Royal command sets a new balance

The headquarters of the Thai Raksa Chart Party was quiet as a ghost town on the weekend after His Majesty the King's royal statement on the political candidacy of Princess Ubolratana. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

Thailand's political earthquake last Friday has caught observers at home and abroad off guard. Within half a day, Thai politics went through an unprecedented political roller coaster. It all ended with a press release from the royal palace at night, effectively reversing what had taken place in the morning.

What to make of the royal press release is a matter of interpretation. In the Thai language sphere, the carefully worded and balanced implication and direction of the press release is self-evident. But some of the leading English-language media have been off the mark in translating and interpreting it. Global audiences of Thailand's latest high political drama have thus been further flummoxed and flabbergasted.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

The events of Friday, Feb 8, will go down in Thai political history as both profound and unsurprising in the decade-long confrontation and conflict between political forces aligned with ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and those who have opposed him. His elected rule in 2001-06 was controversial and divisive for catering to and winning the hearts and minds of lower rungs of Thai society while committing abuses of power and graft that later led to his criminal conviction and exile. Yet Thaksin has remained a potent and persistent political phenomenon. His parties and proxies, including his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, have triumphed every time there was a poll in Thailand.

The latest controversy centres on what Thaksin must have seen as his trump card in Thai politics ahead of the upcoming poll, somewhat similar to the way the Yingluck government tried to pass an amnesty bill in his favour in October 2013. It was supposed to be a knockout punch, a checkmate of sorts, but it spectacularly boomeranged.

Rumours had swirled for days that Princess Ubolratana, the only elder sister of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and the eldest daughter of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, would be registered as Thaksin-backed Thai Raksa Chart Party's candidate for prime minister. When this bold, game-changing move came through, the country's political environment was shaken to its core. From a spare banner to the main Thaksin-aligned Pheu Thai Party, the move catapulted Thai Raksa Chart to the top. Princess Ubolratana instantly became frontrunner for the premiership in view of her royal roots.

But the dust settled by night time with the palace announcement. While this royal command has been referred to variously in key international media platforms as the King's "condemnation", "denunciation" and "rebuke" of the princess' entry into politics, its nuance, subtlety and balance suggest otherwise.

Overall, the royal command reads like a reminder and a reflection more than an instruction. There was no direct order of what has to be done but an indication of what cannot take place. The royal command can be analysed in three parts with four implications.

First, its basis is the late King Bhumibol's glorious reign that spanned seven decades. The last reign was so remarkable that the late King became "Father of the Nation", embodying its soul. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a good translation of the royal command but it is focused more on linguistic conveyance rather than overall meaning.

The second part of this concise and short palace statement pointed out that Princess Ubolratana is the eldest daughter of the late King Bhumibol and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, in addition to being the older sister of the current monarch. Despite having relinquished her royal title in writing, the princess is still part of the royal family, loved by his late Majesty and Her Majesty and respected and looked up to by Thai people.

Third, the princess has been performing royal duties and assuming the role of an immediate royal family member.

The royal status without the princess title is thus clear.

The first implication from the royal command is that engaging in politics as a senior royal violates the country's tradition, custom, and cultural norms. Such conduct is "unsuitable" and "inappropriate" for such a royalty. Other adjectives that convey this meaning may include "ill-suited", "improper" or "unbecoming".

The second implication indicates that all Thai constitutions have had a clause specifically related to the monarch and the special role of the monarchy in line with democratic government with the monarch as head of state. The monarch is above politics and beyond insult.

The third implication states that such a constitutional role and coverage of the monarch extends to immediate royal family members, as evident in their performance of royal duties on behalf of the King.

Finally, for these duties and obligations to be above and neutral require royal family members to refrain from politics because getting involved would violate the intent of the constitution and traditional practices of democratic government with the monarch as head of state.

The thrust of the royal command is more of a "reprimand" and "reproach" than outright criticism and condemnation. It was indirect but clear, based on reasoning and firmly within the frame of constitutional monarchy and democratic government.

It would appear from recent developments under the new reign that the royal family is no longer allowed to be used for political gains by both sides of the Thai divide. If so, it would be a profound change and welcome shift that could lead to a more level playing field as Thailand searches for a new balance.

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