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Hugs and selfies: Thai coronation gives glimpses of royal relations

May 06. 2019
This handout from Royal Household Bureau shows Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana (R) watching the coronation procession of her father King Maha Vajiralongkorn with the king's sister Princess Sirindhorn on May 5.//AFP
This handout from Royal Household Bureau shows Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana (R) watching the coronation procession of her father King Maha Vajiralongkorn with the king's sister Princess Sirindhorn on May 5.//AFP
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A normally inscrutable king pulls his sister in for a hug and selfies of royal siblings rebound across Instagram -- the coronation of Rama X has provided Thais rare glimpses into a highly-private family cocooned by palace protocols.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 66, was crowned Saturday in a sumptuous ceremony rich in symbolism and ritual. 

The monarchy is the apex of Thai society and projections of its power are unmissable in the kingdom, from towering portraits of the stern-faced king, to stiff-backed rituals and public appearances relayed nightly on television news.

But Rama X remains an intensely private figure, spending much of his time overseas.

The enigma of the new king is double-locked by one of the world's harshest royal defamation laws, which keep a tight lid on the dissemination of royal gossip and prevent public criticism inside the kingdom.

His coronation, the first in 69 years and given blanket coverage on Thai TV, has stirred curiosity over the goings-on inside the royal court.

"I would like to see them loosen up a bit more so we can get to know them," 22-year-old student Jin said near the Grand Palace, declining to give her full name.

The introduction of Vajiralongkorn's fourth wife Queen Suthida, a flight attendant turned royal bodyguard whose marriage to the king was unexpectedly announced on Wednesday after years of conjecture about her status, piqued the interest of the watching public. 

Jin said she was "wowed" by the king's marriage to a commoner.

Intimate rituals 

Throughout the coronation formalities the king has remained unsmiling -- befitting the sombre, symbol-laden ceremonies held in front of a coterie of palace officials and generals.

But Saturday's rituals, symbolizing his transformation from human to the divine, provided intimate imagery of the monarch.  

A water purification ceremony led by Hindu Brahmins saw the king wear a white robe with one shoulder exposed, a modest moment from a monarch normally seen during official duties in military uniform.

Unguarded interactions have also set tongues wagging.

Newspapers ran photos of a warm meeting late Friday between the king and his family in a palace hall.

There were big smiles and a hug for Ubolratana, his colorful Instagram-posting elder sister, while his fashion designer daughter Sirivannavari and 14-year-old Dipangkorn -- children from his second and third ex-wives -- looked on.

True to form, Ubolratana -- seen as one of the more approachable royals -- posted beaming selfies with her younger sister Princess Sirindhorn.

Then on Sunday she released a mobile phone photo of her brother wearing the 7.3-kilogram tiered golden crown, hashtagging it #coronationday and #onceinalifetime.

Ubolratana's warm exchange with her brother comes after he dashed her political aspirations in the lead-up to March 24 elections, torpedoing her nomination as a prime ministerial candidate by a now-dissolved political party. 

Also taking to social media was daughter Sirivannavari, posting studio photos of herself wearing an elegant golden traditional dress for the ceremonies on Facebook. 

There is no indication whether the flickers of informality herald a new direction by the palace PR machine, or just a coincidence of modernity from royals armed with smartphones.

But observers say the effect could serve to open a channel of communication with the public. 

"The images of King Vajiralongkorn wearing a sacred crown and then socialising with family members serve the dual purpose of rendering him both divine and relatively approachable," said anthropologist Edoardo Siani of Kyoto University. 

Older Thais are more accustomed to their royals holding a remote, venerated position.

There should be a "distance" between royals and the public, said 80-year-old Kanha Kitvej as she watched soldiers march by the Grand Palace.

"I am his (the king's) subject."

Aunyaporn Wisanurak, 62, who had volunteered to hand out food during the coronation, echoed the sentiment, insisting nightly royal news bulletins provided ample insight.

"Thai people already know every activity of their king," she said.

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