Published:  12:30 AM, 10 February 2019

Hope flickers … and dies … in Thailand

Hope flickered in Thailand, for a few shining moments, and then was snuffed out. When Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi announced her intention the other day to contest the forthcoming 24 March elections as the prime ministerial candidate of the Thai Raksa Chart party, which is linked to former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, many in her country were enthused.

The enthusiasm was related to the fact that Thais saw a real chance of sending Prayut Chan-o-cha, the army chief who seized power some years ago and has since been prime minister, out to pasture. After all, even though Ubolratana dispensed with her royal rights, status and privileges when she married an American in 1972, she had star power. It was power accentuated by her role in drama and cinema as also by her devotion to social causes.

The princess' candidacy has now effectively come to an end after the Thai Raksa Chart party, initially in celebratory mood in anticipation of a tough contest taking place at the voting, withdrew its support from her. That Ubolratana's candidacy was threatened with fizzling out was made clear when her younger sibling, King Vajiralongkorn, issued a statement describing her candidacy as inappropriate for a member of the royal family.

In a country where royalty is held in deep reverence, it was unthinkable for the king, who succeeded his father Bhumibol Adulyadej three years ago, to imagine that his sibling could upend politics in such a dramatic fashion. Perhaps the princess could have carried on despite her brother's statement, given that she does not have any royal title and to all intents and purposes is a commoner. The party on whose behalf she stepped forward to participate in the election stepped back and that was the point when her candidacy died.

Ubolratana's withdrawal from the election has certainly come as a matter of huge relief for Prayut Chan-o-cha and the regime he heads. In the years since the coup which brought him to power, Prayut has systematically curbed civil liberties and has ensured through tinkering with the constitution that he and his fellow soldiers remain in power. The prime minister has largely governed with the support of the urban elite, whose opposition to the rural masses whose support for the Shinawatras endures, has been pronounced many times over.

It is impressive that the Shinawatras are yet supported by a majority of Thais, to a point where if elections are held freely and without interference by the military, they will win hands down. It was such a prospect people in Thailand and outside looked forward to when Princess Ubolratana announced her prime ministerial candidacy.That opportunity has passed.

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