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Archive for the ‘Siam Land of Thailand’ Category

Thailand seeks deeper cooperation as ASEAN ministers meet

July 31, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — Southeast Asian foreign ministers opened their annual meeting Wednesday with a call from host Thailand for deeper integration to expand trade and bolster prosperity in the region amid rising global challenges.

The meeting takes place in the shadows of rising security tension on the Korean Peninsula, China’s aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea and the U.S.-China trade war. ASEAN, seeking to boost its own voice as a global player, also plays host to a series of foreign ministers from key strategic and dialogue partners, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Thailand Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai told colleagues in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations they must be “more agile” amid increasing nationalism globally. “We must recognize that looking inward and being myopic is not our option and never will be,” he said in his opening speech. “Amidst a great turmoil, we must be more outward and forward looking than ever before.” He warned the road ahead “could be treacherous” but said greater cooperation among ASEAN members and outside partners could help sustain long-term growth.

“It is a difficult balancing act, but overcoming fear and distrust among ourselves, and between us and other powers will make ASEAN an integral part of sustainable global peace and prosperity that could lift all boats,” he said.

The struggle for influence between the U.S. and China has put ASEAN in a tight spot. ASEAN leaders at their summit meeting in June adopted an Indo-Pacific engagement framework that sought to find a middle ground and keep on the good side of both Washington and Beijing.

Beijing’s attempts to project its influence globally through its Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious development program of major infrastructure projects, while Washington is promoting its own vision strategy for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which Beijing regards as directed against it.

ASEAN’s concerns about China are sharpest in the South China Sea, where Beijing uses a projection of force to maintain a territorial claim over a huge area, with parts overlapping claims by ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

“Maritime cooperation” is one of the areas on which this year’s meeting agreed to focus, but where that involves China, it is marking progress by touting completion of an early draft maritime Code of Conduct including all the group’s concerns, but subject to revisions that are likely to drag on. Analysts suggest that even if the document is finally accepted by China, it will have no effective enforcement mechanism, and Beijing will act without any real restraints. Beijing can also count on its allies in ASEAN, such as Cambodia and Laos, blocking any consensus to confront China more boldly.

The prospect of economic cooperation seems brighter and there are hopes that most of the negotiating on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership can be completed by the end of this year. RCEP would include non-ASEAN members such as Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea.

Defusing tension on the Korean Peninsula was expected to be a big concern at the 27-member regional security forum ASEAN is also hosting this week. South Korea said the North fired two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast early Wednesday in its second weapons test in less than a week, seemingly raising the stakes for the security discussions.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, due to arrive late Wednesday, will be Washington’s point man at the ASEAN meetings. But he will have no significant North Korean interlocutor to deal with on the issue of denuclearization. Thai officials say Pyongyang’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho is not coming, and North Korea will instead be represented by its ambassador to Thailand.

Pompeo remained optimistic. He said Wednesday he’s very hopeful for a quick resumption in nuclear talks with North Korea despite the North’s recent weapons tests that have clouded already uncertain prospects for a return to the table.

Pompeo told reporters accompanying him to Thailand that some preliminary work on a new round of talks has been done but no dates have been set. The State Department says the lead U.S. negotiator, Stephen Biegun, will be in Bangkok for North Korea-related discussions but has not released his schedule.

“We think they’ll be started before too long,” Pompeo said. “I’m very hopeful.”

Associated Press Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee and Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.

Newly crowned Thai king begins 2nd day of coronation events

May 05, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn has launched the second day of coronation activities with a ceremony to grant new titles to members of the royal family. Vajiralongkorn on Saturday took part in an elaborate set of rituals, a mix of Buddhist and Hindu Brahmanic traditions, which established his status as a full-fledged monarch with complete regal powers. He had already been serving as king since the October 2016 death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The 66-year-old Vajiralongkorn began Sunday morning’s event before dignitaries in a hall at Bangkok’s Grand Palace by paying respects in front of portraits of his late father and mother, who has been hospitalized for an extended period. His mother, who was Bhumibol’s queen, was granted a new official title of Queen Mother.

As coronation begins, Thai king’s future role still unclear

May 03, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — Three days of elaborate centuries-old ceremonies begin Saturday for the formal coronation of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has been on the throne for more than two years. What Vajiralongkorn — also known as King Rama X, the 10th king of the Chakri dynasty — will do with the power and influence the venerated status confers is still not clear.

The 66-year-old monarch has sent mixed signals. Bursts of assertiveness alternate with a seemingly hands off approach in other matters — a perception girded by the amount of time he spends at a large residence in Germany.

On Wednesday, he suddenly announced his fourth marriage, to a former flight attendant who is a commander of his security detail, and appointed her Queen Suthida. The timing of the announcement, just ahead of his coronation, suggests a new commitment to his royal duties.

But he is likely to remain burdened by old gossip about his personal life that has dogged him since returning from his education in England and Australia. Many Thais are familiar with tales about his alleged exploits while he was crown prince, even though harsh laws mandate a prison term of three to 15 years for anyone found guilty of insulting the monarchy.

Vajiralongkorn early on was pinned with the reputation of a playboy, a trait that even his own mother acknowledged. He has gone through bitter divorces with three women who have borne him seven children.

His father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej — the only monarch most Thais had known when he died in October 2016 after seven decades on the throne — won most of his countrymen’s deep love and respect as an exemplar of rectitude and an avid cheerleader for his country’s economic development. His three sisters are frequently engaged in public service.

“The defining years saw King Bhumibol spending large amounts of time in provincial Thailand, visiting ordinary people,” said Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand Studies Program at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “We have yet to see similar behavior on the part of his heir.”

Paul Chambers, a political scientist at Naraesuan University in northern Thailand, finds Vajiralongkorn’s style “more hands off,” even as he has brought more of Thailand’s administration directly under the palace.

Vajiralongkorn’s early actions as king included replacing his late father’s loyalists with his own in key palace posts. Some of those he fired were called lazy, or arrogant, and in some cases, guilty of “extremely evil behavior.”

“The new king is a very decisive man, and he’s a very daring man, unlike his father,” asserts Sulak Sivaraksa, a conservative social critic. “His father was on the whole, a very quiet person, and he ‘suffered fools (gladly)’ around him. He knew (if) somebody cheated him and so, but he was very tolerant.”

There have been suggestions that the new king’s purges amount to an anti-corruption campaign. Such a case can be made, acknowledges Montesano. “But the same actions also appear to bespeak an interest in gaining or exerting greater control over certain institutions,” Montesano said. “That possible motive must be kept in mind.”

There is little question that Vajiralongkorn has tightened control over royal institutions and what amounts to political privileges. He surprised the country’s ruling junta when, “to ensure his royal powers,” he requested changes to a new constitution that had already been approved in a referendum. They acquiesced.

The powers he acquired centralize royal authority in his hands and make explicit his right to intervene in government affairs, especially in times of political crisis. Vajiralongkorn has also sought to shore up the palace’s finances, previously controlled by a vast and somewhat creaky bureaucracy. The palace’s fortune, estimated by sources such as Forbes magazine to be in the neighborhood of $30 billion, is largely controlled by the Crown Property Bureau, a professionally managed holding company with large stakes in real estate, banking and industry.

Vajiralongkorn instituted changes giving him tighter control to personally manage the bureau and its holdings. Vajiralongkorn’s greatest challenge is likely to be sorting out the palace’s relationship with the military.

His father Bhumibol and the army worked out a delicate balance of power, with the palace arguably holding the stronger hand, especially after a 1973 pro-democracy uprising temporarily discredited military rule. The army’s declared mission of protecting the monarchy became its shield against criticism.

But as Bhumibol’s health declined in the last decade and a half of his life, that balance began to shift. Now, with the army entrenched in government for five years after staging a coup in 2014, things seem to have shifted more in the military’s favor.

Vajiralongkorn has supporters in the military. He was educated at military academies, took part in 1970s counterinsurgency action against the Communist Party of Thailand, and is a qualified pilot in the air force, the service he is closest to.

There are special army units directly under the palace’s command, and Vajiralongkorn has augmented their strength. “He has sought to bring more army units under his personal control,” said Chambers. “Prior to his father’s death, the junta leaders seemed to have acted for the ailing and aged king but they were becoming too big for their britches, so to speak. Hence the new sovereign wanted to ensure personalized monarchical control over the military.”

Vajiralongkorn’s actions help restore the balance of palace-barracks relations and “reflect a diminution of the army’s own influence,” agrees Montesano. The relationship, however, is a two-way street. An election held under the junta in March has been widely seen as rigged to favor the military and its preferred candidate, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup and has headed the government since then.

When Vajiralongkorn’s older sister, Princess Ubolratana, lent her support to Prayuth’s opponents by agreeing to be their candidate for prime minister, the king immediately clamped down, declaring the action unconstitutional. He also issued a statement on the eve of the election saying that people should support “good people” to prevent “bad people” from gaining power and causing chaos, words that seemed to echo the junta’s justification for taking power following years of political tensions and occasional violence.

He is likely to be embroiled in the political battle again just a few days after his coronation, when election results are supposed to be certified and will almost certainly be challenged by the losers.

The Thai people, said Sulak, will probably be peaceful and “full of joy” during the coronation ceremony period. “But I’m not sure afterwards,” he said.

Thai king appoints consort as queen ahead of coronation

May 02, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn has appointed his consort as the country’s queen ahead of his official coronation on Saturday. An announcement Wednesday in the Royal Gazette said Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya is legally married to the 66-year-old king, and is now Queen Suthida.

Although she has been in the public eye for about three years, there has been little official information released about her and the news was a surprise to many Thais. She is reported to be 40 years old and to have previously worked as a flight attendant for Thai Airways International. The two reportedly met on a flight.

Suthida joined the palace guard in 2013 and became commander of the king’s security unit, currently holding a general’s rank. The new queen also has several top royal decorations. Vajiralongkorn has had three previous marriages and divorced his previous wife, with whom he has a son, in 2014. He became king after the death in October 2016 of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thai television, which broadcast the royal order Wednesday evening, showed a video of Suthida prostrating herself before the king. According to the announcer, she presented the king with a tray of flowers and joss sticks, and in return was bestowed traditional gifts associated with royal power.

TV showed the king in a white uniform and his bride in a pink silk traditional dress formally registering their marriage on Wednesday in his palace residence in Bangkok. The couple was seen signing a marriage certificate book, which was also signed by the king’s sister, Princess Sirindhorn, and Privy Council head Prem Tinsulanonda as witnesses. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and other senior officials were also in attendance.

Thai parties jostle for power after 1st election since coup

March 25, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — A military-backed party that based on unofficial results won the most votes in Thailand’s first election since a 2014 coup said Monday it will try to form a government, after a rival party also claimed it had the right to govern.

The conflicting claims following Sunday’s election highlight the deep divisions in Thailand, which has been wracked by political instability for nearly two decades. Uttama Savanayana, the head of the Palang Pracharat party that is backed by junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, said it would contact like-minded parties to form a new administration.

But earlier Monday, Sudarat Keyuraphan, leader of the Pheu Thai party that was ousted in the 2014 coup, said it would try to form a government because it won the most constituency races. The party is allied with exiled Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

“As we have said before, the party with the most seats is the one that has received the confidence from the people to set up the government,” Sudarat said. But the party faces an uphill battle because selection of the next prime minister will be decided by the 500-member lower house as well as a 250-member junta-appointed Senate.

The Election Commission announced the results of 350 constituency races but said full vote counts, which are needed to determine the allocation of 150 other seats in the House of Representatives, won’t be available until Friday.

Unofficial results show Palang Pracharat had the highest popular vote, which along with the appointed Senate puts Prayuth in a relatively strong position to stay in office and cobble together a coalition government. Analysts say the next government is likely to be unstable and short-lived, whichever party leads it.

The election is the latest chapter in a nearly two-decade struggle pitching conservative forces including the military against the political machine of Thaksin, a tycoon who upended tradition-bound Thailand politics with a populist political revolution.

Thaksin was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 military coup and now lives in exile abroad to avoid a prison term, but parties allied with him have won every election since 2001. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who led the Pheu Thai government that was ousted in 2014, also fled the country after what supporters said was a politically motivated prosecution.

The blunt-speaking Prayuth, who as army chief led the 2014 coup, has aimed to extend his hold on power by engineering a new political system that stifles the influence of big political parties not aligned with Palang Pracharat and the military.

Under the convoluted election system created by the junta, 350 of the lower house members are elected from constituencies and 150 are allocated to parties based on share of the nationwide popular vote.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the anti-junta Future Forward party, which polled in a strong third place after scooping up first-time voters, said the party won’t nominate him as a prime ministerial candidate to avoid a political deadlock.

He urged all parties that support a true democracy to form a coalition to trump the spoiling effect of the votes of 250 junta-appointed senators. The Election Commission’s secretary-general, Charoongwit Poomma, defended the EC’s handling of Sunday’s vote and said delays in announcing full results reflect its duty to ensure the election is free and fair.

“Elections in our country are not like other countries,” he said. “We have laws to determine whether the election was free and fair or not. It needs to go through the process of orange, yellow, red cards before results are announced,” Charoomwit said, referring to different levels of seriousness for election violations.

Thai party insists on right to form gov’t as votes counted

March 24, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — The leader of the party ousted in a coup five years ago insisted Sunday that the political grouping with the most votes in Thailand’s election should form a government, as unofficial results showed her party leading a military-backed rival.

Voting stations closed at 5 p.m. and meaningful results were expected within several hours. The formation of a new government, likely to be unstable and short-lived, could take weeks of haggling. In addition to early vote counts, an opinion survey taken in the days before the election and released after voting closed indicated that the ousted party, Pheu Thai, allied with Thailand’s exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, would win the most parliamentary seats but not enough to govern alone.

The military-backed Palang Pracharat party, meanwhile, would win the second-highest number of seats, according to the Suan Dusit survey of nearly 80,000 voters. “I insist that the party that receives the most votes has the right to form the government first,” Pheu Thai leader Sudarat Keyuraphan said a news conference after voting closed.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the blunt-speaking army chief who led the 2014 coup, is hoping to extend his hold on power after engineering a new political system that aims to stifle the influence of big political parties not aligned with the military.

About 51 million Thais were eligible to vote. Leaders of political parties opposed to military rule urged a high turnout as the only way to derail Prayuth’s plans. The election is the latest chapter in a nearly two-decade struggle between conservative forces including the military and the political machine of Thaksin, a tycoon who upended tradition-bound Thailand’s politics with a populist political revolution.

Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup and now lives in exile abroad to avoid a prison term, but parties allied with him have won every election since 2001. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who led the government that was ousted in 2014, also fled the country after what supporters said was a politically motivated corruption prosecution.

After the coup, political party gatherings were banned and pro-democracy activists and other dissenters were regularly arrested, interrogated and imprisoned. Just days before Sunday’s election, Pheu Thai said the houses of party officials and its campaign canvassers in some provinces were searched by military personnel in an act of intimidation.

Thais were voting for a 500-seat parliament that along with a 250-member junta-appointed Senate will decide the next prime minister. That setup means a military-backed figure such as Prayuth could become leader even while lacking a majority in parliament.

“I hope that the 250 senators who are appointed by the NCPO (junta) will respect the will of the people,” said Sudarat. Thailand’s powerful King Maha Vajiralongkorn issued a statement on the eve of the election that said the role of leaders is to stop “bad people” from gaining power and causing chaos. It was also broadcast on Thai television stations minutes before voting started.

Invoking a speech by his father, the previous Thai king who died in 2016 after reigning for seven decades, Vajiralongkorn said not all citizens can be transformed into good people so leaders must be given support in ruling to create a peaceful nation.

He urged government officials, soldiers and civil servants to look after national security. It was the monarch’s second notable intervention in politics recently. Last month, he demanded his sister Princess Ubolratana Mahidol withdraw as a prime ministerial candidate for a small Thaksin-allied party within 24 hours of her announcement.

When it seized power in 2014, the military said it was to end political unrest that had periodically turned violent and disrupted daily life and the economy. The claim has been one of the few selling points for the gruff Prayuth, who according to critics has overseen a period of growing inequality and economic hardship in Thailand.

“I want things to improve,” Narate Wongthong said after voting. “We had too many conflicts in the past and I want to see lots of people come out and vote.”

Associated Press journalists Hau Dinh, Grant Peck, Kaweewit Kawjinda and Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.

Thai polls regulator heeds king, blocks princess’ candidacy

February 11, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s Election Commission on Monday disqualified the sister of the country’s king from becoming a candidate for prime minister in next month’s general election, saying all royals have to be above politics and the monarchy must remain politically neutral.

The commission’s decision came after her brother issued an order describing Princess Ubolratana Mahidol’s political bid as inappropriate and unconstitutional. The Thai Raksa Chart Party last Friday registered Ubolratana as its candidate, defying precedent against royal involvement in politics.

Her choice of party was notable because the party is associated with the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup after being accused of abuse of power and disrespect for the monarchy.

A royal order late Friday night from King Maha Vajiralongkorn said tradition and law barred the princess from politics. Ubolratana’s involvement was seen as a challenge to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a 2014 military coup and is favored to win the March 24 election, which 55 parties are contesting. The military, a bitter foe of the exiled Thaksin, is closely allied to the palace.

Thai Raksa Chart on Saturday hastily issued a statement declaring its loyalty to the king and acceptance of his order, though it was technically too late to withdraw Ubolratana’s candidacy.

Thai princess’ political bid sunk by her brother, the king

February 08, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s chaotic politics took two astonishing turns Friday when the sister of the king made a historic bid to become prime minister, only to have him shut down her effort as “inappropriate” because it violated tradition and the constitution, which keep the monarchy from getting involved in politics.

The royal order from King Maha Vajiralongkorn was read on national television late Friday night, effectively scuttling the move by his older sister, Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, to become a candidate for the prime minister’s office after parliamentary elections scheduled for March 24.

It was the latest event to roil Thailand, which has been buffeted by coups, political comebacks and street violence for more than a decade. Ubolratana’s registration as a candidate was a stunning move, not only because it would have broken a taboo on a senior royal running for public office, but also because it would have allied her with the Thai Raksa Chart Party, considered by many royalists to be unsympathetic to the monarchy.

It is one of several parties linked to the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications billionaire who roared to power in 2001 with populist policies that made him practically unbeatable. The army eventually ousted him from the prime minister’s office in a 2006 coup.

The turnaround in Ubolratana’s fortunes was also seen as startling because the siblings are thought to be close and it was considered unthinkable that Ubolratana would make her move without her brother’s permission. What actually had happened behind the scenes is unlikely to become public, because the Thai royal family’s private affairs are almost never leaked.

Vajiralongkorn tried to soften the blow by acknowledging that his 67-year-old sister has already relinquished her formal royal titles, and he praised her for conducting charity work and otherwise earning the love of her family and the Thai people.

But his order stressed that Thailand’s constitution insists that the king and those around him stay above politics, and the principles of democratic government also put politics off-limits. “Even though she relinquished her title according to royal laws … she still retains her status and position as a member of the Chakri dynasty,” the king’s order said.

“Bringing high-ranking royal family members to be involved in the political system, in any way, is an act that is against the ancient royal protocol and national custom and culture, and is seen as a highly inappropriate act,” the statement added.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the preferred candidate of the military, is considered to be indelibly loyal to the monarchy. He led the 2014 military coup that ousted Thailand’s last elected government, which had been backed by Thaksin.

Prayuth had been considered the front-runner for the March election because changes in the constitution and election rules implemented by his government make it difficult for political parties without military backing to capture the prime minister’s post.

Thailand also has a draconian lese majeste law which punishes defamation of the immediate royal family with up to 15 years in prison. While it does not technically apply to Ubolratana, who lost her highest royal titles when she married an American more than four decades ago, its scope has been widened in recent years to almost anything that sullies the royal institution, making criticism of the princess highly problematical.

Before the king’s statement, Ubolratana had issued a statement on Instagram saying she has “no special privileges above the Thai people under the constitution.” “This act of mine, I have done out of sincerity and intention to sacrifice in this request to lead the country to prosperity,” she said.

Parliament has had members who were distant relatives of the monarch. Ubolratana falls into a gray area, since she is commonly called a princess and treated as such, despite losing the royal designations after her marriage.

Hours after she was registered as a candidate, a political party supporting Prayuth filed an objection with the Election Commission, arguing that the action broke rules banning the use of the royal institution as part of a political campaign. Several other complaints followed, mostly from conservative royalists, exposing a possible vulnerability in her plans.

Ubolratana is the first-born of four children of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit, with the current king the second-born. She was virtually disowned by her father in 1972 when she married American Peter Jensen, who was a fellow student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They settled in the United States where they had three children. They later divorced and she moved back permanently to Thailand in 2001.

Since then she has thrown herself into charity work, especially her “To Be No. 1” foundation to fight youth drug abuse. She also frequently promotes Thai tourism and movies at international forums. In general, like most of the royal family, she publicly kept herself aloof from Thailand’s recent political turmoil.

For most of Bhumibol’s reign from 1946 to his death in 2016, the revered and humble monarch was a stabilizing force in Thai politics. But the election of Thaksin in 2001 was transformative for Thailand.

His populist policies delivered unmatchable electoral majorities, but he was resented by the traditional ruling class, including royalists and the military. Violent street protests and two military coups have marked the years since. Thaksin went in exile in 2008 to avoid serving jail time on a corruption conviction he insists was politically motivated.

His well-funded political machine returned his allies to power twice, and his maneuvering was seen as the key element in arranging for Ubolratana’s selection by a Thaksin-affiliated party. Most political observers agree that Thaksin aggressively pursued good relations with the current king and friendship with the princess herself. These links were formed as royalists and others loyal to Bhumibol accused Thaksin of showing disrespect for the throne, and even of harboring secret republican tendencies.

When Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne, conventional wisdom saw him as tightening his grip on power by allying himself closely with the military. The surprise move by his sister into politics — assumed to be with the king’s approval — raised questions about whether the long-lasting partnership of the palace with the army is in jeopardy.

Associated Press writer Kaweewit Kaewjinda contributed.

Historic candidacy of princess upends tradition in Thailand

February 08, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — A Thai political party on Friday named a princess as its nominee to be the next prime minister, upending tradition of the palace eschewing politics and upsetting all predictions about what might happen in next month’s elections.

The selection of Princess Ubolratana Mahidol by the Thai Raksa Chart Party marks a shock realignment of Thai politics by tying the king’s eldest sister to the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which hardcore royalists have long dismissed as opposed in spirit to the monarchy.

And it pits her against the preferred candidate of the military, which is considered one of Thailand’s most royalist institutions. Current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup that ousted Thailand’s last elected government, on Friday accepted his selection as candidate to lead the next government by Palang Pracharat Party, widely seen as a proxy for the military.

Prayuth had been considered the front-runner for the March 24 polls because changes in constitutional law and election rules were implemented by his government in a manner making it difficult for political parties without military backing to capture the premier’s post.

But Ubolratana’s de facto alliance with the forces of the exiled Thaksin — whose comeback the military has made every effort to block — puts Prayuth’s supporters in an extremely awkward position. Because she will be seen as a representative of the monarchy — the nation’s most revered and respected institution — it will be difficult to block her political rise.

“This is a game changer,” said Allen Hicken, a political scientist at the University of Michigan specializing in Southeast Asian studies. “In the event Thaksin-aligned parties win the election, it makes it very difficult for the military and royalists to contest, protest, or seek to overturn the result.”

Ubolratana was not present when her name was registered with the Election Commission by the Thai Raksa Chart Party. Its leader, Preechapol Pongpanit, said its executive committee “agrees that Princess Ubolratana, who is intelligent and capable, is the most appropriate name.” She made no known public appearances Friday.

“From my point of view, I think she understands Thai politics. She understands democracy,” he told reporters. Because Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, the king and his immediate circle are not supposed to involve themselves directly in politics. Parliament has had members who were distant relatives of the monarch. Ubolratana falls into a gray area, as she is commonly called and treated as a princess, but her highest royal titles were taken away when she married an American more than four decades ago. Just hours after she was registered, another political party supporting Prayuth filed an objection with the Election Commission, arguing that the action broke rules banning the use of the royal institution as part of a political campaign.

Ubolratana, 67, is the first-born of four children of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit, with the current king the second-born. She was virtually disowned by her father in 1972 when she married an American who was a fellow student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They settled in the United States where she and her husband, Peter Jensen, had three children. Only after a divorce did she move back permanently to Thailand in 2001.

Since then she has thrown herself into charity work, especially her “To Be No. 1” foundation to fight youth drug abuse. She also frequently promotes Thai tourism and movies at international forums. In general, like most of the royal family, she publicly kept herself aloof from Thailand’s recent political turmoil.

For most of Bhumibol’s reign from 1946 to his death in 2016, the revered and humble monarch was a stabilizing force in Thai politics. But the election of the telecommunications tycoon Thaksin in 2001 was transformative for Thailand.

His populist policies delivered unmatchable electoral majorities, but he was resented by the traditional ruling class, including royalists and the military. Violent street protests and two military coups have marked the years since. Thaksin went in exile in 2008 to avoid serving jail time on a corruption conviction he insists was politically motivated.

His well-funded political machine returned his allies to power twice, and his maneuvering is seen as the key element in arranging for Ubolratana’s selection by a Thaksin-affiliated party. Most observers of Thai politics agree that Thaksin aggressively pursued good relations with Ubolratana’s brother, current King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and friendship with the princess herself. These links were formed as royalists and others loyal to Bhumibol accused Thaksin of showing disrespect for the throne, and even of harboring secret republican tendencies.

Thai Raksa Chart Party chief Preechapol brushed aside questions about Thaksin. “I don’t think that Khun (Mr.) Thaksin will be involved about this,” he said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about a third person.”

When King Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne, conventional wisdom saw him as tightening his grip on power by allying himself closely with the military. The surprise entry of his sister Ubolratana into politics — assumed to be with the king’s approval — raises questions about whether the long-lasting partnership of the palace with the army is in jeopardy.

“Assuming that this is proceeding with the blessing of the King, this suggests that the Crown is trying to chart its own course through Thailand’s turbulent political waters, placing some distance between itself and the military,” Hicken said.

He acknowledged, however, that it is too soon to tell what end result the king has in mind.

Associated Press writer Kaweewit Kaewjinda contributed to this report.

Thai police: Canada, Australia willing to accept Saudi woman

January 11, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — Several countries including Canada and Australia are in talks with the U.N. refugee agency on accepting a Saudi asylum seeker who fled alleged abuse by her family, Thai police said Friday.

Thailand’s immigration police chief, Surachate Hakparn, told reporters the U.N. was accelerating the case, though he gave no indication of when the process would be complete. Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was stopped at a Bangkok airport last Saturday by Thai immigration police who denied her entry and seized her passport.

While barricading herself in an airport hotel room, the 18-year-old launched a social media campaign via her Twitter account that drew global attention to her case. It garnered enough public and diplomatic support to convince Thai officials to admit her temporarily under the protection of U.N. officials.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees granted her refugee status on Wednesday. Alqunun’s case has highlighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Several female Saudis fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many similar cases have gone unreported.

By Friday, Alqunun had closed down her Twitter account. Sophie McNeill, a reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who got in contact with Alqunun while she was stuck in the airport hotel room and has kept in touch with her, said Friday in a Twitter posting that Alqunun “is safe and fine.”

“She’s just been receiving a lot of death threats,” McNeill wrote, adding that Alqunun would be back on Twitter after a “short break.” Alqunun had previously said on Twitter that she wishes to seek refuge in Australia.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met with senior Thai officials in Bangkok on Thursday. She later told reporters that Australia is assessing Alqunun’s request for resettlement but there was no specific timeframe.

Payne said she also raised Australia’s concerns with Thai officials about Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old former member of Bahrain’s national soccer team who was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017 after fleeing his homeland, where he said he was persecuted and tortured.

He was arrested while on holiday in Thailand last November due to an Interpol notice in which Bahrain sought his custody after he was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalizing a police station — a charge he denies. Bahrain is seeking his extradition.

Al-Araibi’s case is being considered by Thailand’s justice system, she said.

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