of Bangkok's ruling elites; attempts to remove him from politics underpinned coups in 2006 and 2014.

Although she gave her address as the Grand Palace, Ubolratana said she was an ordinary citizen, having forfeited her title when she married an American commoner in 1972. "I have resigned from my royal status and am living the life of a commoner," she said on Instagram. "I gave my consent to Thai Raksa Chart to nominate me as prime minister, which means I have no privilege over all other Thai people."

Whatever her title, Ubolratana is still feted as a princess. Indeed, Thai Raksa Chart eulogized her "mercy" running for the party.

The two bombshells were handled quite differently. Silence is generally the default palace communication protocol: best to say nothing about everything -- apart from occasional opaque medical bulletins to quell rumors.

The palace, indeed, said nothing about its evident lack of communication with the military government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and the scheduling conflict between the election and the coronation.

But Ubolratana's announcement earned a rare and dramatic response. Because of their closeness, it had been widely assumed that the king had prior knowledge of her intentions. The same evening, however, the palace released a statement that indicated quite the opposite -- or, at minimum, a staggering turnaround.

"Bringing such a high-ranking royal family member into the political system, no matter in which way, is an act against the royal custom, tradition, and the culture of the nation," a royal statement said. "It is considered an extremely inappropriate action."

A former newspaper editor in Bangkok with strong royalist connections viewed the misfire as very damaging to Thaksin -- "a shabby, desperate ploy" on his part.

A firm hand

Some diplomats believe a beneficiary in the affair was Hakeem al-Araibi, a former member of the Bahrain national football team who was battling extradition from Thailand to Bahrain. They were astonished by al-Araibi's release just days after being told by Thai officials that his case would be stuck in court for months. It involved a member of the Bahraini royal family, which has good relations with its Thai counterpart. Some observers believe the extradition issue was a controversy too many that needed to be shut down.

Firm, tactically deft responses have been a feature of the new reign from the start. After King Bhumibol Adulyadej's death in 2016, the new king unexpectedly postponed his formal succession by two months, ostensibly to allow time for mourning. The move demonstrated regal confidence, discrediting at a stroke decades of fevered speculation about whether the succession would be contested, and sending a clear message to the government about who was in charge of the succession process. This was reinforced a few months later when changes were made to certain clauses affecting the monarchy in a constitution already approved by national referendum. The government simply complied with palace instructions.

Although the new king spends most of his time in Munich, he has strengthened his grip in many areas, including repopulating the privy council, streamlining palace bureaucracies, taking personal ownership of crown assets, and recovering control of royal properties forfeited after a revolutionary coup in 1932 ended absolute monarchy. He has tackled a number of entrenched problems in the Buddhist clergy, and effected changes to the military chain of command.

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