There have been some people recently applauding the fact that Thailand will join the ranks of countries with a female head of state as Yingluck Shinawatra ascends to the position of Prime Minister. In recent elections, the Pheu Thai Party made huge gains in parliamentary elections, ushering in the first democratic transition since the military coup five years ago. This occasion could be hailed as a triumph for democracy and another crash of the glass ceiling in politics for women. Or it could just be the last decade all over again.
Yingluck Shinawatra is a political outsider with relatively little experience. She only recently became the head of the Pheu Thai Party. Also, she’s the sister of Thaksin Shinatwra, the former Prime Minister now in self-imposed exile in Dubai. He’s famous – of course – for being the firebrand that rallied populist sentiment to completely change Thailand. With support from the rural and the poor and a disdain for the establishment, his tenure as the head of state was unique in Thai history to say the least.
Thaksin Shinawatra is a pretty divisive figure in Thailand. He introduced universal healthcare and provided more loans to rural folk. He began his own rendition of a “war on drugs” that resulted in extrajudicial killings and his heavy-handed response to the insurgency in the south was marred by torture and executions against Malay Muslims. Both of these incidences led to the increased militarization of Thailand.
Amidst all of this, Shinawatra and his political party were found guilty of all sorts of corruption charges, followed by a military coup when most of the urban elites in Bangkok launched massive protests. Five years later, Thaksin remains in exile while his sister becomes the new Prime Minister. He has said himself that she is his “clone,” and some are wondering if he will simply rule through her. Apparently, Yingluck ran a great campaign in her own right, and she’s announced no plans (at the moment) to bring her brother back into the fold. But it’s hard to say for sure where things are going to go from here, hopefully in the interests of Thailand and the whole region, but possibly not. Only time will tell.