It was the speech everybody had been waiting two years to hear, but few in the international community immediately recognized it.
Last month, Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra traveled to the 7th Ministerial Conference of the Community of Democracies in Mongolia where she discussed the importance of democracy, good governance, and her perspectives on Thailand’s turbulent politics over the past decade. In particular, she defended her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was Thailand’s Prime Minister until being deposed by a coup in 2006.
The speech generated an intense domestic reaction, with Opposition personalities calling Yingluck a liar. As expected, netizens actively shared their views as well, but it was Thai Rath cartoonist Chai Rachawat who posted the most controversial remark by uploading a photo of Yingluck with this caption on Facebook: “Please understand that prostitutes are not bad women. Prostitutes only sell their bodies, but a bad woman has been wandering around trying to sell the country.”
Rachawat was quickly and widely criticized for insulting women and for portraying Yingluck as evil. In response, he claimed in a Bangkok Post interview that he did not insult anyone.
“What I meant was prostitutes are not evil because they sell themselves, not the nation,” he said. “However, a woman who sells the nation is evil. I did not label the prime minister as a prostitute.”
Despite this clarification, Yingluck still instructed her lawyers to sue Chai for defamation. In addition, Chai was charged with violating the Computer Crimes Act. This is the first time in Thailand that a prime minister has sued a citizen for leaving a comment on social media. It is common in Thailand to penalize netizens who insult the Royal Family, but not those who offend government officials.
Rachawat’s case has since become a cause célèbre involving media freedom and Internet rights. Human rights watchdogs noted that Chai was sued on World Press Freedom Day.
The perceived persecution of Chai seems to have emboldened Opposition groups to mobilize against Yingluck’s government. Out of nowhere, a so-called Thai Spring movement has emerged, urging citizens to express their frustration against Yingluck by signing an online petition.
This brings us back to the original issue: Yingluck’s controversial speech. So what exactly did Yingluck say that provoked Chai and others to insult her? For a start, maybe her kind words for brother Thaksin did not sit well with those who see him as an abusive and corrupt leader.
“An elected government which won two elections with a majority was overthrown in 2006,” she said in Mongolia. “Thailand lost track and the people spent almost a decade to regain their democratic freedom.”
She continued, “Thailand suffered a setback and lost international credibility. Rule of law in the country was destroyed… The people felt their rights and liberties were wrongly taken away.”
Further, her criticism of Thailand’s Constitution and political system probably angered some factions of the ruling elite:
“It is clear that elements of anti-democratic regime still exist. The new constitution, drafted under the coup leaders led government, put in mechanisms to restrict democracy,” she said. “A good example of this is that half of the Thai Senate is elected, but the other half is appointed by a small group of people. In addition, the so called independent agencies have abused the power that should belong to the people, for the benefit of the few rather than to the Thai society at large.”
Curiously, Yingluck cited the Arab Spring and the ongoing transition in Myanmar as examples of democratic movements. She also credited “people power” for her electoral victory. But these two points were overshadowed by Yingluck’s strong words against the Opposition.
On another level, perhaps the speech was controversial because it was the first time that Yingluck has clearly articulated her stance on divisive issues like Thaksin, the 2006 coup, the violent crackdown on the Red Shirts in 2010, and constitutional reform.
For some analysts, the speech revealed the true Yingluck. For critics, it exposed her as a mere puppet of her brother, who is living in exile outside Thailand. Yingluck may have spoken in Ulan Bator last month but perhaps her real target audience was her constituents, including enemies, in Bangkok.
No doubt, this speech will be remembered for a long time and it will be used by various political factions to advance their agendas. For better or worse, Thai politics has been energized by Yingluck’s speech.