Asian Insider Feb 11: Royal rumble in Thailand - the aftermath

The nomination of Ms Ubolratana Rajakanya as a candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart Party has pushed the deeply riven landscape of Thai politics into new territory.
The nomination of Ms Ubolratana Rajakanya as a candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart Party has pushed the deeply riven landscape of Thai politics into new territory.PHOTO: REUTERS

Asian Insider brings you insights into a fast-changing region from our network of correspondents.

BLUE BLOOD AND RED LINES

Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya’s stunning bid hijacked all the headlines but she was only one among 51 candidates nominated as prime minister for the March 24 elections. The rules allowed each of Thailand’s 33 political parties in the fray to field up to 3 candidates. The Election Commision must decide by Friday whether to endorse or reject the nominations.

The party that nominated the princess, Thai Raksa Chart, is also in the dock. An activist has petitioned the Commision, wanting it to be disqualified on the grounds that it violated the electoral law which says the monarchy may not be made use of in political campaigns. Just three months old and operating out of a rented office on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thai Raksa Chart is linked to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 military coup but harbours hopes of a comeback. Indochina Bureau Chief Tan Hui Yee recounts the royal rumble that has now derailed Thaksin’s ambitions.

Ms Ubolratana's nomination stirred up excitement not just because it was the first time a senior member of the royal family had crossed the threshold into politics but because her entry offered the potential of ending Thailand’s colour-coded conflict. Royalist and military elites, known as “yellow shirts”, have battled Thaksin’s “red shirts” for the last 13 years, could a princess have been the bridge?

Who is Princess Ubolratana: 5 things about the Thai royal

On the other hand, the move also blurred a critical red line for the monarchy - non-involvement in politics, says US Bureau Chief Nirmal Ghosh who reported from Thailand from 2003 to 2016.

More insights in his book, Unquiet Kingdom: Thailand in Transition, published in 2017.

CRUNCH TIME FOR TRADE TALKS

The clock is ticking down to March 2, when higher tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese exports to the US kick in unless Washington and Beijing find a way to end their months-long trade war.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will hold talks on Thursday and Friday with the Chinese team that will include President Xi Jinping’s key trade aide Vice-Premier Liu He. The mood is bearish, White House economist Larry Kudlow said last week that Washington and Beijing were a "sizeable distance" apart in talks.

Uncertainty is weighing on the markets, including in China where trading has resumed after a week-long Lunar New Year break.

At the same time, another clock’s also ticking and this may well suck the oxygen out of Trump Administration. Unless Mr Trump and Congress can reach a deal on funding border security by Friday, the federal government is headed for another shutdown.

NAJIB’S DAY OF RECKONING DELAYED

The corruption trial of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, was abruptly postponed on Monday. The trial was originally set to begin on Tuesday (Feb 12). But Harvinderjit Singh, one of Najib’s lawyers, told Reuters that the trial had been postponed pending an appeal by Najib. No new date was set.

The postponement does no favours to the Pakatan Harapan government already criticised for being slow in dealing with the 1MDB scandal.

For a  look back at what has been described as one of the worst kleptocracy scandals here.

The laundry list of allegations here.

And a look at Najib’s evolving presence on the social media, from bangsawan (aristocrat) to bossku (my boss).  

STORM IN A PUDDING CUP

A tantrum at the turnstile on the weekend came close to setting off a diplomatic incident between the Philippines and China.

Zhang Jiale, a 23-year-old Chinese art student in Manila, was stopped by a policeman for wanting to carry her cup of soya pudding into the metro station. Liquids are banned on trains after reports that militants from the south are plotting attacks on transport systems. Zhang argued, lost her temper and hurled the pudding straight at the policeman’s chest.

The incident, captured on camera, soon went viral on the social media. Outrage grew. “She not only disrespected a policeman; she disrespected the whole nation,” said Vice-President Leni Robredo. The immigration bureau is considering deporting her and declaring her an “undesirable alien”. It took Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin to call for calm and warn that stoking xenophobia could hurt Filipinos working on the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The disproportionate reaction is not that surprising, says Philippines Correspondent Raul Dancel. Many said Zhang’s behaviour reflected the way China views the Philippines - as a vassal state - because of President Rodrigo Duterte economics-driven foreign policy. Lawmakers are investigating claims that millions of Chinese migrant workers are working in the burgeoning online gambling industry, stealing jobs from Philippines and jacking up property prices.

THE PRIYANKA EFFECT

And, finally, she may not be a princess but her entry into politics is drawing as much attention.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the  sister of India's opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, made her political debut on Monday with a roadshow drawing thousands in Uttar Pradesh, a politically significant stat that sends the highest number of lawmakers to the lower house of Parliament.

Will she swing Congress fortunes in the general election that is due by May? Associate editor Ravi Velloor mulls the Priyanka effect in Indian politics.

That's it for today's. See you again tomorrow.

- Bhagya

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