Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thailand's Shinawatras: From clan to dynasty

Yingluck Shinawatra is Thaksin's youngest sister and is expected to become Thailand's next prime minister

He was Thailand's prime minister for five years, his brother-in-law has served as prime minister, his youngest sister is expected to become the next prime minister - Thaksin Shinawatra once again seems to have broken the mould of Thai politics, writes Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

On 3 July the Pheu Thai party won 265 seats in Thailand's 500-member assembly. The party's figurehead in the election was Yingluck Shinawatra - so raising the profile even higher of the powerful Shinawatra family.

Thaksin Shinawatra lives in exile in Dubai to avoid going to jail for a corruption conviction, but his sister's convincing victory is bound to throw more scrutiny on his time in office during the 2000s.

In Thailand's structurally polarised climate, Yingluck may just be what the Thais need - if both Thaksin and his adversaries allow it.

Since constitutional rule was introduced in place of absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has had military and civilian leaders from the same cliques or coalitions, but rarely from the same immediate family.

The one exception was the Pramoj brothers - Seni and Kukrit - who alternated as leaders in the turbulent politics of the mid-1970s.

But they belonged to two distinctly different parties and stood apart on the political spectrum.

Not so in the case of the 44-year-old Yingluck and her controversial brother. They are made from the same mould, hailing from the Sankhampaeng district of Chiang Mai, a favourite tourist destination in northern Thailand.

Thaksin is the eldest son among 10 children of Lert and Yindee Shinawatra, descendents of Chinese immigrants who toiled in the town in various entrepreneurial pursuits during the 1950s-60s.

Before Mr Lert's career peaked in 1969, when he earned a seat in parliament, he endured topsy-turvy times as a businessman.

Thaksin, a schoolboy in the 1950s, looked after his father's small coffee shop in a wooden shophouse, the top floor being their home.

Where his father went, Thaksin followed.

Political clan

These efforts in the face of hard times became the stuff of legend in Thaksin's meteoric rise from a police officer-cum-struggling businessman who eventually hit the jackpot with a telecommunications monopoly and stock-market fortune.

Until recently, Ms Yingluck's story was little more than a footnote.

A generation apart, Thaksin was a paternalistic sibling - and as Thaksin's star brightened, Ms Yingluck increasingly gravitated into its orbit.

Yingluck Shinawatra shakes hands with supporters after a rally on 1 July 2011 in Bangkok Yingluck pressed the flesh and connected with Pheu Thai's grassroots on the campaign trail

Ms Yingluck followed in her big brother's footsteps by heading to the US for her postgraduate studies. She went to Kentucky State University, just up the road from Eastern Kentucky University, where Thaksin completed a criminal justice degree.

Universities in Kentucky state were popular with Thai students, particularly police officers, as they offered a ready network of friends and family.

After her return to Bangkok in the early 1990s, Yingluck was thrust into the family business, which had just listed on the stock market.

Some of her other siblings and in-laws had a hand in the Shin Corp telecommunications umbrella, but Thaksin hired "professionals" for key management positions.

Ms Yingluck was cutting her teeth in business just as Thaksin began dabbling in politics, but she stayed out of the political limelight even after his political career sky-rocketed in the late 1990s.

The most political of Thaksin's siblings was Yaowapa Wongsawat, who led a northern faction of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party.

Thaksin was deposed in a military coup in September 2006, but continued to organise the largest parties in parliament with the help of his relatives.

During Thaksin's initial post-coup fight-back under the People's Power Party in 2007-08, Ms Yaowapa's husband, Somchai Wongsawat, became a short-lived prime minister.

But the party was dissolved and its leading politicians banned by the judiciary.

People's Power was succeeded by Pheu Thai, which fell into disarray after the opposing Democrat Party was propelled to office with the help of the army and the courts in December 2008.

Pheu Thai lacked leadership and policy direction, and was wracked by factionalism.

A tall order

As the election approached this year, the only person untainted and politically viable enough to put a stop to Pheu Thai's internal squabbling was Yingluck.

She was looking after what was left of the family business after Shin Corp was sold in January 2006.

Thaksin had never before hinted at deploying her in the field; but she has worked well for him.

She has the qualities of youth, femininity, novelty and business acumen.

Her campaign stuck to well-laid plans. She pressed the flesh and connected with Pheu Thai's grassroots.

Unlike her brother, Yingluck is not easily flustered. Her political instincts, energy and appetite have held up so far.

But her problem will be that she is surrounded by her brother's men, beset by his circumstances, driven by his policy ideas, and without a support base of her own.

Even if Yingluck can carve out some space beyond Thaksin for her own rule, she will be hard-pressed to placate his powerful adversaries in the establishment that includes much of the military, bureaucracy, judiciary, Privy Council, middle class and intelligentsia.

They may not be able to win the vote but they can, as seen in the recent past, keep her tenure shorter than intended.

Yingluck faces a tall order but she should be given a chance in view of Thailand's imperative of compromise over the logic of further conflict.


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