Princess Ubolratana is a social media star, with a popular Instagram page and concerts on YouTube. (Shibani Mahtani/The Washington Post)

They stood in a row, shoulder to shoulder: thousands of students, government officials, nurses and others. They practiced making heart shapes with their fingers, a gesture popularized by South Korean pop bands.

Then they waited for the princess. 

Last month, she upended Thailand’s traditions with an attempt to run for prime minister in March elections. And — for the second time in her life — she also tested the long-held perceptions of near-divinity surrounding the country’s monarchy. 

Soon, she rolled into view. 

Princess Ubolratana was driven past in a golf cart, wearing high-heeled boots. A green Chanel bag was slung over her shoulder. The crowd dipped in unison, men and women curtsying before her in royal custom. They held up their finger hearts, and she made the gesture back, smiling.

She later changed into a shiny, short black dress, and performed nine songs at a high school just north of Bangkok as the students waved and clapped.

Ubolratana, 67, shook Thai politics to its core when she was named the prime ministerial candidate of a political party affiliated with ousted populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives as a fugitive outside Thailand. 

His movement has won every election since 2001, but has been thwarted from fully exerting power after a series of coups and corruption allegations. Thaksin’s supporters believe the charges are politically motivated.

The bid to turn the princess into a politician backfired spectacularly. A swift rebuke was issued by her brother, King Vajiralongkorn, and the party faces the almost certain prospect of dissolution before the March 24 elections.

But her brief foray into politics — little more than 72 hours — has opened a new, uncertain chapter in Thai politics, analysts say. 

The trouble is that it’s risky to talk about openly. Thailand has some of the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world, and perceived criticism of the king or royal family is punished by jail terms of three to 15 years. 

In whispers and indirect commentary, some political observers have expressed concern at Vajiralongkorn’s decision to publicly humiliate his sister, viewing her candidacy as one that could have brought long-needed reconciliation in Thailand in the first election since a coup five years ago. Some also believe the king’s announcement was not legally valid, and that Ubolratana’s candidacy should be permitted by law. 

The princess — whose full name is Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi — has shattered norms before.

She renounced her royal titles when she married an American in 1972, living as Julie Jensen in San Diego with her family until she divorced and returned to Thailand in 2001. She went back to royal duties and started a youth-focused anti-drug charity. The recent event in Pathum Thani was to open a new branch.

Despite her claims that she is an ordinary citizen, Ubolratana is undoubtedly treated like a member of the royal family, and some Thaksin supporters have criticized his embrace of the elite rather than the rural poor he has long championed. 

But most of all, analysts say, she has further normalized the royal family in the minds of some Thais. Ubolratana, a singer and actress, is already a social media star with a popular Instagram page and concerts on YouTube. 


Students await the arrival of Princess Ubolratana, the elder sister of the Thai king, at a school in Pathum Thani on the outskirts of Bangkok. (Shibani Mahtani/The Washington Post)

The drama has left Thais more curious than ever about the inner workings of the royal family and its place in Thai politics — especially as a new king, seen as less revered than his late father, prepares for his coronation in May.

“It is no longer a sacred thing,” said Supalak Ganjanakhundee, editor of the Nation newspaper and a longtime observer of Thai politics, referring to the monarchy. “It is not a fairy tale either, and this is getting more obvious.” 

The elections in March are the first since a military junta staged a coup in 2014 against the government of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. For Thais, who have not been able to exercise their power at the ballot since 2011, the atmosphere is electric.

Campaign banners line the streets of Bangkok, and new, young political faces are mobbed by fans demanding selfies in the city’s trendy shopping district. Rallies for the Thaksin-affiliated Pheu Thai Party have drawn crowds of thousands in the country’s northeast. 

The vote, however, will be heavily influenced by the military junta, hoping to secure more years in power, this time with the legitimacy of the ballot box — moving America’s oldest ally in the region away from its democratic promise. 

The military-run government has changed the country’s constitution to allow for the army to pick 250 senators in the Thai legislature, a third of parliamentarians. The handpicked bloc will help the government push through its candidate for prime minister after the elections, giving a leg up to prime minister and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is seeking to extend his term. 

The government has also amended voting procedures to make it difficult for any one party to win a landslide, widely seen as a way to stop Thaksin-linked parties from dominating the polls again.

“This is the political mechanism invented to take advantage of others,” Sudarat Keyura­phan, Pheu Thai’s leader, said in an interview. “To counter this unfair political mechanism, Pheu Thai must not just win the election, but it must win in a landslide.” 

Constitutional Court judges are expected to issue their decision Thursday on whether to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart, the party that put forward Ubolratana’s nomination. Judges said in late February that the evidence was so compelling that there was no need for a full trial.

If the party is dissolved, its leaders could face a lifetime ban on politics and it will lose the dozens of candidates it planned to field — a major blow to the Thaksin movement. 

“Thai politics have been so polarized for many years,” said Sabina Shah, a former DJ for a radio station aligned with Thaksin’s “red shirt” movement. “We needed a neutral person to be the leader of our country, and the princess could have done that.” 

Some analysts wonder if, behind the scenes, it was the ruling junta that gave the ultimate push to the king to overrule his sister, worried about its electoral prospects if it had gone up against a royal. 

“The election will not help Thailand move toward democracy, but instead to a new regime in which the military, the monarchy and the corporations are coming together to build a new structure,” editor Supalak said. “And in this, it is not clear if the army is controlling the king, or the king is controlling the army.” 

Paritta Wangkiat in Bangkok contributed to this report.