POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 29, 2014
BANGKOK » With a buzzer installed in her house to summon her servants and a royal title that helps secure choice tables at Bangkok restaurants, Malinee Chakrabandhu is a bona fide member of the Thai aristocracy.
She is also a self-described "black sheep" of her family, a champion of elections at a time when many in Thailand's upper classes are calling for the overthrow of the government and a suspension of democracy.
"My daughter would like to shut me up," Malinee, 66, said in an interview in her living room, decorated with family photos of Thailand's king and other members of the royal family. "I told her, 'If you don't care about poor people, that's fine. You can remain with the rich.'"
Thailand's protracted political crisis, so severe that some analysts are warning of a civil war, is a power struggle between a political movement that has won every election since 2001 and an opposition that says the governing party represents a "dictatorship of the majority." Both sides say that if elections are held on Sunday as planned, the governing party will almost certainly win again.
Broadly speaking, the crisis has also polarized the country between north and south, between old money and new money and between Bangkok and the provinces.
But at the level of individual Thais, the splintering of society is more complicated, and more personal. Political battles are raging within families, between bosses and their employees, within university classrooms and among government agencies.
Even families at the very top of the country's political hierarchy find themselves split. Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the opposition Democrat Party, is allied with the protesters and is boycotting Sunday's elections. His cousin Suranand Vejjajiva is a top adviser to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose party is fighting to make sure the elections are held.
Malinee says that she has lived through plenty of turmoil in Thailand, including a number of military coups, and that the current impasse is "the worst situation I've seen in my life."
Political passions have caused a feud within her family — in one telling sign of it, she has blocked her four sisters on social media — and have left her besieged by criticism from opponents of the government.
When an article about Malinee appeared last week in a publication that supports the protesters, readers posted hundreds of biting and derogatory comments. In a country renowned for etiquette and politeness, such invective toward a member of the extended royal family was once unthinkable; now it illustrates how far the civility of public discourse has plunged in Thailand. Protesters of all stripes in recent years have freely employed coarse epithets, often to cheers from the crowd.
Malinee, a direct descendant of Rama IV, a 19th-century king, says the protesters drove her to become more public about her views.
She resents that the protesters have shut down some parts of the city — "we also own the streets," she says — and is angry that the leader of the protests, Suthep Thaugsuban, tells anyone who disagrees with the action to leave the city.
Suthep has vowed to obstruct the elections, and wants to replace Parliament with an unelected council that would "reform" the country. Malinee describes it as a "council of dogs."
Last week, she went on television and lashed out at protesters for blocking elections, calling them "power-seeking thieves."
"We want to vote — we are all human beings here," she said in the interview. "Everyone should be equal, street vendors and me — everyone."
Malinee, whose title is Mom Rajawongse, an esteemed signifier of royal ancestry, has an uninhibited personal style that has made her a fixture on the cocktail circuit in Bangkok. For an interview, she wore a T- shirt emblazoned with "Respect My Vote."
Splits in other prominent families are playing out on national television and on social media. On Sunday, after protesters blocked several hundred thousand voters from casting ballots early, Ongart Klampaiboon, the deputy head of the Democrat Party, told reporters that the government was being "hardheaded" in holding the elections and called the voting a "waste." A few hours later, his brother, Sirote Klampaiboon, a prominent scholar with diametrically opposing views, went on television to denounce the blocking of voting as "political thuggery" and called the election the "victory of people who are against mob rule."
The feuding within Malinee's family is in some ways more striking, though, because the views of the extended royal family are rarely discussed in Thailand — partly because of a law, interpreted broadly by the courts in recent years, that imposes a prison term on anyone who "defames, insults or threatens" the most senior members of the monarchy.
Only one member of the immediate royal family has appeared to publicly take sides in the political crisis. Princess Chulabhorn Walailak, the youngest daughter of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has posted photos of herself wearing what appeared to be the red-white-and-blue ornamentation favored by the protesters. A weekly newspaper called her the "princess of the great mass of the people," a reference to a catchphrase of the protesters.
Malinee remains firmly embedded in the aristocracy in some ways. She speaks glowingly about the king, and is a strong supporter of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Her daughter, who works at the company that imports Ferrari cars into Thailand, married into the Bhirombhakdi family, which owns the country's oldest brewery and has many connections to the palace. One member of the Bhirombhakdi family is a protest leader.
Malinee, whose nickname is Yingmud, says she gets her "liberal" attitudes from her late father, Prince Chakrabandh Pensiri, a musician who was a close friend of King Bhumibol and composed songs with him.
In the color-coded shorthand of Thailand's political crisis, Malinee describes herself as red, while the rest of her family is yellow.
Reds are often thought of as backers of the movement founded by the prime minister's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who was deposed in a 2006 military coup. But the definition is shifting, and Malinee says she interprets red to mean a fighter for justice and support for poorer Thais.
To be "yellow" in Thailand traditionally means to strongly support the monarchy. Now, though, it has come to signify a more general mistrust of electoral democracy by those who feel trampled by the majority.
Malinee says she does not know Thaksin, beyond two encounters at public events, but she praises him for introducing universal health care and measures to help the provinces. As for the allegations that Thaksin had raised the level of corruption in the country, Malinee says graft was prevalent well before he became prime minister in 2001.
"And when you drive him away, corruption will remain," she said on television last week.