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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Thai Princess Finds Tumult in Politics, Like Life

Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, the first child of Thailand's beloved late king, has always been a bit of a rebel, and on Friday she shook Thai society by becoming the first member of the royal family to enter party politics.

By GRANT PECK, Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) — Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, the first child of Thailand's beloved late king, has always been a bit of a rebel, and on Friday she shook Thai society by becoming the first member of the royal family to say she would enter party politics.

Ubolratana Rajaka, princess of Thailand, attends the Thai Gala Night in Hong Kong on March 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

But hours later, her younger brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, commanded her to halt her bid to become prime minister, saying in an order read on television that no member of the royal family should be involved in politics.

It wasn't the first unexpected turn in a somewhat turbulent life. Ubolratana, 67, was born into royalty but is not exactly a royal princess, which distinguishes her from her three siblings: Vajiralongkorn, 66, Princess Sirindhorn, 63, and Princess Chulabhorn, 61. She lost her special royal titles more than four decades ago when she married a commoner, an American, but is still called and widely regarded as a princess.

But in practical terms, she today enjoys all, or most, of the same privileges as her siblings — except she is expected to be subservient to her younger brother, the king.

Energetic and ebullient, her main public activities involve a youth anti-drug campaign she founded called "To Be Number One," and promoting Thai tourism and movies at international forums. She dresses down when she's with the children she seeks to help and turns up the glamor at the official events.

On the side she does some acting — movies and TV dramas — some singing and occasional writing. She's on Instagram, where she often posts photos of her lifestyle along with un-royal casual comments for her almost 100,000 followers. More than 1,000 posted comments Friday, mostly congratulations on her bid to become prime minister.

She was registered Friday as a prime ministerial candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart Party, which is associated with the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, abhorred by conservative royalists as a corrupt rival for power. The army staged coups against Thaksin in 2006, and against a government that his sister had led in 2014.

Her nomination was made in the name Ubolratana Mahidol — after her paternal grandfather's surname — but her formal name is Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi. Her legal residence was listed as "Boromphiman Throne Hall" and "inside the Grand Palace."

Many Thais had assumed that she would not seek the nomination without her brother's blessing and were surprised that he would have supported her association with a party considered unsympathetic to the monarchy. But the king's surprise late-night order strongly suggested otherwise.

Because Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, the king and his immediate circle are not supposed to involve themselves directly in politics. Ubolratana falls into a gray area, since she no longer has her highest titles but is still regarded as a princess.

Her path to Friday's stunning developments diverged considerably from that taken by her brother and sisters, whose lives were mostly dictated by the demands of palace protocol, even though her brother in his younger days as heir apparent led the kind of lifestyle that caused his mother, Queen Sirikit, to describe him as a "Don Juan." Her more dutiful sisters were often tied down with confining ceremonial obligations.

Ubolratana was born on April 5, 1951, five years into the reign of her father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The young king was not yet the hyperactive advocate of development he later became, incessantly touring the remote corners of his kingdom, so she likely spent more time in his company than her younger siblings.

Visual evidence of how closely they bonded can be found in an iconic photo that shows father and daughter piloting a small sailboat together. The pair won a joint sailing gold medal at the 1967 Southeast Asia Peninsula Games.

It was shortly after that when Ubolratana's life took a soap opera turn. In the late 1960s, she was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from where her father was born while his own father was doing medical studies at Harvard.

Hippie and anti-war culture was near its height in the United States, and the already independent-minded Ubolratana may have absorbed her fair share of it. In what could be seen as an act of rebellion, she fell in love and in 1972 married a fellow student, an American named Peter Jensen.

King Bhumibol more or less disowned her after her marriage to a commoner and she was kept out of the limelight for almost a decade.

The estrangement wasn't absolute. Queen Sirikit and other family members visited her in the U.S., particularly after she gave birth to two daughters and a son. Ubolratana to some extent was living the typical American life, calling herself Mrs. Julie Jensen, having adopted the nickname Julie during her youth, reportedly in tribute to American singer Julie London.

Her marriage was perhaps too typically American — it ended in divorce in 1998.

Ubolratana made her first trip back to her homeland in 1980 for one of her mother's birthdays. More visits followed, and by 2001, she had moved back to Thailand and was regaining a sense of a normal, if privileged, life. As if trying to make up for lost time, she threw herself into a whirlwind of high society and celebrity building activities, including a provocative fashion shoot for a popular Thai women's magazine.

Tragedy struck in 2004 when her autistic 21-year-old son Bhumi died in the Indian Ocean tsunami. Her social life slowed down after that, and she doted on daughter Ploypailin, 37, a musician who is married with children of her own. Her other daughter, Sirikitiya, 33, has kept a low profile and appears to have returned to live in Thailand after an extended period in the United States.

Categories / Government, International, Media, Politics

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