World and Nation

Thai aristocrat sides with the poor

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 Feb. 2 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.