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In Thailand’s political drama, what did the king know, and when did he know it?

- February 12, 2019

On Friday, Princess Ubolratana of Thailand agreed to run for prime minister on behalf of the Thai Raksa Chat Party (TRC), a party aligned with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in the upcoming March elections. The news struck the Thai political scene like a tsunami.

For the past two decades, Thai society has been divided between those supporting the parties linked to Thaksin and those opposed. Thaksin’s opponents include the military, opposition political parties, and various social movements. They often claim to be the defenders of the Thai monarchy and accuse Thaksin and his followers of being anti-monarchy.

Thailand’s ruling military junta and its leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, ousted Thaksin’s government in a 2014 coup, which they justified as necessary to defend the monarchy and restore political order. The disorder included alleged criminal negligence by Thaksin’s sibling, Yingluck Shinawatra; continued mass street protests between the polarized political camps; and nascent separatist calls in the North. The junta used this pro-monarchy stance to bolster its legitimacy when it wrote a new constitution that ensures its continued dominance, including provisions for an unelected prime minister, widely expected to be Prayuth.

The news that the princess would head a Thaksin-linked party, therefore, was an enormous shock. However, just hours later, the princess’s younger brother, King Vajiralongkorn, announced that it was inappropriate and unconstitutional for a member of the royal family to run for elected office. As expected, the Thai election commission followed his signal and invalidated the princess’s candidacy.

So how do we make sense of the drama? Here are four plausible scenarios for what’s happening behind the scenes.

Scenario 1: The king was in the dark

Under the first scenario, Princess Ubolratana and her backers decided to accept the nomination without consulting the king. When the king learned of the nomination he moved to quash it, either to support Prayuth or simply to keep the monarchy out of the political fray. Under this scenario, we still don’t know whether the king and Prayuth are allied. Some will argue that this signals the king’s support for Prayuth. Others will argue that these events suggest that the alliance between the monarchy and military is beginning to fray.

However, many think it unlikely that the king did not know about such an extraordinary political challenge.

Scenario 2: The princess defied the king

It is possible that the king was consulted about the nomination and opposed it, but Ubolratana and TRC chose to proceed anyway. But why would the princess pursue such a risky strategy? Any opposition to the king could result in harsh imprisonment under the country’s harsh lèse-majesté laws.

Perhaps the princess was trying to depolarize Thai politics and rebuild social stability by sending a signal that the Thaksin camp is not anti-monarchy. However, this risks dragging the monarchy further into the political mire. Seen in this light the king’s response was an attempt to pull the monarchy back from the political fray and not an explicit endorsement of any other candidate or party.

Alternatively, it is possible that the princess may have defied her brother as a deliberate power play, to establish dominance within Thailand’s broader ruling class, what scholar Duncan McCargo refers to as a “network monarchy.” If that’s the case, expect significant turmoil ahead, anything from a shake-up of the country’s top political and military leadership to a counter-coup, depending on what parts of the royal establishment or military the princess has support from.

Scenario 3: The king consented but changed his mind

It’s possible that the king was consulted and consented, and perhaps even helped engineer the nomination. His most likely motivation for doing so would be an attempt to engineer a grand bargain to bring an end to Thailand’s political polarization, in time for his coronation in May, when he is to formally succeed his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who sat on Thailand’s throne for 70 years.

Alternatively, the king may actually prefer an alliance with Thaksin and his parties and wish to cut loose from Prayuth and the military — and saw the nomination as a chance to assert the palace’s autonomy. If either of these is true, he might have reversed course because he underestimated the opposition from the military and arch-royalists, both of which have since pressed him to reverse the decision.

The reversal, then, would represent a tremendous loss of face for the king, and we could see some type of retaliation against Prayuth. The current army chief, Apirat Kongsompong, rose in the ranks through the King’s Guard, the division of the army in which the current king himself served during the 1970s. Prayuth hails from a different division of the army, a military faction known as the Eastern Tigers, who have been increasingly sidelined in the top military leadership’s recent reshuffles.

Thus there may be a counter-coup by the new military leadership under Apirat against Prayuth, who stepped down as army chief in October 2014 to focus on his role as prime minister. Rumors of such a coup have already begun to surface.

Scenario 4: The king and princess were working together 

Finally, we must consider the possibility that this all occurred with the king’s blessing, with the king and princess acting in concert. Since the king needed to remain neutral, the princess was allowed to proceed with her candidacy, knowing her brother would later prohibit the move. In this scenario, the nomination, however short-lived, was the monarchy’s signal that it preferred a political future that does not include Prayuth and may include a role for Thaksin and his allies.

The monarchy may suffer

Regardless of which scenario applies, the monarchy’s reputation may be damaged. Some may perceive these events as an uncoordinated or, worse, divided palace. This may cost the royal family support among the anti-Thaksin political camp. Some ultra-royalists quickly condemned the princess’s announcement.

More worryingly, Prayuth and the military might see this as a sign of unreliability, or even betrayal. The king’s rapid denouncement of the nomination goes some way toward reassuring the military, but at least some members of the junta are probably reevaluating the benefits of their partnership with the palace.

Discerning the motivations and machinations of Thailand’s political elite is never easy, but how the key players — the king, princess, Prayuth and Thaksin — react in the coming days will give us additional clues as to which scenario is more plausible.

Jordan Smith is an academic writing under a pseudonym because of concerns about possible retribution while in Thailand.