November 8, 2012 11:07 am

Yingluck says not in brother’s shadow

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Thai prime minister asserts her independence
Yingluck Shinawatra©Reuters

Yingluck Shinawatra, the Thai prime minister, has insisted she has a firm grip on policy as she defended herself against critics who claim she remains in the shadow of her elder brother, Thaksin, the exiled former leader.

“People didn’t know me the first day when I stepped from the business environment into politics,” Ms Yingluck told the Financial Times. “I was new to politics, but I was not new to the business side. After some time, I think I have proved I can handle and overcome all surprises.”

Since her election in August 2011, Ms Yingluck, 45, has survived a legal challenge to her government, an economic downturn and Thailand’s worst flooding in half a century.

The army has stayed in its barracks despite fears of yet another coup, and the revered king, 84, has fought off illness, postponing what could become a constitutional crisis over royal succession.

“More than one year has passed. We understand how we need to improve each policy and how we would like to move Thailand forward,” she said in an interview in the ornate reception room of Government House in Bangkok.

Ms Yingluck, who will meet David Cameron, UK prime minister, in Britain next week, recently named a new cabinet that bears more of her own imprint.

Critics point to the elevation of some Thaksin loyalists after the recent expiry of a five-year court ban on their political activities. But her promotion and retention of favoured ministers outside the Thaksin camp, including finance minister Kittirat Na-ranong, showed growing assertiveness, according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University.

“Yingluck has increasingly come into her own,” he said. “She listens to Thaksin but he controls [the ruling] Pheu Thai party more than she does. It’s like he is chairman of the board and she is CEO.”

Mr Thitinan said Ms Yingluck could become a “bridge builder” between pro-Thaksin “red shirt” supporters and “yellow-shirted” monarchists. So far, the opposing camps have avoided a repeat of their bloody clashes in 2010 but tensions remain.

The opposition Democrat party has criticised what it describes as Ms Yingluck’s populist policies, including a minimum wage and a generous rice subsidy scheme. The most recent national Abac poll shows that 53 per cent of voters would re-elect Ms Yingluck’s party against 36 per cent for the Democrats.

Ms Yingluck said her new cabinet – dubbed Yingluck 3 because she has already reshuffled ministers once – would be forward-looking and would disprove notions that she is just a front for her brother, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

“Be fair to me and let me prove I can run the country,” Ms Yingluck said.

Mr Thaksin, who speaks frequently of his desire to return to Thailand, continues to undermine his sister’s authority by suggesting he runs the government from self-imposed exile. He hopes to overturn a two-year jail sentence on corruption-related charges that he claims were politically motivated.

This week, Mr Thaksin abruptly cancelled a planned gathering of his “red shirt” supporters in a Myanmar town on the Thai border, citing security concerns.

Mr Thitinan said the former prime minister had “done Thailand a favour” by staying away. Many fear his return could plunge the country back into the political violence that for years pitted his “red shirt” supporters against “yellow shirt” royalists.

“So far he has been willing to stay in exile and run Thailand virtually by remote control,” he said.

Ms Yingluck for now appears to have abandoned attempts to secure her brother a pardon, which would clear the path for his return. While she praised her brother’s “many good policies”, she stressed that she was running the country.

“We have new policies . . . he hasn’t the chance [now] to run the country,” she said.

She said she had gone some way to closing the red-yellow divide. She made light of a no-confidence motion later this month, saying it was a positive sign that political battles were now being fought in parliament rather than on the streets.

Ms Yingluck’s premiership has been shaken by last year’s floods, which killed more than 500 people and badly damaged Thailand’s manufacturing base, especially car and computer production. Her government, though criticised for its handling of the floods, took extraordinary measures to help companies, particularly the Japanese manufacturers that dominate Thai industry.

Far from leaving Thailand, as the government had feared, Japanese companies appear to be increasing investments, due to the strong yen and, in some cases, to relocate production from China amid a growing anti-Japan backlash over a maritime dispute. This month, Nissan became the latest to expand its Thai production base, announcing a new $380m car plant near Bangkok.

Ms Yingluck’s much-criticised handling of the flood-related crisis was among her only regrets, she said. “We lost about three months solving the problem of flooding. I wish I could gain this time back, because we have many things to do.”

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