Yingluck Shinawatra: Thailand's Novice Leader Looks Back One Year Later

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.

Yingluck Shinawatra (WEF)
Yingluck Shinawatra (WEF)
Bruno Philip

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!"

Read more from Le Monde in French.

Photo - WEF

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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