Guest blog by Kaewmala

Finally, Thailand has its first female prime minister. It has taken 79 years since the country has adopted constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy in 1932.

The idea of Thailand having a female prime minister was floated about once or twice. About 15 years ago, Khunying Supatra Masadit (Democrat Party), the first female minister of Thailand who was an elected MP, was thought a possible first female PM, but nobody really expected to have a madam prime minister anytime in the near future.

Then it all happened so quickly. Just three months ago, Ms Yingluck Shinawatra suddenly entered the scene. Almost out of nowhere (or “nowhere” in Dubai), she was named the top party list candidate of the opposition party, Pheu Thai — the latest reincarnation of Thailand’s most popular political party founded by her big brother, Thaksin Shinawatra (the man in Dubai). She campaigned dutifully for two and a half months.

Closely watched, she surprised and impressed more than a few. The Economist described her as “taking the campaign by the storm” and effectively wrong-footing the ruling Democrats. Came July 3 2010, Thailand elected her party by a huge majority (52% of the votes and 265 of 500 parliament seats). On August 8 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra was royally endorsed as the 28th prime minister of Thailand.

A successful, beautiful modern career woman, Yingluck Shinawatra at first glance looks like the first female national leader that Thai women would be proud of. Reports of her on campaign trails, especially in the party base North and Northeast, often showed her being swarmed by local women. Surely, of the 15.7 million Thais who voted for her party, there must be millions of Thai women who voted for her. Yet, one group of Thai women have made it clear — quite loudly — that they are not among the many admirers of Ms Yingluck.

Supporter of Yingluck Shinawatra, opposition Pheu Thai Party's candidate for prime minister and youngest sister of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, celebrate at the party headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand on Sunday, July 3, 2011. Pic:AP

As soon as the Pheu Thai victory catapulted Yingluck to the national top spot and it became clear that she was to become prime minister, several Thai feminists were already expressing their disapproval. In the news under the headline “Thailand’s first female PM no victory for feminism”, Sutada Mekrungruengkul, director of the Gender and Development Research Institute (GDRI) of Thailand was quoted as saying: How can we be proud? The whole world knows it’s about Thaksin.” She continued: “Compare that to Aung San Suu Kyi who has struggled for 20 years and is still not the prime minister of Myanmar,” perhaps implying that it was Ms Yingluck’s fault for having succeeded too easily, too quickly without experiencing any house arrest, apparently forgetting that Ms Suu Kyi originally came into politics because of her father.

Undoubtedly, most people, feminist or not, are not naïve enough to believe that Ms Yingluck would have become Thailand’s prime minister were she not Thaksin’s sister. Two Western male political analysts quoted in the same news article said as much, but they were more forgiving of Yingluck’s family connection. Chris Baker pointed to Indira Gandhi of India, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Corazon Aquino of the Philippines as examples of how family connection and femininity has been a tried-and-tested formula of female political leadership in Asia. Andrew Walker of Australian National University predicted: “Many women, young and old, will be delighted and inspired by Yingluck’s dramatic rise to the top.” Evidently, he wasn’t listening to the leading Thai feminists.

It appears Ms Yingluck got off on the wrong foot with Thai feminists from the start. What she said in the announcement of her candidacy on May 16, 2010 has rubbed them the wrong way. “I will utilize my femininity to work fully for our country,” said Yingluck. Not something a feminist would say surely.

Arpaporn Sumrit, a lecturer at the Women’s Studies Center at Chiang Mai University, Yingluck’s alma mater, observed:

“She might have the anatomy of a woman, but she thinks like a man and I don’t think she will do anything extraordinary for women.”

It’s clear, Thai feminists see no feminist in Yingluck — and they have some good reason not to. Sutada of GDRI:

“She never said a single word about women’s rights promotion during her campaign… We have a lot of women’s issues in Thailand, particularly violence against women and discrimination against women.”

A few days after the election, a seminar “Women’s power changing the face of the election” (พลังสตรีพลิกโฉมเลือกตั้ง) was organized by the political science department at Thammasat University. A number of women’s rights activists attended this event. Here, viewpoints were more mixed with a bit more openness, though enthusiasm could not be detected from the news report. The general tone regarding Yingluck’s potential in working on women’s issues was cautious and tentative at best.

Chalidaporn Songsamphan, a prominent feminist and a Thammasat political science lecturer, warned the seminar participants not to pin too much hope on Yingluck that because she is a woman she would necessarily be aware of women’s issues in Thai society. While women’s rights movements may bring feminist issues to Yingluck’s attention, one should keep in mind the factors that have set her “flying” (เหาะ) into the [prime minister] position, she said. Another Thammasat political science lecturer, Malee Phruekpongsawali, also reminded the participants how Thailand went crazy over Pornthip Nakhirankanok, Miss Universe 1988, and the fever quickly died down when she announced that she was getting married. And since the seminar was about women and electoral politics, she also reminded the participants that vote buying was still rampant though a lot more subtle in Thai society.

It was not all that bad for Yingluck, however. At least one woman at the seminar approved of her using her femininity in politics. Laddawan Tantiwittayapitak of the Political Development Council said, true that Yingluck “flew in” as prime minister but female leaders in many countries have done so before. She said:

“If Yingluck would learn from her brother’s mistake in being too aggressive and manage the country with independence and, yes, femininity, there might be hope for Thailand to avoid violence and move towards reconciliation”

Kornvipa Villas, a representative of Women’s Power Network for Reform, told participants that she was actually “violently gratified” (สะใจ) that finally Thailand would have a female prime minister, given that only 15 per cent of Thai parliamentarians were women despite Thailand having signed all kinds of international conventions that require a 30 per cent quota of women in political office [and has never abided by them]. She was gleeful because Thai women have long been oppressed by men and now Thai men all accept and bow to Ms Yingluck as she decides who gets to be a minister.

Kornvipa also had something to say about Thaksin:

“As for her brother… now the world knows the people stand on his side. Emotions that ran wild have now calmed somewhat. What could the female PM do? I’d like to tell [Thai] society: let’s move beyond how she got here. We must look ahead and help her, enable her to work [for the country].”

The key suggestion from the seminar was that Yingluck would do best to learn more about social and women’s issues.

Reactions to Yingluck leadership from some of the leading (mainstream) feminists mentioned above have drawn flak from a few feminists among the Red supporters. Khampaka, a well-known columnist, writer and social critic with a large following among young progressive Thais, lashed back, saying it’s “ridiculous” that those feminists suddenly jumped up and down complaining that the first female prime minister-to-be has no feminist mind even before she gets to work:

“We can’t demand feminism from Khun Yingluck because she has never defined herself as a feminist. If Khun Yingluck has never used feminism or her being a feminist to campaign for votes, why would you demand that she suddenly declare policies for women? … Especially when you are making the demand based on the logic that the “feminist mind” does not need the [female] sexual organ, why didn’t you demand [women’s policies] from all the prime ministers before her?”

Khampaka pulled no punches, as she continued:

“If having no feminist mind is such a crime, every single Thai prime minister in the past deserved equal scolding. The contradiction in this line of argument is that if women without a feminist mind deserve heavier punishment, then you [the female feminists] are oppressing your own kind.”

With regard to Yingluck “flying” into the prime minister position, Khampaka had this to say:

“So that’s another of her bad points. Amidst all the disadvantages—the mainstream media never understood Redshirts, never sided with democracy—Khun Yingluck still came out on top. It shows she must have something. People aren’t stupid these days. If you have any contact with the Redshirts you will see that they are quite conscious of their rights because it wasn’t easy for them to get an election; they had to sacrifice with their lives. Yingluck didn’t get here because of luck alone.”

Khampaka also responded to some women’s issues mentioned by the feminists critical of Yingluck. Violence against women and gender inequality have long existed and are persistent problems that every government needs to be pressured to address, she said. She pointed to the power structure that remains the major obstacle in advancement in Thai women’s rights. The major problem with women’s rights movement in Thailand in her view is Thai feminists’ “blindness to human rights problems” which encompass women’s rights problems:

“Women are humans, but human rights in Thailand are still lacking… Thai feminists are concerned about domestic violence and human trafficking but never said anything about 91 people killed [in the April-May 2010 crackdowns]. “Isn’t it also domestic violence? Is 91 people killed as bad as human trafficking?”

According to Khampaka, the priorities in today’s Thailand are truth, justice and the economy. There are people, including women, in jail without bail who need immediate justice, and men and women laborers and their children struggling to make ends meet. A number of people who voted for Pheu Thai see these as the top priorities. She told the interviewer, given the leading feminists’ reactions, she’d like to resign from her status as a feminist to be just a human being. As usual, Khampaka’s comments drew strong reactions: support and kudos at the left- and Red-leaning Prachatai website and severe beating at OK Nation blog, where Yellow supporters congregate.

In fact, the views of leading Thai feminists were challenged even before the election. At the seminar entitled “Democracy, power, violence and women in Thai politics” organized by Chiang Mai University (CMU), social science lecturer, Pinkaew Lueangaramsri, criticized the narrow definition of gender and politics in the traditional Thai women’s rights movement (where most of the critics of Yingluck belong). She also pointed to the gap in class consciousness of traditional Thai feminists. Pinkaew said those in the women’s networks that initiated the “Women’s power changing the face of the election” as a result of the revelation that female political candidates represented only 18 per cent of all 3,832 candidates in the July 3, 2010 election, were concerned about this male-female discrepancy and afraid that Thailand would be left behind in ASEAN. The truth is, she said, Thai women are quite active politically. They are over-represented as voters (National Statistics Office: 1.5 million more female than male voters, compared to 1.2 million more female than male population). Grassroots Thai women are also active in local politics and political rallies [mostly Red] at home and in Bangkok since the 2006 coup, demanding their political rights and an election.

Yet, Pinkaew observed, the leading feminists have not paid attention to this type of women’s movement and don’t see it as a women’s movement. Instead they see these grassroots women as being misled by their political leader (Thaksin), having no political consciousness. She said, this view showed that Thai feminists were out of touch with the [lower class] rural Thai women, who are not feminists but ordinary women who can think for themselves and see the connection between their political rights and their rights as women. But this new grassroots women’s movement will thrive with or without the traditional Thai feminists’ support, she predicted.

Jitra Kochadech, a leading female labor activist and a Red shirt supporter, said at the Chiang Mai seminar that she would like to look at gender through the class lens. She would elect a political leader based on what policy benefits they offer rather than whether the person is female because “women also oppress.” Jitra is known for her slogan “dii-tae-poot” (ดีแต่พูด), only good at paying lip service, after she raised her placard and shouted the phrase at former prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and it stuck.

In her interview with the Bangkok Post, Jitra explained how she came up with the slogan idea:

“I had researched and found out that Mr. Abhisit talked a lot about women workers’ rights and made various promises, none of which materialized. An idea popped into my head that Mr. Abhisit was only paying lip service to policy. (…) [However,] If Ms. Yingluck fails to honor her campaign promises, she will be ridiculed with that slogan just as Mr. Abhisit was. I believe her opponents would like to apply this phrase to her, and are waiting for the right opportunity. She must be careful about what she promises.”

There is no doubt that the first female prime minister of Thailand faces a very daunting task ahead. Among the most daunting are healing the divided nation plagued by social injustice and widening inequalities and dealing with a economy in a looming global recession. The problems of social injustice and inequalities that Yingluck will be asked to address involve not only women and girls but also many marginalized populations: rural and urban poor, ethnic minorities, Muslims in the restive South, migrants, etc. All will put their demands on her government. She has to find a delicate balance in pleasing both the Redshirt supporters who helped put her in power who will demand that she deliver justice and more equitable distribution of resources, wealth and power, and the aggressive military and the unhappy elites who are not eager to share.

It is worth noting that while many leading Thai feminists are lukewarm at best or dismissive at worst at Yingluck’s sudden rise to power, men seem more willing to withhold judgment at this early stage. As most observers are tentative of the kind of leadership Ms Yingluck will offer, her current support comes more often from men. For example, political analyst Chris Baker suggests that from what we have seen so far, Yingluck “has quite a lot of substance,” and Chulalongkorn University political science lecturer Chookiat Panaspornprasit, thinks she should be given a chance and could be a “strong leader.”

Men seem to also appreciate her femininity more and see it as a good asset in her leadership. And as for Ms Yingluck herself, despite the criticisms coming from her fellow Thai women on the value of her femininity, she stands firm:

“I will repeat again that females are the symbols of nonviolence… Another thing I would say is that a female is more compromising. A female can talk with anyone easily.”

Also, while everyone has noticed that Ms Yingluck is beautiful and it is possible that she may have benefited from the so-called “beauty premium, one cannot help wonder whether the “beauty premium” effects are felt more strongly among men than among women.

If polls are to be believed, Thai men are more supportive of the first female prime minister of Thailand than Thai women in general. A Suan Dusit poll conducted during the two days after the election with 1,574 Thai men and women revealed 78 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women supported the idea of Thailand having a female prime minister, and 63 per cent of men and 37 per cent of women had confidence in Ms Yingluck. Both men and women saw identical weaknesses in Yingluck’s leadership:  indecisiveness (50 per cent), appearance as Thaksin’s nominee and may not be able to handle pressure (28 per cent).

Another poll by Suan Dusit conducted a month later during August 5-6 (1,336 respondents) showed 68 per cent thought that Yingluck would probably succeed or fare reasonably well in her job, with 52 per cent thinking she should be given at least six months to prove her mettle. The figures in the second poll are a bit more supportive (the news report does not give breakdown figures by sex), so the question remains open to what extent Thai women are willing to give Ms Yingluck a chance. Indeed, what she has asked for herself and her cabinet is six months to give it a go at the job before the gloves come off. Hopefully, by that time more Thais, especially Thai women and feminists, will have adjusted to having a woman prime minister.

Kaewmala is the author of “sextalk“, a unique, raw insight into what Thais think about love, romance, sex and everything that comes with it. She also reflects about Thai language, politics and other current affairs on her blog and also can be followed on Twitter @thai_talk. Kaewmala has also been previously interviewed by Siam Voices a few months ago on the topless Songkran-dancers-brouhaha.