Film Star Thai Princess Challenges Generals in Election Bid, in Nation Where Criticizing Royals is Illegal

Thai Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya at the Pusan International Film Festival in Busan, South Korea, on October 10, 2010. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Update: Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn has rebuked his older sister Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya's bid to run for prime minister as "inappropriate," the BBC reported.

"Involvement of a high-ranking member of the royal family in politics, in whatever way, is an act that conflicts with the country's traditions, customs, and culture and therefore is considered extremely inappropriate," he said in a televised statement.

Original story:

The elder sister of Thailand's reigning monarch, who in the past has styled herself as a film star and a social media sensation, is running to lead the country as prime minister, causing a seismic political upset.

Princess Ubolratana, 67, who technically gave up her royal status when she married a U.S. biochemist in 1972, was announced as a candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart Party on Friday and is seen as prominent contender for the prime ministership, Agence France-Presse reported.

The shock announcement appears to have upended both Thai royal tradition and the country's precarious political balance in one stroke. The decision by the princess to run is made yet more contentious because it appears to have come with the blessing of her brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Australian broadcaster ABC reported. Strict laws in Thailand make it illegal to criticize the royal family.

The princess is technically not protected by Thailand's lèse-majesté laws, which make it a crime to criticize, defame or insult certain members of the royal family. However, with the apparent endorsement of the king, she falls in an uncomfortably ambiguous legal area. She has been viewed as a de facto member of the family for the past 18 years.

While the lèse-majesté laws may apply to her indirectly because of her brother's blessing, she is, at the least, expected to be treated with extreme deference by the media and the Thai public.

Champa Patel, head of London-based Chatham House's Asia-Pacific program, told Newsweek the situation was unprecedented. "As a member of the Thai monarchy, which is highly revered in Thailand, there is an assumption she could be shielded from criticism because of the strict lèse-majesté laws within the country," she said.

Ubolratana's ascendancy to the head of the Thai Raksa Chart Party, backed by Thaksin Shinawatra, an exiled billionaire and a former prime minister, seems to have cut away royal support for incumbent Prayut Chan-O-Cha, leader of the country's junta and the military party's candidate in the upcoming March 24 election.

That race had partly been viewed as a referendum on a new constitution cementing the military's pre-eminent role in Thai politics. The royal family's support for the military had, up until this moment, appeared to be unwavering. Before the upset, the election was seen as a straightforward contest between the military and royalist establishment against Thaksin's populist allies, The Guardian reported.

"The irony is that it is the military who broadened the scope and application of [the lèse-majesté laws] in practice, and, as such, they may have created a rod for their own backs in terms of how the laws may be interpreted," Patel said. "The scene is now set for high political theater, with the monarchy lined up on one side against the current ruling military junta."

Following the death of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016, the nation has experienced increased instability, with violent street protests. Until now, Ubolratana, like the rest of the royal family, had held herself above the political fray.

The princess returned to Thailand in 2001 following her divorce from Peter Jensen, whom she had met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She then embarked upon a career in show business two years later, the BBC reported.

In 2003, she starred in a TV drama, and she went on to act in several movies. In 2017, she appeared in viral videos shared on social media, which showed her singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."