Yingluck Shinawatra: 'I am capable enough to make my own decisions'

Thailand's new Prime Minister tells Andrew Buncombe that she, not her exiled brother, is pulling the strings to unite a chaotic nation

Thursday 07 July 2011 00:00 BST

It has only been days since she stunned the country with her landslide election victory, but the woman set to become Thailand's first female leader is already under fierce pressure to charge the outgoing Prime Minister with murder and reform the country's harsh lese-majesty law.

Even before she and her government are officially sworn in, Yingluck Shinawatra is facing demands from the political Red Shirt movement – which helped her Puea Thai (PT) party secure power – to press ahead with controversial policies that could create fresh turmoil. They could even threaten to derail her election win.

Since that comprehensive victory on 3 July, Ms Yingluck has projected a moderate, conciliatory image and said her priorities will be introducing a series of economic measures and trying to unite the country. But it is clear that the priorities of Ms Yingluck and her PT advisers are somewhat different from those of the Red Shirts whose anti-government protests last year brought the centre of Bangkok to a halt and who this week turned out in large numbers at the ballot box.

Chief among the differences concern the events of last spring when more than 90 people were killed in clashes between Red Shirts and government troops. Ms Yingluck said she supports continuing and expanding the work of a truth and reconciliation commission that is looking into the circumstances surrounding the deaths. But the activists are far more blunt, demanding that the outgoing Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, be brought before the courts for his alleged role in last year's crackdown.

In her first newspaper interview since winning the election, Ms Yingluck told The Independent and another international publication that she recognised the high expectations she now faced.

"We have to tell people what is the plan," she said. "I believe the Thai people are patient, and the people at least give me a chance to prove my ability to help them."

On the issue of lese-majesty, a defamation law for which people can be jailed for up to 15 years for comments deemed to be insulting of the monarchy, she said a review could be carried out. Human rights campaigners have argued the measure was increasingly used under Mr Abhisit's administration to silence opponents and dissidents. A number of Red-Shirt leaders face lese-majesty allegations and one, Jatuporn Promphan, is in jail.

"I think this issue is a big sensitive issue. We need to have someone specialised to discuss [this]," she said. "We don't want people to use lese-majesty too often. We don't want Thai people to misuse this law."

She also suggested that the current constitution – drawn up following the 2006 coup which forced her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, from office – could be changed after a consultation process.

"We shall ask which version people want. We have to do public hearings for this issue," she said. "We will not discuss this at the beginning. The first priority for me is solving economic problems."

At the offices of the Red Shirts, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, the chairwoman, Tida Tawornseth, scoffed at the front page of a Thai newspaper that listed seven PT priorities and admitted she did not share them.

"The first thing for reconciliation is the truth. That should come out first," she said. "Everyone should go before the courts. I will not accept an amnesty [for those responsible for last year's deaths]. Reconciliation is different from amnesty."

Ms Tida said activists also wanted to rewrite the constitution and examine the lese-majesty law.

"We want to have a commission and representatives study and dis

cuss the new constitution," she said. "It's not just lese-majesty. That is one of the points."

Another influential Red-Shirt supporter, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, who now lives in the UK, wrote that "the important question after the election is whether the Puea Thai government will match such commitments to freedom and democracy shown by those who voted for it".

He called for the freeing of all political prisoners, the scrapping of lese-majesty, the sacking of the army chief, General Prayuth Junocha, and the indictment of both General Prayuth and Mr Abhisit.

Disagreements over policy priorities and the pace at which change should be introduced are common among many political parties and the movements that spawned them, particularly after an election victory.

But they highlight the challenges facing the 44-year-old Ms Yingluck as she seeks to juggle competing interests. She is at pains to play down the prospect of the imminent return to Thailand of her brother, who many analysts believe remains the controlling hand behind PT. "My brother is highly experienced politically," she said. "But I am capable enough to make my own decisions... So I think I [will] do the leadership myself."

More than a year after the Bangkok violence, the commission tasked with investigating the circumstances has yet to make its final report. One of the most controversial incidents took place at Bangkok's Wat Patum temple, where hundreds of protesters converged after troops forced them from the camp they had established nearby. Six people were killed and others wounded.

Last year, a leaked report by police investigators suggested that special forces troops had fired into the temple from their positions on an overhead railway line.

A senior member of the commission said this week that inquiries were ongoing.

But he said the army had still not made available around seven soldiers the commission wished to interview. "We're told they are now based in the south," said the official.

Who is Yingluck Shinawatra?

* Yingluck Shinawatra is set to become Thailand's first female prime minister. But it's her family name, not her gender, which has attracted most attention since her political career began in earnest just two months ago.

* Born in 1967, Ms Yingluck is the youngest sister of Thailand's controversial former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was forced from power by a military coup in 2006. He now lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid a prison sentence in his homeland.

* A successful businesswoman by trade, this sibling connection was the closest thing Ms Yingluck had to experience in the political arena until May, when she was announced as the prime ministerial candidate for her brother's former party, Phea Thai.

* Critics have been quick to point out the 44-year-old's lack of political experience, and her brother remains a divisive figure, despite the power he still yields among the nation's key political figures.

* However, Ms Yingluck has so far proved popular among Thai voters. Her brother won favour for her among his supporters by describing her as his "clone", but she has also been lauded for her down-to-earth approach to meeting voters.

Enjoli Liston

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