Princess Chulabhorn, the youngest daughter of the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is perhaps one of the most active political players in the Thai royal family. Very remotely eligible to be enthroned, Chulabhorn has found her way to ensure the political limelight even when the royal institution is supposedly above politics as clearly stipulated in the Thai constitution.
Since the military coup of 2006, the Thai monarchy has openly fought back against the so-called Thaksin’s threat. On 13 October 2008, Chulabhorn, as a “confidant” of her mother, Queen Sirikit, together attended the controversial funeral of Nong Bo, a yellow-shirt member. In that event, Sirikit praised the courage of Nong Bo who met with an untimely death while participating in the royalist mob led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). A large number of red shirts were enraged by the obvious partiality of the Queen and Chulabhorn. That event now serves as “National Enlightenment Day”.
Chulabhorn went on to further politicise the monarchy by deciding to appear on a popular talk show in 2011. The real purpose seemed to have been identifying the culprits behind the political violence erupted at the beginning of 2010. Then, the red shirt demonstrators gathered at Rachaprasong intersection demanding the military-backed Abhisit Vejjajiva government step down in order to pave the way for fresh elections. Instead, Abhisit responded their demand with bullets. Close to 100 protesters were killed and over 2,000 injured. In the aftermath of the deadly crackdowns, the Central World, a department store in the vicinity, was burnt down. Blame was placed on the red-shirts thus generating an arbitrary discourse of “burning down the city” or pao baan pao muang, used to both justify Abhisit’s earlier deadly handling of the red shirts and to forever tarnish the reputation, credibility and political standing of the red-shirts at the same time.
During that lengthy interview, Chulabhorn said succinctly that those (meaning the red shirts) who engaged in pao baan pao muang, were the root cause of her father’s deteriorating health. They were also responsibility of the national disunity. Yet, she failed to mention that people were killed, too. So, to her, the physical damage of a departmental store was more important than the loss of human lives.
As Sirikit is on her sick bed suffering from a stroke, Chulabhorn has gone on a solo mission. Being unable to compete with her more fashionable sister, Ubolrat, Chulabhorn has turned to politics as a way to remain in the spotlight. Like Ubolrat, Chulabhorn has exploited social media in achieving her popularity and building up royalist followers. She often sends short messages through her Instagram account, tzilah_mardy, to communicate with her fans. Contrary to her pompous personality, Chulabhorn chooses to call herself pii, or “older sister” to possibly signal her pretentious down-to-earth attitude.
In the period leading up to the shut down of Bangkok, Chulabhorn, once again, has not hesitated to reveal her political colour. She recently posted three photos of her. In the first photo, smiling at the camera sporting her long pigtail decorated with a Thai-flag ribbon, Chulabhorn sarcastically said (unofficial translation), “I may be charged as a traitor too as I adorned my hair with a Thai-flag ribbon. Well, this is because I love my country to death.” The second photo shows just her wrist ornamented with a Thai-flag wristband. The second was posted on her Instagram account in the early hour of the shut down of Bangkok spearheaded by Suthep Thaugsuban’s protesters. Her statement and her photos are certainly in support of Suthep’s movement to destabilise the Yingluck Shinawatra administration, as well as a crude response to the anti-mob groups, which continue to label Suthep and his supporters traitors. The last one, recently posted, directly condemned the Yingluck government for identifying the Thai flag with as a traitorous act. She said sarcastically, “But I am a traitor who loves Thailand.”
Like other royalists, what has driven Chulabhorn’s political mission could have been her sense of insecurity and anxiety over the imminent royal succession, the process in which she is likely to be further alienated. Whether it will be a power struggle between her two siblings, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and Princess Sirindhorn, or whether they will be a détente between them for the sake of the monarchy’s survival in the new age, Chulabhorn will not be a part of that royal power rearrangement. Sensing that the Thaksin clans may come to dominate the political space once her father passes from the scene, Chulabhorn has thrown herself into the political ring, hoping to exercise the prerogative of the palace to emasculate her political enemies. After all, the monarchy has remained a sacred institution, even to a less extent at the present day.
Chulabhorn is not covered by the draconian lèse-majesté law. Yet, defenders of the monarchy were more than willing to stretch this law to protect Chulabhorn, as shown in the case of Thai historian, Somsak Jeamthirasakul, who criticized her appearance on a televised talk show in 2011, being investigated by the Thai authority on a possible charge of lèse-majesté. Chulabhorn encapsulates herself within the protective walls of lèse-majesté while continuing to breach the supposedly traditional rule of the monarchy being above politics.
The open intervention in politics of Chulabhorn suggests a sense of desperation on the part of the monarchy in defending its position. But such practice of indiscreet political intervention went against the usual modus operandi of the monarchy, that of operating mostly behind the scene. And this surely was responsible for the rise of the anti-monarchy sentiment and as a result the rapid decline of the royal reverence, which had carefully been built up by her father, Bhumibol, over the past decades.