Yingluck and Gender Politics

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Yingluck and Gender Politics

Yingluck Shinawatra looks in with a chance of becoming Thailand’s first female prime minister. Don’t get excited yet.

Yingluck Shinawatra could become Thailand’s first female prime minister if her Pheu Thai Party performs well in next month’s general election.

And her chances certainly seem strong, despite her inexperience, because so many voters are disillusioned with male-dominated Thai politics. Sensing this growing frustration, Yingluck’s handlers have been emphasizing her natural ‘feminine qualities’ to attract more support. She may not be a sure bet yet, but her candidacy has certainly excited many Thais who see her entry into politics as a refreshing development. Some observers have even cited her gender as an advantage that she could use to ‘heal’ the political wounds inflicted by the bloody fighting between the country’s warring political forces.

But Yingluck has a significant liability, too. As the younger sister of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, she’s accused of being a mere proxy of a desperate former head of state seeking a political comeback. It didn’t help that Thaksin casually admitted in a media interview that Yingluck would become her brother’s ‘clone’ after the polls. As a ‘clone’, many fear she might only end up rekindling the animosity of Thaksin haters.

On the other hand, she can’t just simply distance herself from her brother, even if it means confirming the claim of her critics that she’s a mere puppet. Why? Because she needs Thaksin’s billions and most importantly, the support of many of the poor in the countryside who still think that the ousted leader is a caring and compassionate leader.

In short, Yingluck’s link to Thaksin has appeared a mixed blessing for her ambitions to lead the country. But as the election campaign enters its last phase, it is becoming evident that Thaksin is casting a dark and increasingly damaging shadow over Yingluck’s budding political career.

It’s not only her independence that’s being questioned, but also her commitment to promoting women’s rights, democratic reforms, and transparency in governance. After all, transparency would inevitably involve investigating the various alleged crimes committed during the Thaksin years. If she becomes prime minister, would she really allow the revival of corruption and plunder cases against her brother?

In addition, being a woman doesn’t make Yingluck an instant champion of women’s rights, and her victory certainly wouldn’t guarantee a weakening of patriarchal politics in Thailand. Nor does she represent Thailand’s marginalized women seeking political empowerment. Instead, she embodies the conservative political interests of her family.

Of course, if Yingluck succeeds, she could become Southeast Asia’s next great female icon, in the mould of Suu Kyi, Wan Aziah, Megawati, Cory Aquino, and Gloria Arroyo. But if she wants to equal or surpass the legacy of these remarkable female leaders, she must be ready to sacrifice and even betray personal ties and interests for the sake of the greater public good. She must be willing to break tradition by rejecting authoritarianism and its various forms in Thailand.

In the meantime, it’s better that we check our expectations by remembering that her gender isn’t a guarantee that she will pursue meaningful social reform.