Contradictory norms and practices left some wondering: Is Thailand’s latest contender for the prime minister seat a princess or not?
The answer to the question, which is likely to hang over coming campaign and touch upon issues of fair criticism and expression, for now depends on who you ask – though some of their answers are surprising.
Ubolratana Mahidol – daughter to the late King Bhumibol – insists she is a commoner after having surrendered her royal titles nearly five decades ago. But she is regarded as a princess by the media and much of society nonetheless.
“I’d also like to clarify that I have already relinquished all royal titles, and I am living as a commoner,” the former princess wrote online this afternoon.
Yet the royal palace has identified Ubolratana as a tul kramom – a royal title meaning a daughter born to the reigning king and queen – in every announcement ever since her return to Thailand in 2001. Tul kramom is often translated to be “princess” in English.
Those mentions are always infused with rajasap, a Khmer-inspired royal court language reserved only for the royal family. Rajasap is also employed by the local media, even in the very same news quoting her as saying she’s a commoner.
The Thai Raksa Chart Party, which nominates her as the prime minister candidate, also calls her a tul kramom in the registration document they submitted to election officials earlier this morning.
According to a reporter for TNN24 news site, she was instructed by the Royal Household Bureau to apply rajasap and “show the same royal respect” when writing about Ubolratana.
Participating in an online Q&A, lawyer and former Senator Kaewsan Atibodhi declared that Ubolratana is no longer a royal family member, and that fact should be made clear to the society.
“In fact, she can be prosecuted, jailed, ousted, impeached, criticized and reproved,” Kaewsan wrote. “Therefore, in order to maintain this principle, there must be a clear line that tul kramom is really separate from the monarchy.”
He added, “From a societal aspect, one cannot relinquish what’s in the blood.”
However, Kaewsan continued to address Ubolratana by the royal title tul kramom and urged others to do the same.
“We are Thai people. We are still her loyal people. If there is no explicit permission, we should not do so,” he replied to a question whether Thais can address her as “Mrs. Ubolratana.”
Ubolratana resigned from the royal family in 1972 just as she was about to marry an American. According to the royal court law updated in 1932, a princess must ask for the king’s permission in order to marry a person outside the palace circle. She must leave the nobility if permission is granted.
But technically Ubolratana never wrote down her marriage as the cause of resignation, preferring to cite her inability to carry various responsibilities as a royal family member.
A question being asked online is whether one can crack jokes or lash out at Candidate Ubolratana without fear of legal repercussion.
“The big question now is: Will it be allowed in the future to draw the Princess in a political cartoon if she becomes PM? And as a political candidate?” longtime political cartoonist Peray Stephane wrote online.
Although the lese majeste law only includes the king, the queen, the heir-apparent and the regent on the paper, the law has been applied to prosecute any negative comments about the monarchy in recent years.
In 2012, historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul was charged with lese majeste after criticizing Princess Chulabhorn – the youngest sister of Ubolratana – despite his protest that the law did not cover her.
As of Friday afternoon, many commentators were erring on the side of caution when referring to Ubolratana, but a challenge came from an unlikely source. Hardline royalist Sermsuk Kasitipradit urged his supporters to freely speak their minds about the former royal.
“Since she is without any royal rank, her interference with political parties can be admonished and criticized,” Sermsuk wrote. “And joining hand in politics with a party in which are some members accused of insulting the monarchy is something a certain group of people cannot accept.”
He also spoke in terms rarely heard when addressing the monarchy publicly until today: “Since she behaves like this, don’t expect any love or respect from the people of the king anymore.”