New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 12, 2013
BANGKOK » When Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's former high school teachers learned she had become Thailand's first female prime minister, they were concerned.
As a student, Yingluck was well-liked and exceedingly polite, said Prapaiporn Tangsuntornkhan, the prime minister's former math teacher. But Yingluck, a political neophyte in 2011, seemed an unlikely candidate to preside over the lion's den of Thai politics, a male-dominated bastion of intrigue, military power plays and back-stabbing.
"She was attentive and diligent — she wasn't a leader," Prapaiporn said. "People who are in politics usually love debating. But she never once raised her hand in class, never contradicted the teacher."
Two and a half years after taking office, Yingluck, 46, is battling many of these same perceptions in a protracted fight for her political survival. She has been mocked by the opposition in Parliament as "not intelligent"; ridiculed as a proxy for her brother, billionaire tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra; and derided in songs sung by the tens of thousands of protesters who have massed on the streets of Bangkok in recent weeks calling for her to flee the country.
In an interview with a handful of foreign journalists Wednesday, Yingluck appeared calm but defensive. She said she had not yet decided whether to put herself forward as the party's candidate for prime minister in the February elections she called to try to bring calm.
She suggested that protesters, who have surrounded her office and called for an unelected "people's council" to run the country, were making demands that would not work in the "real world." (Many Thai scholars have agreed.)
And she said she was confident the military would not stage a coup as it did against her brother in 2006, helping set off Thailand's seven years of intermittent political turmoil.
"I don't think the military will do that again," she said.
And yet the location of the interview, an air force base on the outskirts of Bangkok, underlined Yingluck's precarious position. Protesters who two weeks ago seized the Finance Ministry and last week camped out at the gates of her office have threatened to "capture" her — a symbol of their impunity and Yingluck's unwillingness or inability to crack down.
An interview last week with foreign journalists was canceled because her aides judged the location too insecure, and Yingluck has spent the past week changing locations daily.
"We have to go to places that have many exits," said Teerat Ratanasevi, the government spokesman.
It remains unclear if her unusually soft approach to the protesters — at one point security forces welcomed demonstrators onto government property to try to defuse their anger — will work or further undermine the authority of the state.
On Tuesday, when protesters continued to press for her ouster despite the offer of elections, she teared up on television.
Photogenic and graceful in a country that enthusiastically celebrates beauty, Yingluck was praised as a calming influence on the country when she took office in August 2011. She and her Cabinet members have often said that Thailand needed the empathy and healing instincts of a woman, especially after the traumatic events of 2010 when more than 90 people were killed during a military crackdown against protests on the streets of Bangkok.
"It's both advantageous and disadvantageous to be a woman in Thai politics," said Nidhi Eoseewong, a prominent historian and one of the country's leading commentators.
Yingluck has been criticized as incompetent, Nidhi said, but in a country that often roots for the underdog, some of the criticism has boomeranged.
"Ms. Yingluck uses her femininity in order to get some support from the general public when she is strongly or rudely offended," Nidhi said.
He said he admired Yingluck for refusing to be baited by the aggressive and provocative tactics of the demonstrators.
Protesters have repeatedly mocked Yingluck for her gaffes. When Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the country in 2011 as the secretary of state, Yingluck said in English she wanted to "overcome" the secretary instead of "welcome" her. She referred once in Thai to the "president of Malaysia" instead of the "prime minister," and also spoke of "the country of Sydney."
But of all the criticism Yingluck has endured during the protests, it is the relationship with her brother, Thaksin, that is the most contentious.
The current protests were prompted by the governing party's attempt to pass a general amnesty bill last month that would have eased the return from exile of Thaksin, who was convicted of abuse of power in 2008 and has a number of corruption cases pending.
Yingluck's party has boasted of its connections to Thaksin because of the popularity of his policies in northern Thailand. But for Thaksin's enemies, the amnesty bill only underlined their claims that Yingluck was installed merely to serve his interests.
Yingluck has repeatedly deflected specific questions about how often she consults her brother and how much influence he has on her. But members of her party, Pheu Thai, said in interviews this year that they stayed in regular contact with him and that he conceived the party's main policies.
Friends of the Shinawatra family in northern Thailand point out that Yingluck treated Thaksin and her other much older siblings like uncles and aunts, partly because their mother died when Yingluck was only 18. In the context of a Thailand's hierarchical traditions, the nearly 18-year age difference between Yingluck and Thaksin provides him a level of respect and seniority, family friends say.
Yingluck went to college in Kentucky, following in the footsteps of Thaksin, who studied in the same state but at a different university. Married with one child, she spent most of her career working at Thaksin's companies and had no political experience when she was selected to be the party's candidate for prime minister.
She was guarded Wednesday when asked questions about her 2 1/2 years in politics. She has spent much of the time championing populist policies, including rebates for new cars and paying farmers well above market prices for their rice. These and other policies, which have come at a great cost to the state, have angered opposition supporters, including many in Bangkok who are resentful that power seems to have shifted from the capital to the provinces.
But on the subject of the ongoing protests, which are supported by many among the Bangkok elite, she was emphatic about one point: her defense of her fellow "upcountry" Thais in the north and northeast, who have come out in the millions and posted solid majorities for the past decade to repeatedly return her party to power.
"No one listens to them," she said of voters north of Bangkok.
Minutes later she boarded a military jet for the northern city of Chiang Mai. When she landed, photos in the Thai media showed her greeted by thousands of supporters, many offering her roses.