Yingluck shows her political mettle

BANGKOK - It was a tense night in Bangkok.

Thousands of protesters had battled tear gas and water cannon and the government urged people to stay indoors for safety.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban then made a dramatic declaration later that Sunday night that he had just met Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in military-brokered talks and issued her an ultimatum: Make way for a "people's council" to helm the country in two days.

All went quiet on the government front. The next day, however, Ms Yingluck said on television: "The protesters' demands are impossible to meet under the framework of the Constitution."

She did not quit or dissolve the House, but left the door open for further talks.

As observers saw it, Ms Yingluck, despite being a political rookie under ominous circumstances, successfully stood her ground against a wily veteran.

Then again, she was no ordinary rookie. The 46-year-old former property executive is the youngest sister of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a media tycoon who was swept to power in 2001 by the vote of the rural masses but deposed in a military coup in 2006.

Her sister Yaowapa Wongsawat is a powerful politician in their native Chiang Mai province up north. Her brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat was briefly prime minister in 2008.

Before joining politics, Ms Yingluck was a business executive who worked her way up a range of Shinawatra family businesses, including telecommunications firm Advanced Info Service - which was later sold to Temasek Holdings - as well as real estate deve-loper SC Asset Corp.

The youngest in a family of nine children has a degree in political science and public administration from Chiang Mai University, as well as a master's in public administration from Kentucky State University in the United States.

She was a mother of one who liked karaoke and shopping, a political unknown who was thrust into the premier's role after Puea Thai put her in the top position on its party list in 2011.

The party campaigned that year under the slogan "Thaksin thinks, Puea Thai acts". Thaksin called Ms Yingluck his "clone".

And, more than two years after assuming the post of prime minister, she still gets asked the same question: Does her brother run the government?

A lot of people think so.

The powerful Bangkok elite, including the royalist establishment, had arisen to oust Thaksin in 2006. They have surfaced time and again since then to oppose any political parties backed by or aligned with the billionaire - living in Dubai to avoid a jail term meted out in 2008 for corruption.

These forces have now converged in Bangkok, posing the government its most serious threat since 2010. They want to eliminate the "Thaksin regime" and create an appointed "people's council" helmed by a royally appointed prime minister.

Ms Yingluck is the first female prime minister in the history of ASEAN's second largest economy, but that does not count for much in deeply polarised Thailand.

To her critics, she is a puppet who has trouble speaking off the cuff in public, and jets all over the world on official trips to avoid scrutiny over problematic policies back home.

"Much of the criticism of her has been deeply sexist," noted Dr Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"On the other hand, we've never seen a situation in Thailand where someone with as little previous stature in one arena or another suddenly became prime minister."



Now at the halfway point of her premiership, she has earned grudging respect from bureaucrats for her swift grasp of issues behind closed doors.

In public though, she tends to dodge policy questions, directing them to her Cabinet members.

"It makes people doubt her ability," said political scientist Chalidaporn Songsamphan from Thammasat University.

Whether by choice or upon advice, she adopted a non-confrontational stance, avoiding much of the thrust and parry of open political debate to slowly court the powerful military that overthrew her brother in 2006.

Insiders say she has stood her ground within Puea Thai's complex patronage system.

Former deputy prime minister and Puea Thai leader Yongyuth Wichaidit said: "She is very strong… For some things that can (benefit) the nation, she will agree. But for other things, she will not agree with her elder brother and sister."

He added: "Without her, Puea Thai would not have come so far. It would have ended maybe in four to five months."

And, despite the sexist taunts, she is not afraid to use her womanhood to make a point. At a press conference on the government's response to the protests, she said: "Although I am woman, I won't flee. I dare to face everything."

Observers say her insistence on a peaceful response to protesters so far has helped prevent political tensions from escalating further. But her greatest challenge will always be to convince the public that she is her own woman.

tanhy@sph.com.sg


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