Societies long governed by a powerful hierarchy, such as a monarchy or military brass, often place a low value on individual citizens being self-governed and equal. In Thailand, which still has a mix of both types of rule, such a legacy got turned upside down on Friday.
Ubolratana Rajakanya, the oldest daughter of the late and much-revered king, announced she will run for prime minister in an election next month. And she will do so with a party popular with the poorest of the poor, the Thai Raksa Chart party.
Her surprise candidacy will be the first time a senior member of the highly respected royal family will participate in an election. At a deeper level, it sends a signal to many Thais about the people themselves being the font of a nation’s sovereignty, based on each individual’s sovereignty.
In announcing her candidacy on Instagram, Ubolratana illustrated the point: “I’d like to exercise my rights and freedoms as a citizen under the Constitution.” Her newly adopted party also expressed hope that her leadership would bring reconciliation to a sharply divided country.
If she wins the March 24 contest, Thailand may finally move beyond rule by gun or rule by semidivine inheritance. It could more firmly plant itself as being ruled by ballot.
The Southeast Asian nation has had a dozen military coups since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932. After a brief period of relatively free democracy starting in the 1990s, the military has taken power twice, in 2006 and 2014. It set up a new Constitution to ensure it keeps power through the Senate. Having a prime minister that most Thais regard as a beloved princess – the first child of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej – would possibly be a severe challenge to the military. She will be running against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the governing junta.
Ubolratana has a history of breaking from the monarchy. She relinquished her royal titles in 1972 and lived in California with an American husband until a divorce two decades ago. She has since revived her reputation in Thailand as a singer, actress, and activist. Her brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, dislikes her electoral bid.
For democracy to become deeply rooted in Thailand, people must be allowed to see themselves as equal participants in shaping their society rather than be compelled to look to royal authority or to generals who regard themselves as the source of social order. However the coming election shakes out, Ubolratana has taken a bold step in running as a mere citizen. For that she deserves a bow, although not of the royal kind.