Yingluck Shinawatra is Thailand’s first female prime-minister. She has a difficult job to do. Claire Porthouse reports.
Thailand has just achieved the feminist milestone of its first female prime minister – and finally the media coverage has its priorities right.
Having a female leader is a milestone in feminist terms. In fighting for equal rights for women, most feminists would also fight for an equal chance to have a female leader as they would a male one. Much of the coverage about the US elections that brought Barack Obama into power circled around the fact that the Democrat nomination would be between a woman and a black man – both enormous milestones for equal rights in the US.
Whenever a country achieves this milestone, the media coverage in Britain applauds the forward-thinking of that country’s citizens, and the new age of women’s rights and equality, and so on and so forth. Whenever it happens, the opponents of said female leader scoff the idea of a woman in charge and say that she won’t last the week. No matter the circumstances of the woman’s election (or rise to power), the media coverage exclusively focuses on the fact that a woman has gotten into power. Nothing else matters.
But finally, the coverage of Thailand has got it right.
Thailand’s current political situation is an achievement not for bringing a woman into power for the first time, but for its potential impact upon unstable Thai politics. Thailand is a shaky democracy at best – a military coup in September 2006 ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Thai politics has been divided on the issue ever since.
Thaksin Shinawatra was a divisive figure in Thai politics, appealing to the poor and alienating the Bangkok elite. In 2006 he came under accusations of corruption and fraud, and the military took control of a fracturing country in September. Thaksin fled abroad to avoid standing trial for corruption and has remained abroad (mostly in Dubai and the UK) ever since.
His supporters, however, did not leave Thailand. Pro-Thaksin protestors frequently clash with the military and police in Bangkok, and the clash of May 2010 was splashed across global media after rioting brought Bangkok to a standstill and the Thai army were called in to disperse the ‘redshirt’ rebels. These ‘redshirts’ are pro-Thaksin, and in the July 2011 elections, many of them supported Yingluck Shinawatra and her party.
Because Yingluck is Thaksin’s youngest sister.
Thaksin Shinawatra still holds a great deal of power over the Pheu Thai party, which recently swept Yingluck into power. It is thought that Thaksin effectively still runs the Pheu Thai party from Dubai, and so this divisive figure of Thai politics is still very much involved.
What does this mean for Yingluck’s government?
Firstly, it is going to be difficult to keep the military on side. Any government relies on its military not supporting – or instigating – uprisings; without the military, a government is weak, ineffective, and will not last very long. With her ties to Thaksin and the question of how much influence he still has, Yingluck must keep the military convinced that she is not following in her brother’s footsteps and that her government will not repeat his mistakes – because September 2006 clearly shows that the military are perfectly prepared to take over should Yingluck not measure up.
Secondly, she must also keep the Bangkok elite on side. Thaksin’s government did an admirable job of keeping both the poor and the big Thai (and international) businesses supportive of its policies, but the Bangkok elite felt increasingly alienated from Thaksin’s party and policies. While it is less important that keeping the military happy, Yingluck must be sure not to repeat the same mistakes with the elite as her brother did.
Most importantly, in every corner of Thailand, Yingluck must defend herself against her critics. They have been vocal of parliament’s choice – but not, notably, because they have chosen a woman. They are critical because Yingluck has never held a governmental or political post before. She has a degree in politics, but her career is in business, and so her very first job in politics is as the country’s prime minister.
Her difficult task has been the centre of media attention, despite the numerous headlines of ‘Thailand’s first female prime minister.’ In reality, very little commentary or analysis has been offered on the gender politics of Thailand or the prospects for Thai women now that a woman is in power – finally, it seems, the media have got their priorities right. Yingluck has a much more difficult and important role to play: stabilising a country which has seen bloody street protests, clashes between the citizens and the military, and military coups to oust governments deemed ineffective and unsuitable.
It has nothing to do with being a woman – and at last, the Western media seems to have realised.