Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sister Act

Sister Act
Is she the boss? Yingluck has to figure out how to heal a politically divided country — and whether to allow Thaksin to return home

She delivers the line with a breathy purr: "The microwave is my lover." Thailand may be famous for its incendiary curries and the tireless women who prepare them, but Yingluck Shinawatra is used to quick results — and not just in the kitchen. Last month the 44-year-old business executive was sworn in as the politically fractious country's first female Prime Minister. It was her first-ever political race.

In the West, political discourse strives toward the gender-blind; many women in power, with their pantsuits and sensible hairstyles, project themselves as successful politicians who just happen to be female. Yingluck, who has a common-law husband and a 9-year-old son, accentuates her femininity — even if she doesn't spend hours pounding chilies with a mortar and pestle. On the campaign trail, the willowy beauty smiled with the luminosity of a pageant queen, dished out noodles for adoring crowds and, as she puts it, "gave them my heart." While sticking to her Pheu Thai party's populist script, she avoided slinging mud at opponents in the Democrat Party. "Physically, as a woman, maybe I cannot do strong things," she told TIME, after having survived a parliamentary grilling on her policy plans. "But Thailand needs reconciliation, and as a female I represent nonviolence, so I will turn this weak point into a strong point." (See the top 12 female leaders around the world.)

Is the feminine touch enough? Once one of Asia's most promising and stable democracies, Thailand has degenerated into a political shambles in which antigovernment rallies and new Prime Ministers (six in as many years, plus one military chief) seem as predestined as the monsoons. The turmoil has, in its broadest strokes, pitted the poor rural supporters of Pheu Thai (and its previous incarnations) against the urban establishment of the Democrats. Last year political violence erupted on the streets of the capital, Bangkok. Around 90 people were killed; some were security forces, but most were so-called Red Shirt protesters who supported a political faction now led by Yingluck. Though an uneasy peace now prevails, the previous Democrat government prosecuted no one for the deaths. The July 3 election that swept Yingluck to victory may represent the will of the masses, but it has yet to bridge Thailand's great political divide.

That's because much of Thailand's tension centers on one figure: Yingluck's older brother Thaksin Shinawatra, the polarizing former Prime Minister who was toppled in a 2006 military coup after months of street protests against him. A billionaire who delighted villagers with cash handouts and cheap medical care, Thaksin also angered the political elite with his domineering leadership style. Although he promised to retreat from politics and now resides in Dubai to avoid a two-year jail sentence for abuse of power, his utterances from exile about how his homeland should be run still carry huge weight in Thailand. Any move by Yingluck's government to allow him to return, after the Democrat administration stripped him of his Thai passport, will inflame political passions and possibly spark another round of debilitating street protests. (Watch a video about Thailand's elections.)

Asians have elected many female leaders, but every one, from Indira Gandhi to Corazon Aquino, has been related to a famous man. There's no question that Yingluck, who spent her career helming her family's telecoms and real estate businesses, is now Prime Minister because of her big brother. Some of her Pheu Thai party's campaign posters spelled it out: "Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai does." Thaksin has said that his kid sister, the youngest of nine siblings, is his "clone." Says Ukrist Pathmanand, a political-science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok: "She is a pure puppet for Thaksin."

Yingluck retorts that Thaksin will not be making government decisions, even though she admits that she regularly speaks to her "beloved brother." She bristles when asked about her lack of political experience, saying that with a family like hers — her father, brother, sister and brother-in-law were all involved in politics — she practically grew up on the campaign trail. "I admit I didn't want to join politics because the situation right now is very strained, and I'm just a female," she says. "But people admire my family, especially my brother. They kept asking, 'Why don't you help?' So I felt that I owed the country." Says Hasan Basar, founder of the firm Bangkok Public Relations: "She can be packaged as someone with a political heritage, but without the baggage that almost always comes with that heritage."

Now it's up to Yingluck to deliver on her many campaign pledges, ranging from healing a divided nation to providing free tablet computers for students. There's the small matter of staying in office, however. Military coups can never be discounted, while one Thaksin-linked Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, was forced to relinquish power because the Election Commission found he had violated a conflict-of-interest law. His transgression? Accepting less than $2,500 for hosting a cooking show while serving as Prime Minister. (Unlike Yingluck, the late Samak loved to fire up a wok.) Shortly after Pheu Thai prevailed in the July election, the commission investigated Yingluck for possibly engaging in vote buying by stir-frying those noodles on the campaign trail. This time the complaint was dismissed. But who knows what Thailand's politics, and Yingluck's voluble brother, will cook up next?
with reporting by Robert Horn / Bangkok

Time Magazine, 12 September 2011 หน้า 30-31 

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