Sister Act

01.21.15 10:15 PM ET

Yingluck Shinawatra: Ousted, Facing Impeachment—but Still Loved

The former Thai premier will learn her fate Friday in the denouement of a drama that began with the military and establishment hounding her from office last year.

BANGKOK — Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will learn officially Friday whether she will be impeached by the National Legislative Assembly, but it looks like a foregone conclusion that the nation’s first female prime minister will be found guilty of “dereliction of duty” and banned from politics for five years. Members of her Pheu Thai political party have told the press already that the ousted premier’s fate is sealed.

The impeachment vote represents a drastic come-down for Yingluck, who ascended to the premiership in 2011 after Pheu Thai won the lion’s share of seats in the 500-member parliament.

It’s also unsurprising. Thailand’s history is pocked with successful and attempted coups, and the country’s establishment, which includes Big Business, the landed gentry, influential royalists—and the military—regards democracy with ill-disguised suspicion. Few people are shocked when popularly elected politicians run afoul of the Army and find themselves hauled up on charges, or banned, or ejected from office.

The most obvious precedent is Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who held the post of prime minister from 2001 to 2006 before he, too, was ousted. The billionaire former premier had upended what Kan Yuenyong of the Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok think tank, calls “the sacred social and political structure.” 

Even though Thaksin was a telecoms billionaire and himself an oligarch, he implemented populist programs such as cheap health care for ordinary Thais, attempted to bring the grassroots into the political process, and even wanted to provide common folk access to capital. The powers that be in Thailand claimed such behavior infringed on the domain of the king, who in Thai society traditionally has been the personage who doles out such largesse.

“The more Thaksin engaged in this kind of policy the more he was seen as separating the grassroots people from the monarchy,” says Kan. He has spent most of the last decade in exile, and would face a variety of criminal charges were he to return.

Thaksin’s sister Yingluck seemed little more than a proxy when she came to office. The 47-year-old, who is the youngest of nine siblings, is primarily a businesswoman who had no plans to enter politics. A graduate of Kentucky State University—master’s in public administration, 1991—she held a number of executive posts in large corporations, including serving as CEO of AIS (Advanced Info Service), Thailand’s largest mobile-phone operator. When Thaksin was ousted and his party dissolved again and again, she managed to lead the new Pheu Thai party to victory, but it was assumed Thaksin pulled all the strings.

So expectations were low for the baby sister, and even Thaksin may have had little faith. In 2009, someone described as “a Thaksin ally” told the United States ambassador that the exiled ex-premier was not terribly keen on giving his sister a high profile in the party.

On the campaign trail in 2011, in addition to being very telegenic, Yingluck had been poised, forceful, on point. The Economist called her at the time “the perfect 21st-century political candidate.” But in an early meeting with foreign reporters after she became prime minister, Yingluck did not impress. She was green, tentative, vague. Her answer to a number of questions—about her priorities, the economy, infrastructure projects, corruption—was to ask for time to “look into” the matter. The criticism that she was a lightweight, merely a cipher for her brother, seemed credible as she smiled winningly and tried in uncertain English to fudge answers about obvious issues.

But Yingluck learned rapidly on the job, and was savvy enough to surround herself with a tight circle of solid advisers and confidantes. She engaged a team of technocrats to consult on the economy and named respected people to her first cabinet, including former Securities and Exchange Commission Secretary-General Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala, who was appointed finance minister.

Much more quickly than her enemies expected, Yingluck became a formidable figure in her own right, not just a Thaksin marionette, as her detractors claimed. She emerged as a politician of grace and style, but also a tough and disciplined one.

“From being a novice, knowing nothing, after two years she improved to having a tremendous amount of experience and savvy,” says Sean Boonpracong, a former Yingluck national security adviser. “Her great strengths are her calm, her modesty; her way of approaching reconciliation.” After Democrat Party leader and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva divided the nation, Yingluck “healed it,” Boonpracong told The Daily Beast. “The nation needed a less abrasive leader and she was that. With the type of handicap she had—her inexperience—she progressed quickly. And she managed the country with a lot less input from Thaksin than people expected.”

Indeed, a Pheu Thai source tells The Daily Beast that Thaksin, who was living mostly in Dubai, was soon telling party officials to consult Yingluck about policy decisions rather than look to him for guidance, “unlike the accusation that he micromanaged all the time.” Thaksin saw his sister, the official said, as “a reliable field commander.”

In office, the married mother of one young son endured rough—sometimes vile—ad hominem attacks by political enemies and the rabble. During the street protests led by anti-Thaksin firebrand Suthep Thaugsuban that culminated in Yingluck’s dismissal from Government House, speakers cursed her from public rostrums, calling her “Barbie” a “dumb bitch,” “prostitute,” “slutty moron” and “whore”—among other choice epithets. The strain showed at times and she occasionally teared up in public, but she soldiered on. Boonpracong would ask Lt. Gen. Paradorn Pattanabutr, then head of Thailand’s National Security Council, “How is she? How is her spirit?” he recalls. “She really has my admiration in terms of the level-headedness, the steadiness, she showed.”

By the time the Constitutional Court removed Yingluck in May 2014, she was hugely popular with her masses—and a palpable threat to the Bangkok establishment. “Basically, the military and Bangkok middle class will not allow any government that will provide populist programs,” says Kan.

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The fact that the military and government are still going after Yingluck even though she’s been removed from office and even though they have the country locked down by martial law, shows the degree to which they take her seriously.

They are throwing the book at the ex-premier. This week a joint committee of the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Attorney General’s Office said it will press a criminal charge of dereliction of duty against her over a rice-pledging program in which the government offered farmers $500 per ton of rice, which was well above the world price and which resulted in the government sitting on huge stockpiles of the grain. The scheme reportedly will lose some 600 billion baht, or about $20 billion. The criminal charge is in addition to the pending impeachment action. Yingluck faces up to 10 years in jail on the criminal charge—plus the five-year ban from politics if she’s impeached.

As she braces for the decision on Friday, the former prime minister is focusing on her defense and not much else. She has been in a virtual straitjacket since her dismissal. Just last November, Prime Minister Prayuth threatened to bar her from traveling abroad, one day after she did her first media interview since the coup.

 She had had the temerity to tell the Bangkok Post that being ousted was like “suddenly, someone points a gun at my head and tells me to get out of the car while I’m at the wheel driving the people forward.” For the government, such comments were unacceptable. “We have clear rules. If something triggers chaos or unrest we have measures,” said Prayuth. “If she wants to go overseas then she will not be able to go.”

If that sounds thin-skinned, consider that when photographs went viral of Yingluck and Thaksin snuggling up to panda bears during a trip to China’s Sichuan province, Prayuth threatened tighter controls over the media unless they stopped “presenting news” about Thaksin.

Yingluck has said she may work in social welfare if her political career were to end. The way things are looking, she may well want to start boning up on disadvantaged groups.