Thailand's first female PM calms nation's chaos

August 8, 2012 - 6:41 AM
Thailand Yingluck Year

In this photo taken Aug. 10, 2011, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra smiles after a group photo with her cabinet members following an oath taking ceremony at the government house in Bangkok, Thailand. As she marks a year in office as Thailand's first female prime minister, Yingluck's biggest boast could be about what she hasn't brought to Thai politics, a return to the chaos that has wracked the country for much of the past six years. (AP PhotoApichart Weerawong)

BANGKOK (AP) — As she marks a year in office this week as Thailand's first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra's biggest boast could be about what hasn't happened during that time: a return to the chaos that has wracked the country for much of the past six years.

Her achievement is all the more remarkable because she is the sister of the man at the center of Thailand's long-running political maelstrom, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a military coup in 2006 after being accused of corruption and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

"From being a novice, this is a woman who has come a long way already in one year, but there's much further for her to go for her to achieve her government's objectives," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "And she's also a long way from the sort of compromise and reconciliation that this country needs."

Only two years ago, in 2010, Thailand seemed almost ungovernable as Thaksin supporters seeking to remove another government occupied a central part of the capital and two months of protests deteriorated into violence that left at least 91 people dead and more than 1,700 injured. Combat troops were used to crush the protests.

Just a year after that, Yingluck led Thaksin's political machine to a landslide victory in a general election. She had been pooh-poohed for her lack of political experience — she was an executive in Shinawatra family businesses — but working a combination of fresh-faced charm and her brother's enduring popularity, her Pheu Thai party won overwhelmingly. Yingluck famously vowed during the campaign to use her femininity and her empathy to ease the country's tensions.

Thaksin's populist policies and defiance of the traditional elite while he was in office won the enthusiastic backing of the rural poor but also the enmity of many in the urban establishment.

Friends and foes alike acknowledge that Yingluck's main, though undeclared, task has been to keep the engine of Thaksin's political machine ticking over while seeking arrangements for him to return from self-imposed exile. He was convicted on a conflict of interest charge by a Thai court in 2008 and fled abroad to avoid a two-year jail term.

"It's really a tricky balancing act with very limited room to move. If she doesn't try to bring Thaksin back, Thaksin won't be happy. If she tries to bring him back, his opponents won't be happy," Thitinan said. "To still be in power after one year is quite an achievement for her."

Thailand's recent history shows what a delicate task this is. Preparations to bring back Thaksin were political poison in 2008 for two previous pro-Thaksin prime ministers, one of them his brother-in-law.

Anti-Thaksin "Yellow Shirts," whose protests in 2006 set the stage for the coup, took over the prime minister's offices for three months and occupied Bangkok's two airports for a week. Courts — closely aligned with the conservative royalist establishment and hostile to Thaksin — tossed both men out of office on debatable legal grounds.

Bottom-up efforts by Thaksin's mostly rural-based "Red Shirt" supporters — street demonstrations in 2009 and 2010 — also proved a dead end.

Perhaps weary of unrest or charmed by Yingluck, the powers-that-be that put down Thaksin and his supporters in 2006 and 2008 — the military and the courts — have been kinder and gentler with Yingluck, reciprocating her non-confrontational approach.

Last month, after the Pheu Thai party tried to push through legislation that could aid Thaksin's return, the Constitutional Court issued only a mild rebuke, forcing the effort into the slow lane, rather than a stronger option that could have caused the party's dissolution.

Since taking office, Yingluck's government has been implementing some of its election promises in her brother's populist mold: tablet computers for schoolchildren, credit cards and rice price supports for farmers, tax breaks for first-time car and home purchasers, and a substantial increase in the minimum wage.

But weaknesses in her administration were exposed when devastating floods reached the outskirts of Bangkok last year, inundating factories and overwhelming entire communities for weeks. Her government's reaction was slow, clumsy and confusing, and elicited some calls for her to step down.

As an attractive and impeccably dressed 45-year-old woman, Yingluck is often judged on her style, probably to her political advantage but to the disappointment of feminists.

"Her identity is mostly defined by her gender," said Chalidaporn Songsamphan, a political scientist at Thammasat University in Bangkok. She noted that discussions of Yingluck's outfits, makeup and hairstyle often overshadow her official duties, as was the case when she ventured out during last year's floods in a pair of expensive Burberry mid-calf boots.

Yingluck's lack of engagement with the issues of the day encourages this approach, Chalidaporn said, noting her low profile in Parliament during debates. "On several issues that seem to be significant, she had other people say or act on her behalf a lot," Chalidaporn said.

"I still see her more as an actor in the role of prime minister than as the prime minister," said Michael Nelson, a Thai studies lecturer at Walailak University in southern Thailand.

Ultimately, Yingluck is likely to be judged as her brother's sister, and she has failed so far to cast off the mantle of being his proxy. The frequent trips abroad by Cabinet ministers and ruling party luminaries to consult with Thaksin leave little doubt about who is really calling the shots.

Thaksin remains the country's "superpower," said Korkaew Pikulthong, a Red Shirt leader and ruling party lawmaker. But he said Yingluck is no longer as politically naive as she once was.

"She is very responsive to problems of the people and is very keen to solve them," he said. "And that's the quality of a true politician."