Days after Thailand voted for wholesale change in the form of a government led by the country’s first female leader, Yingluck Shinawatra, cracks are showing in the coalition that swept her to office – and the country’s powerful army has not formally recognized her party’s win.
In her first Western newspaper interview since Sunday’s vote, Ms. Yingluck told The Globe and Mail that General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the head of the Thai army, has yet to call and congratulate her on Sunday’s landslide victory.
“No. No, not yet. I haven’t heard anything from him,” she said. “I have only heard from [Thai media]interviews that he will accept the people’s vote.”
While Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party and its coalition allies secured nearly 60 per cent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, it remains to be seen whether the 44-year-old businesswoman and political neophyte can appease the demands of her allies, the hard-line Red Shirts, without angering the country’s conservative military and its supporters in the monarchy and elsewhere.
The army has staged 18 coups in the past seven decades – most recently in 2006, when a coup ousted her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra – but Ms. Yingluck dismissed the prospect of another “because I don’t think it will happen again.”
Diplomats based in Bangkok believe the army will stay in its barracks for now. But no one is certain how it will react if Pheu Thai pushes ahead with provocative proposals such as reopening the constitution or pushing for an amnesty that would allow Mr. Thaksin to return to Thailand.
The leader of the leftist Red Shirt movement, which entered into an electoral alliance with the Pheu Thai party and ran candidates under its banner, said in an interview that the support of the Red Shirts was conditional on the new government sticking to an agreed platform. The agreements include rewriting of the 2007 constitution that was drafted while the country was under military rule, as well as a promise to seek “justice” for those who ordered a deadly crackdown on Red Shirt protests in the centre of Bangkok last year.
“The expectations, of course, are so high. We have to tell people what is the plan,” Ms. Yingluck said shortly after leaving a belated July 4 celebration hosted by the U.S. ambassador to Bangkok, to which Gen. Prayuth sent a basket of flowers. “I believe the people are patient … and the people [will] at least give me a chance to prove my ability to help the Thai people.”
In his only public remarks since the vote, Gen. Prayuth said Monday that the army's duty is to protect the nation, its Buddhist religion and the monarchy, but made no mention of the election results. Mr. Thaksin – as well as senior Red Shirt leaders – have been accused of seeking to overthrow the monarchy and to turn Thailand into a presidential republic, a charge Mr. Thaksin vehemently denies.
Ms. Yingluck sought to dispel the notion that she is little more than a proxy for her brother, Mr. Thaksin, who is at once the country’s most loved and loathed person. The first and only Thai prime minister to serve an entire term in office, he was re-elected in a 2005 landslide only to be ousted a year later by the military. He was later charged and convicted in absentia of corruption and abuse of power.
Ms. Yingluck said that while she has “learned” from her brother, she intended to be her own Prime Minister. “I am capable enough to make my own decisions,” she said.
She said she would open public hearings on the constitution, hoping to measure its public support. The 2007 document gives additional powers to the judiciary – which shares the army leadership’s traditionalist, pro-monarchy bent – and made it easier to impeach a sitting prime minister. In addition, nearly half the seats in the country’s Senate are now appointed, rather than elected.
“The constitution, we will ask which version the people want. We have to do public hearings for this issue,” she said. “[But]we don’t need to discuss this at the beginning. The first priority for me is solving economic problems.”
The first issue she needed to deal with is fast-rising food prices, Ms. Yingluck said. Her party has prepared a stimulus package that will see the minimum wage boosted, minimum prices guaranteed to rice farmers, and the corporate-tax rate cut to 23 per cent from 30 per cent.
The most pressing concern after that may be keeping her Red Shirt base happy. The movement’s leader, Thida Thavornseth, expressed frustration that neither reopening the constitution, nor a promise to prosecute those responsible for last year’s military crackdown on the Red Shirt protests, were included in a seven-point priority list released by Ms. Yingluck after her party’s win.
Ms. Thida said the Red Shirts – who brought massive crowds into the streets of Bangkok last year in an ill-fated effort to topple the outgoing government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva – “will not protect Pheu Thai” unless the pre-election agreement was honoured.
“We refuse to have a network of aristocrats. The most important thing is the equality of the people,” Ms. Thida, who fought as a communist guerrilla in the 1970s, said.
The Nation, a Bangkok-based English-language newspaper, also reported that no Red Shirts would be named to Ms. Yingluck’s new cabinet.
The Red Shirt leadership – who held a heated meeting Tuesday at their headquarters in a working-class neighbourhood of Bangkok – indicated they were not interested in a rumoured amnesty deal that would allow Mr. Thaksin to return home from exile. They worry that it may be part of a pact that would clear Mr. Abhisit and military leaders of responsibility for last year’s crackdown, which left 91 people dead, the majority of them Red Shirts.
“Thaksin, or Abhisit Vejjajiva, or the army, they should go before the courts. I would not accept amnesty,” Ms. Thida said. “Without justice, you cannot find reconciliation. What does justice mean? Everyone should have the same standard.”
Key power brokers in Thai politics
Pheu Thai party
The latest incarnation of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s political party, which won election landslides in 2001 and 2005. Although his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is party leader and now prime-minister-elect, Mr. Thaksin controls Pheu Thai from self-imposed exile in Dubai and its campaign is built around his image and his populist policies.
The “Red Shirts” of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship are a protest movement of the rural and urban poor. They support Pheu Thai and accuse royalist conservatives and the military of meddling in politics and the judiciary to protect their interests. Scores of Red Shirts were killed and hundreds wounded when the military crushed their nine-week Bangkok protests last year, but its support has not waned.
The yellow-shirted royalists, urban elite and the military top brass of the Peoples Alliance for Democracy, which helped undermine two of Mr. Thaksin's elected governments, have dwindled. But, they could regroup if there are moves to give Mr. Thaksin an amnesty and the tycoon's powerful enemies throw their weight and wallets behind it.
The deeply politicized military has a long record of staging coups or “silent coups” to remove or preserve governments, but military intervention would risk another backlash. Army chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha insists the military will not interfere, but his comments suggest otherwise. He has urged the public to choose “good people” to prevent a repeat of previous elections. This was seen as a move to discredit Pheu Thai, whose predecessors have won every election since 2001.
The 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej's influence as a unifying figure and moral arbiter is accepted by most Thais, but his heir, 58-year-old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has yet to command the same popular support. King Bhumibol has been in hospital since September, 2009. He made several public appearances in June and he appears to be in better health than when he was admitted. However, his condition has focused attention on what will happen when his reign ends.