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08.06.11

First Female Prime Minister's Herculean Task

Thailand's New Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra must end unrest, heal divisions, fix the economy—and prove she’s not a puppet of her brother, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra. By Lennox Samuels.

At a meeting with foreign reporters last month, Yingluck Shinawatra stood by her comments that had earlier raised feminists' eyebrows, saying that because women are “more compromising,” she would be better able to pursue reconciliation in Thailand, where years of unrest and agitation exploded into deadly violence in May 2010.

Prime Minister-Elect Yingluck will find that healing the nation’s deep divisions is a Herculean task for anyone, regardless of gender. And as the sister—some say clone—of the most polarizing figure in modern Thai politics, the ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, she’s likely to find the odds even longer.

Confirmed by Parliament this week—296 to 3 with 197 abstentions—as Thailand’s 28th prime minister, and the first woman to hold the office, the 44-year-old political novice is walking into a minefield. She must deliver on campaign promises to raise the minimum wage, help the poor and improve the economy, placate the Red Shirts who helped her Puea Thai party win the general election, address pressing issues such as flooding in the south and the rise of commodity prices including pork, maneuver around a fierce parliamentary opposition, and make no drastic moves that could force the hand of the powerful —and suspicious—Thai military. And of course, make sure she's not seen as a proxy for her exiled elder sibling.   

“The establishment may be able to stomach a Puea Thai election win, but the return of Thaksin is another matter.”

“Well, she doesn’t have to persuade anybody about that,” Bangkok political commentator Voranai Vanijaka said about the relationship between Yingluck and Thaksin, who now lives mostly in Dubai. “The majority of Thais know who’s actually in charge—and that’s her brother. The fact that she has not been able to give clear answers indicates that.”

Indeed, Yingluck has been vague about what exactly she plans to do as prime minister. “Maybe she needs to learn more, or check with her brother or her handlers—who report to her brother,” said Voranai, adding that the country may actually prefer leadership by Thaksin, “who has been in the consciousness of Thais since 2001, while she just showed up a few months ago.”

That may be harsh—or at least premature. “It’s a bit unfair to come to that conclusion,” said political scientist Chookiat Panaspornprasit, also of Chulalongkorn University. “Why can’t she get advice from her brother? I think she should be given a chance. So far, so good. She could be a strong leader.”

This weekend, King Bhumibol Adulyadej will command Yingluck to form a government, and she and her cabinet will be sworn in early next week. She has yet to name that cabinet, however—and selecting it may be her first big challenge. Some say Thaksin will name the ministers. “Candidates are said to be flying to Dubai or Brunei or wherever Thaksin is to make their case,” Voranai said.

Be that as it may, stocking the cabinet is a delicate task for the prime minister-elect. Various factions believe they’ve earned slots. Some Red Shirts of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) have asked for posts, pointing out that they helped deliver more than 100 parliamentary seats to Puea Thai, en route to the party’s majority win in the 500-seat chamber.

”The UDD is in a victory mood and some kind of gesture must be extended to them. They’re sending signals to Yingluck that they need a space to stand on. They cannot lose face with their members,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a Chulalongkorn University political science professor and former spokesman for outgoing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

But giving the populist Red Shirts too much sway could alienate their conservative Yellow Shirt rivals, whose movement, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, is an implacable Thaksin foe that has chosen for the moment to adopt a wait-and-see posture. And it could unnerve the establishment—including the powerful Army. “That would make a lot of people unhappy,” said Voranai. “Whether it would bring out the tanks, I don’t know.”

The Yellow Shirts, who seized Bangkok’s two main airports in 2008 during protests against the government of Somchai Wongsawat, have been weakened by internal disputes over how to handle Thailand’s border dispute with Cambodia and other issues, but they could quickly use their TV network, which reaches millions, to mobilize the opposition and send demonstrators into the streets.

And the military, which for decades has been the real power in the kingdom and has ousted several elected prime ministers—including Thaksin in 2006—is looking for the new government to name a defense minister it finds acceptable. “They need a defense minister acting as a good interlocutor between government and the military. If they don’t do that, there could be trouble,” said Panitan.

The military is aligned with wealthy, traditional, and conservative business interests in Bangkok and the south, with whom it shares a strong Thaksin antipathy. Those elements are watching closely to see if Yingluck proceeds with a reconciliation proposal that would grant amnesty to political offenders across the spectrum—and, coincidentally, allow Thaksin to return home.

Although political amnesty may be a reasonable way to try to forge rapprochement among the nation’s red, yellow, and other-colored shirts, it is the Thaksin plank that’s trickiest. It’s one thing for Thaksin’s bitter opponents to see him as a puppeteer pulling strings from abroad; vouchsafing him anything resembling a triumphal return could enrage them. “The establishment may be able to stomach a Puea Thai  election win, but the return of Thaksin is another matter. That would spell total victory (for Thaksin elements),” said Voranai.

Few actually expect another government ouster In this coup-weary nation, however, especially in light of Puea Thai’s resounding victory on July 3. “I don’t think the armed forces will be stupid enough to launch any coup in the near future—unless they get a green light from some other, non-parliamentary entity or factor,” said Chookiat, the Chulalongkorn University professor. “They should be professional enough not to do that. And if there’s another coup, Thailand would seriously go downhill.”

In her session with foreign reporters, a cautious Yingluck Shinawatra insisted she would begin amnesty discussions with consideration of the 2006 coup, and “use the Truth and Reconciliation Committee to find out how to unite Thailand. Everything will follow the rule of law, and everyone treated equally under the law.”

That’s wise hedging, said Chookiat. “She should not jump into these issues right away,” he said. “Let independent bodies address that first.” That would allow the new prime minister to focus on keeping her party from fracturing, and on demonstrating that she also is independent—from her brother.