Princess Ubolratana: The MIT graduate who could be Thailand PM

First child of the late King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit is a gold medalist in SEA Games and an HIV-awareness advocate.

Princess Ubolratana Mahidol
In her teenage years, Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi shared a gold medal in sailing at the Southeast Asian Games in 1967 [Jorge Zapata/EPA]

Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi on Friday upended military-ruled Thailand‘s politics by becoming the prime ministerial candidate.

The elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn has been declared the prime ministerial candidate for a party loyal to deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a March 24 general election, the party said on Friday.

The unprecedented move to nominate Princess Ubolratana, 67, breaks the long-standing tradition of Thai royalty staying out of politics.

Despite having spent much of her life breaking royal norms and protocols, marrying an American and singing pop songs on talent shows, entering politics is seen as Ubolratana’s boldest move yet.

The monarchy is considered sacred and above reproach in Thailand. For instance, roads are routinely cleared for royal convoys and senior members attend events surrounded by courtiers and cloaked in palace protocols.

But while Ubolratana is afforded the same privileges, she has cultivated a more accessible image than her reserved younger brother and shown a knack for reading the sentiments of ordinary Thais.

With her unprecedented candidacy, Ubolratana is set to face off against the leader of the ruling military government, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who announced his candidacy on Friday.

On Thursday, Ubolratana’s latest Instagram post generated debate, as rumours swirled that she had agreed to stand as a prime ministerial candidate. In the picture, she was all smiles, holding red flowers and wearing a traditional dress from northern Thailand.

The signal was clear: the Shinawatras’ heartland is Thailand’s north and their political colours are red.

Now, Prayut’s chances of returning as premier are getting “smaller and smaller”, Puangthong Pawakapan, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, told the AFP news agency.

“Just the idea that Prayut would not gain support from the palace in the upcoming election may cause him to lose popular legitimacy,” Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University, said before the announcement as rumours swirled.

Key events in Ubolratana’s life:

1951: Ubolratana was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, the first child of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit while her father was studying science at the University of Lausanne. She was given the title “Her Royal Highness, Chao Fa” (lady of the sky) before the family moved back to Thailand in December that year.

In October 2016, Princess Ubolratana's father, King Bhumibol, died and her brother, Maha Vajiralongkorn, assumed the throne later that year [Pongmanat Tasiri/EPA]
In October 2016, Princess Ubolratana’s father, King Bhumibol, died and her brother, Maha Vajiralongkorn, assumed the throne later that year [Pongmanat Tasiri/EPA]

1960s: In her teenage years, she shared her father’s love of sports. The pair shared a gold medal in sailing at the Southeast Asian Games in 1967.

1969: The princess set off for Boston to study nuclear physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

1972: She met and married American MIT classmate, Peter Jensen. She relinquished her royal titles as required as a result of marrying a foreigner.

1973: Ubolratana graduated MIT with a bachelor’s degree. She later settled in southern California taking the name Julie Jensen. She had three children with Jensen and did not return to Thailand for eight years.

1975: She received a master’s degree in public health at the University of California, Los Angeles.

1992: She founded the Ubolratana Foundation, which supports children orphaned by HIV-related illnesses.

1998: Ubolratana and Jensen divorced. She brought their three children back to Thailand and resumed royal duties.

2002: Ubolratana launched “To Be Number One”, an anti-drug campaign for at-risk youth and teens.

2003: Ubolratana starred as a princess in a soap opera set in the Ayutthaya period, “Kasattriya”.

2004: Ubolratana’s son, Poomi, was killed in the Indian Ocean tsunami.

2008: She starred in a film based on a novel she wrote in which she played a businesswoman who becomes a volunteer teacher.

2016: King Bhumibol died in October and her brother assumed the throne later in the year.

2018: Pictures of Ubolratana, Thaksin and his sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, at the World Cup in Russia appeared on social media.

Source: News Agencies