Thailand 'stunned' by Princess Ubolratana's bid to run for PM

Thailand's military regime under PM Prayuth Chan-Ocha has been taken by surprise after Princess Ubolratana said she will contest in the next elections. A Thai journalist explains what the move means for Thai politics.

Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, formally known as Ubolratana Rajakana Sirivardhana Barnavadi, has announced her candidacy for the general elections in Thailand scheduled for March this year. Ubolratan is the daughter of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the elder sister of Thailand's current monarch, Maha Vajiralongkorn.

The elections will be the first since a military coup in 2014, when then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ex-PM Thaksin, was ousted from office. The princess will contest the polls as a member of the Thai Raksa Chart Party, an opposition group founded by the allies of former PMs Yingluck and Thaksin. DW spoke to Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk about the implications of this decision by a member of the Thai royal family.

Read more: Will Thailand's military step aside after elections?

DW: Princess Ubolratana Mahidol has announced that she would like to become the next prime minister of Thailand. What does this mean for the military government?

Pravit Rojanaphruk: It means that the military junta and its political party are facing a real uphill battle in the upcoming elections. The military regime has been in power for the past four and a half years and has founded a party — the Palang Pracharat Party — which nominated Prayuth Chan-ocha as their candidate for prime minister.

Prayuth led the coup in May 2014 and later became prime minister. He and his party will face a truly uphill struggle to compete with Princess Ubolratana, the eldest daughter of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The military regime led by Prayuth Chan-ocha has been in power in Thailand for the past four and a half years

What has motivated the princess to enter politics?

She is known to be an extrovert. She loves to engage with people. I think that may partly explain why she may be attracted to public service and politics. Over the last few years, she has been deeply involved in her own projects, including a campaign to keep the youth away from drugs, for example.

She is also very popular on Instagram with over 90,000 followers, although her account has been made private some time ago. Now you can't follow her unless you were following her prior to that change. She has also acted in some TV soaps. So we are dealing with a member of the royal family who is at least being perceived as being very acceptable for the people and who enjoys being public.

Read more: Thailand on its way back to democracy?

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What is the significance of the princess joining a political party run by the Shinawatra family?

It is likely that some arrangements have been made. The princess has been known to be in good terms with members of the Thaksin family. In this regard, it is not a surprise. What is surprising is that, for the first time in Thailand's modern political history, a member of the royal family is contesting for the post of prime minister. 

The princess is a member of the royal family. Does that mean she is protected by the rigid lese majeste law in Thailand which bans any criticism of the royal family?

Princess Ubolratan relinquished her royal title years ago when she married an American, whom she later divorced. So technically, she is not covered by the lese majeste law, because the law stipulated that it is the king, the queen and their heirs, who are protected.

Pravit: 'The princess' candidacy means that the military junta and its political party are facing a real uphill battle in the upcoming elections'

Having said that, Thai tradition stipulates that there is a lot of unwillingness to publicly say anything critical against any member of the royal family, and we have seen this happening in the last two days. While the foreign media have been naming her as the likely candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart party, Thai media censored itself and her name was not mentioned until they made it official this morning that she was contesting.

Are there any reactions by the military government yet?

They are stunned. They have been very quiet. The deputy prime minister has refused to answer any question. Even some political parties, as we speak, are undecided with regard to their willingness to support Ubolratana as the prime ministerial candidate. In the next few hours, some parties are expected to announce whether they will support her or not — and we are not talking about the parties which are on the side of the military junta. 

Pravit Rojanaphruk is a Thai journalist, working for the Thai daily Khaosod English.

The interview was conducted by Rodion Ebbighausen.