Derided by her opponents as just the puppet of her brother, a populist former prime minister living in exile, Shinawatra is still on a mission to be taken seriously. But a year after her surprise election, still being there is already an accomplishment.
BANGKOK – It is never easy to be Prime Minister. It is even harder to be so in Thailand, the country of the “permanent coup d’état” — 18 successful or failed attempts at overthrowing the government since 1932. In the former kingdom of Siam, which is still quite conservative, it is also not easy to be a woman Prime Minister. And things get even more complicated when you are the sister of a former Prime Minister who was as despised by some as he was adored by others.
Mrs. Yingluck Shinawatra, 45 years old and the first woman to lead the government in the kingdom’s history, isn’t in an easy position since her rise to power in August 2011. She enjoys strong support in the poorer countryside, but this heir of a very rich family clan is disparaged by elites all over the kingdom, and especially here in the capital. “Ignorant…stupid…doesn’t understand anything about politics…gaffes in her speeches!”: the public and private comments roll out a continuous flow of criticism.
“Yes, of course, all of these reproaches hurt me, I’m a human being!” admits “Yingluck,” as everybody calls her here. She is receiving Le Monde in the governmental palace, built in a peculiar venitio-mauresque style in the governmental district of Bangkok. “But I accept it: in the end, all of this is part of the democratic debate.”
On the eve of her departure for an official visit to Paris on July 20, the Prime Minister has a confident smile on her face. Warm and elegant, she uses her charm without hesitation: her physical appearance contributed to her popularity among the Thai people, in a country where looks are considered crucial.
In the brother’s shadow
The victory of her Pheu Thai party in the legislative elections on July 3, 2011 took place in a very delicate situation. In the spring of 2010, supporters of Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 and who is exiled in Dubai to avoid a two-year prison sentence for corruption, had paralyzed Bangkok’s business district for weeks.
Most of the protesters were from the peasantry and the lower classes, thousands of so-called “red shirts” because of their scarlet garb. They wanted the government to resign to make way for the return of their hero Thaksin, a former policeman turned millionaire thanks to a telecommunications company, who had built up his popularity by setting up an unprecedented social security net for peasants during his 2001-2006 term.
The situation ended badly: the army intervened to “clean” the heart of the capital, and more than 90 people were killed during the repression. In May 2011, just before the organization of new elections, Thaksin, who had been playing the big shot from his middle-eastern exile, decided to nominate his sister Yingluck to be head of his party. She was the president of a real estate company, the mother of a young child, and she had no direct experience in politics. Pansak Vinyaratn, a former right-hand man for Thaksin who has just been picked as a top advisor for Yingluck, recalls the unique formula. “Her first quality was exactly that, not having been part of the internal struggles of Thai politics.”
This triggered instant criticism: the press believed that the real Prime Minister was the brother, and that Yingluck was just a puppet manipulated from Dubai. What does she think? “It’s almost been a year since I became Prime Minister. If I had to depend on my brother for everything, I wouldn’t have made it through,” she says.
She refutes that she is in permanent contact with him, or that she is only here to recite a script that is written in Dubai. “I use my own qualities as a leader in power. I need his support, yes, but the clear message that I send to everyone is this: I am the Prime Minister,” Shinawatra says.
In Bangkok, many don’t believe her. “She is completely ignorant. But I have to admit that she has improved her way of talking to journalists. She is shrewd,” says Manith Sriwanithpoom, a famous artist.
Ing Kanjanavanit, a film director, adds: “Yingluck uses her femininity for politics in an unacceptable way, it’s an insult to Thai women!”
Is it really so hard to be a woman politician in Thailand? “Yes and no,” answers the Prime Minister. “Some say that women have more difficulties understanding the complexities of politics. But I think that we are more subtle in our judgements.”
Success and compromise
Pointing in her favor are a 40% increase of the minimum wage, now at eight euros a day, and a guaranteed 380 euros monthly minimum salary for university graduates – the Gross National Product per capita in Thailand is one of the region’s highest.
Her populist policies geared towards peasants are more controversial: the promise of a fixed price for a kilo of rice has caused an accumulation of unsold stocks, even though Thailand is the biggest exporter of the crop.
Yingluck’s greatest quality? Her ability to avoid pitfalls and to refuse direct confrontation with her opponents. But some within her own party are critical of this approach: among some of the more radical “reds,” she is accused of compromising too much and of reaching out to her brother’s fiercest opponents. She has cautiously promised her brother’s return to the country in the name of what many say is an impossible national reconciliation.
“She has formed good relations with the army, the king and many of her opponents,” says Jaran Ditapichai, one of the “red shirts’” former leaders. “She has the image of a likable, soft person. Without her, there would have already been a coup…” he says. And so why hasn’t there been an attempt to overthrow her since she came to power? “Because the army realized it doesn’t work!” he says, laughing.
In Paris, after meeting with President François Hollande, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to extol Thailand’s virtues, what will she do? With one last, big smile, she says: “Shopping!”