The fact that Yingluck Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand, has left the country and is unlikely to return, has been the subject of many an international headline of late. But the fact that she has done so amidst a torrent of sexism that reflects darker truths about Thai political culture has barely gotten the mention that it deserves. That is shameful. The failure to acknowledge the sexism that has hounded her through her political career reflects an ignorance of not only her full story, but how it factors into Thai politics and society.
Since 2014, Yingluck faced criminal charges over a rice-pledging scheme that allegedly cost the country millions. Having assured supporters she would fight the charges until the end, she failed to turn up for the verdict. According Richard Paddock, writing on August 27 in the New York Times, her decision to flee was costly. Not only did it leave her $900,000 worse off (the cost of bail), it also “left her political movement in disarray, with no clear agenda or plan for moving forward.”
For those awaiting a democratic awakening in Thailand, Yingluck’s departure is a disappointment. But to blame all this on the failure of Thailand’s first female prime minister also ignores some hard truths about Thailand today.
First, it fails to acknowledge how Thailand has changed since the 2014 coup led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. But more worryingly, it misses the vicious sexism that has dogged Yingluck in and out of office.
Since the start of her political career, Yingluck has existed in the shadow of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra. This is understandable. Her premiership featured as one episode in a decade long political crisis that left Thailand deeply divided. When she emerged on the political scene in mid-2011, it was as the surprise choice for leader of her brother’s party, Pheu Thai. Sharing her brother’s surname did not help distinguish her as an independent political actor.
Unlike other figures that have led Thaksin-linked political parties, however, Yingluck was invariably portrayed in dutiful deference to her brother. Her inexperience and ignorance of politics was presented as a quality because it made her an empty vessel for her brother’s vision. This was supported in Pheu Thai posters for the 2011 election campaign where her smiling image would regularly appear beside the phrase ‘Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai does.’
Yet, once in office, Yingluck worked hard to create her own brand of politics, building a stronger personal following than any of her predecessors, and strengthening the Pheu Thai brand by presenting it as the authentic face of progressive Thai politics. Meanwhile, Yingluck was largely left to navigate the sexism of Thailand’s patriarchal society alone.
In 2013, as the forces to depose her mounted, protesters, aggravated by senior political figures, engaged in a vicious campaign of sexism. According to journalist and photographer Nick Nostitz, the sexism in the hate speech against Yingluck from then on was appalling and included Oxford-educated former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, at one point using the extremely derogative term “Garee” [whore] to describe her.
‘This,” Nostitz explains, “shows that the sexism was not just the usual occurrence in a heated up political culture – a normal part of Thai gutter culture – but clearly steered and furthered by the top leadership.”
In the aftermath of Yingluck’s recent departure from Thailand, the surreal sexual slurs continued. First, no less a personage than Thailand’s National Artist, Thanya Sankhapanthanon, mockingly alluded to her as a “vagina.” In a poetic bit of wordplay, the use of which is not uncommon among some Thai elites, he used the ear condition Yingluck claimed had kept her from the court to decry her a “cunt” [He did it by messing around in Thai with the word for ear]. When asked to condemn this behavior, the Ministry of Culture refused, dismissing it as “opinion.”
Another prominent academic and writer, Charoon Yoothong, repeated the same wordplay, defending his poem as art and disparaging those who didn’t understand the humor for their ignorance of Thai culture. “If you want to try the cunt, then you have to queue,” parried a third public figure, Kittisak Kittsobhano, a Buddhist monk.
Sexism, and even insinuations or depictions of forms of sexual violence, is not uncommon in Thailand more generally. Thai soap operas regularly feature rape as an ordinary part of everyday life. Iterating standardized images of “good’”women who need to be cajoled into sex, they implicitly place restrictions on what is deemed acceptable female behavior. As a Thai writer, Thitipol Panyalimpanun recently wrote, “In traditional Thai soaps, not only were none of the rapist male protagonists charged or prosecuted, but also none of the female victims, dehumanized by the sexist plot, did anything about it.”
It is true that women play a significant role in Thai public life. But the point is that their dehumanization on screen nevertheless reflects a broader social reality. Women who hold high status may be able to take certain liberties, but they must also be intuitively aware of the patriarchal hierarchies that surround them, and dutifully accept the social mores that are seen to keep society in order. Operating as independent agents is a painfully difficult task, and those who don’t succumb place themselves in potential danger.
For Yingluck, public life was always going to be an impossible balancing act. Forever tied to her brother, a figure despised by the Thai establishment, Yingluck’s every act of defiance in government was interpreted as deviant behavior. By implementing polices in line with her ideology and political agenda, she riled Thailand’s elite. By demonstrating her legitimate power over figures such as Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader who overthrew her democratically elected government, she violated her prescribed role.
Given what she represented within Thai society, it was therefore little surprise that her opponents’ response featured a sexual element. Where her male predecessors received political ridicule, Yingluck experienced sexual objectification. While Thaksin disturbed the favored order of Thai society by placing peasants above the urban elite, Yingluck did so by being a woman in power.
Despite being under constant surveillance, Yingluck miraculously managed to “escape” Thailand, just prior to the verdict that may have seen her imprisoned for up to ten years. By leaving, she spared the ruling military junta a martyr. She thus provides fodder for those who say she has betrayed her followers, shattering the image of feminine restraint and Buddhist piety she carefully cultivated, particularly since her ousting in May 2014.
To be sure, Yingluck’s rise and fall is not all about sexism. But it is equally true that to ignore this element is to miss an important point not just about her story, but what it represents within broader Thai politics and society. Thailand today is still a place based on the idea of groups of people knowing their place, and insinuations and depictions of sexism and sexual violence remain an acceptable tool of social conditioning. It is a world where female bodies may be considered the property of men, and the bodies of prisoners, male and female, are routinely violated.
Seen from this perspective, for Yingluck to succumb to imprisonment in that world would have been unspeakable. Yet her departure also in a way represents a victory for Thailand’s patriarchal political system and the preservation of its internal moral order. For us to forget the role of sexism in her story would not only be condoning those responsible for Thailand’s descent into autocracy, but ignoring the problematic gender issues that remain unsolved in Thai society.
Matthew is a lecturer in Modern Asian History at Aberystwyth University.