The First Thai Female Prime Minister and Thai Feminists

[Originally published by Siamvoices on]

Yingluck Shinawatra - 28th Prime Minister of Thailand Source: Time Magazine

Thailand has its first female prime minister at last. It has taken 79 years since the country has adopted constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy in 1932.

The idea of Thailand having a female prime minister was floated once or twice. About 15 years ago Khunying Supatra Masadit  (Dem), the first female minister of Thailand who was an elected MP, was thought a possible first female PM, but nobody really expected to have a madam prime minister anytime soon.

Then it all happened so quickly. Just three months ago Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra  suddenly came on the scene. Almost out of nowhere (or “nowhere” in Dubai) she was named the top party list candidate of the opposition party, Pheu Thai—the latest reincarnation of Thailand’s most popular political party founded by her big brother Thaksin Shinawatra (the man in Dubai). She campaigned dutifully for two and a half months. Closely watched, she surprised and impressed more than a few. The Economist described her as “taking the campaign by the storm” and effectively wrong-footing the ruling Democrats. Came July 3rd, 2010, Thailand elected her party by a huge majority (52% of the votes and 265 of 500 parliament seats). On the 8th of August 2011 Yingluck Shinawatra was royally endorsed as the 28th prime minister of Thailand.

A successful, beautiful modern career woman, Yingluck Shinawatra at first glance looks like the first female national leader that Thai women would be proud of. Reports of her on the campaign trails especially in the party base North and Northeast often showed her being swarmed by local women. Surely, of the 15.7 million Thais who voted for her party there must be millions of Thai women who voted for her. Yet, one group of Thai women have made it clear—quite loudly—that they are not among the many admirers of Ms. Yingluck.

As soon as Pheu Thai victory catapulted Yingluck to the national top spot and it became clear she was to become prime minister, several Thai feminists were already expressing their disapproval.  In the news under the headline “Thailand’s first female PM no victory for feminism”  Sutada Mekrungruengkul, director of the Gender and Development Research Institute (GDRI) of Thailand was quoted:

How can we be proud? The whole world knows it’s about Thaksin… Compare that to Aung San Suu Kyi who has struggled for 20 years and is still not the prime minister of Myanmar.

As if it was Ms. Yingluck’s fault for having succeeded too easily, too fast without experiencing any house arrest. Sutada apparently also forgot that Ms. Suu Kyi originally came into politics because of her father.

Undoubtedly most people, feminist or no, are not naïve enough to believe that Ms. Yingluck would have become Thailand’s prime minister were she not Thaksin’s sister. Two Western male political analysts quoted in the same news article said as much, but they were more forgiving of Yingluck’s family connection. Chris Baker pointed to Indira Gandhi of India, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Corazon Aquino of the Philippines as examples of how family connection and femininity has been a tried-and-tested formula of female political leadership in Asia. Andrew Walker of Australian National University predicted:

Many women, young and old, will be delighted and inspired by Yingluck’s dramatic rise to the top.

Evidently he wasn’t listening in on leading Thai feminists.

It appears Ms. Yingluck got off on the wrong foot with Thai feminists from the start. What she said in the announcement of her candidacy on May 16, 2010 has rubbed them the wrong way. Yingluck said:

I will utilize my femininity to work fully for our country.

Not something a feminist would surely.

Arpaporn Sumrit, a lecturer at the Women’s Studies Center at Chiang Mai University, Yingluck’s alma mater, observed:

She might have the anatomy of a woman, but she thinks like a man and I don’t think she will do anything extraordinary for women.

It’s clear, these Thai feminists see no feminist in Yingluck—and they have some good reason. Sutada of GDRI:

She never said a single word about women’s rights promotion during her campaign… We have a lot of women’s issues in Thailand, particularly violence against women and discrimination against women.

A few days after the election, a seminar “Women’s power changing the face of the election” (พลังสตรีพลิกโฉมเลือกตั้ง) was organized by the political science department at Thammasat University. A number of women’s rights activists attended.  Here viewpoints were more mixed with a bit more openness, though enthusiasm could not be detected from the news report. The general tone regarding Yingluck’s potential in working on women’s issues was cautious and tentative at best.

Chalidaporn Songsamphan, a prominent feminist and a Thammasat political science lecturer, warned the seminar participants not to pin too much hope on Yingluck that because she is a woman she would necessarily be aware of women’s issues in Thai society. While women’s rights movements may bring feminist issues to Yingluck’s attention, one should keep in mind the factors that have set her “flying” (เหาะ)–like on a magic carpet–into the [prime minister] position, she said. Another Thammasat political science lecturer Malee Phruekpongsawali also reminded the participants how Thailand went crazy over Pornthip Nakhirankanok Miss Universe 1988 and the fever quickly died down when she announced she was getting married. And since the seminar was about women and electoral politics, she also reminded the participants that vote buying was still rampant though a lot more subtle in Thai society.

It was not all bad for Yingluck, however. At least one woman at the seminar approved of her using her femininity in politics. Laddawan Tantiwittayapitak of Political Development Council said, true that Yingluck “flew in” as prime minister but female leaders in many countries have done so before. If Yingluck would learn from her brother’s mistake in being too aggressive and manage the country with independence and, yes, femininity, there might be hope for Thailand to avoid violence and move towards reconciliation, she said.

Kornvipa Villas, a representative of Women’s Power Network for Reform told participants she was actually “violently gratified” (สะใจ) that finally Thailand would have a female prime minister, given that only 15% of Thai parliamentarians were women despite Thailand having signed all kinds of international conventions that require 30% quota of women in political office [and has never abided by them]. She was gleeful because Thai women have long been oppressed by men and now Thai men all accept and bow to Ms. Yingluck because she decides who gets to be a minister.

Kornvipa also had something to say about Thaksin:

As for her brother… now the world knows the people stand on his side. Emotions that ran wild have now calmed somewhat. What could the female PM do? I’d like to tell [Thai] society: let’s move beyond how she got here. We must look ahead and help her, enable her to work [for the country].

The key suggestion from the seminar was that Yingluck would do best to learn more about social and women’s issues. 

Reactions to Yingluck leadership from some of the leading (mainstream) feminists mentioned above have drawn flak from a few feminists among the Red supporters. Khampaka, a well-known columnist, writer and social critic with a large following among young progressive Thais, lashed back, saying it’s “ridiculous” that those feminists suddenly jumped up and down complaining that the first female prime minister-to-be has no feminist mind even before she gets to work.

We can’t demand feminism from Khun Yingluck because she has never defined herself as a feminist. If Khun Yingluck has never used feminism or her being a feminist to campaign for votes, why would you demand that she suddenly declare policies for women? … Especially when you are making the demand based on the logic that the “feminist mind” does not need the [female] sexual organ, why didn’t you demand [women’s policies] from all the prime ministers before her?

Khampaka held no punches:

If having no feminist mind is such a crime, every single Thai prime minister in the past deserved equal scolding.The contradiction in this line of argument is that if women without a feminist mind deserve heavier punishment, then you [the female feminists] are oppressing your own kind.

With regard to Yingluck “flying” into the prime minister position, Khampaka had this to say:

So that’s another of her bad points. Amidst all the disadvantages—the mainstream media never understood Redshirts, never sided with democracy—Khun Yingluck still came out on top. It shows she must have something. People aren’t stupid these days. If you have any contact with the Redshirts you will see that they are quite conscious of their rights because it wasn’t easy for them to get an election;  they had to sacrifice with their lives. Yingluck didn’t get here because of luck alone.

Khampaka also responded to some women’s issues mentioned by the feminists critical of Yingluck. Violence against women and gender inequality have long existed and are persistent problems that every government needs to be pressured to address, she said. She pointed to the power structure that remains the major obstacle in advancement in Thai women’s rights. The major problem with women’s rights movement in Thailand in her view is Thai feminists’ “blindness to human rights problems” which encompass women’s rights problems:

Women are humans, but human rights in Thailand are still lacking… Thai feminists are concerned about domestic violence and human trafficking but never said anything about 91 people killed [in the April-May 2010 crackdowns]. Isn’t it also domestic violence? Is 91 people killed as bad as human trafficking?

According to Khampaka, the priorities in today’s Thailand are truth, justice and the economy. There are people, including women, in jail without bail who need immediate justice, and men and women laborers and their children struggling to make ends meet. A number of people who voted for Pheu Thai see these as the top priorities. She told the interviewer, given the leading feminists’ reactions, she’d like to resign from her status as a feminist to be just a human being. As usual Khampaka’s comments drew strong reactions: support and kudos at the left- and Red-leaning Prachatai website and severe beating at OK Nation blog  where Yellow supporters congregate.

In fact, the views of leading Thai feminists were challenged even before the election. At the seminar entitled “Democracy, power, violence and women in Thai politics” organized by Chiang Mai University, Pinkaew Lueangaramsri a social science lecturer, criticized the narrow definition of gender and politics in the traditional Thai women’s rights movement (where most of the critics of Yingluck belong). She also pointed to the gap in class consciousness of traditional Thai feminists.

Pinkaew said those in the women’s networks that initiated the “Women’s power changing the face of the election” as a result of the revelation that female political candidates represented only 18% of all 3,832 candidates in the July 3, 2010 election, were concerned about this male-female discrepancy and afraid that Thailand would be left behind in ASEAN. The truth is, she said, Thai women are quite active politically. They are over-represented as voters (National Statistics Office: 1.5 million more female than male voters, compared to 1.2 million more female than male population). Grassroots Thai women are also active in local politics and political rallies [mostly Red] at home and in Bangkok since the 2006 coup, demanding their political rights and an election.

Yet, Pinkaew observed, the leading feminists have not paid attention to this type of women’s movement and don’t see it as a women’s movement. Instead they see these grassroots women as being misled by their political leader (Thaksin), having no political consciousness.  She said, this view showed that Thai feminists were out of touch with the [lower class] rural Thai women, who are not feminists but ordinary women who can think for themselves and see the connection between their political rights and their rights as women. But this new grassroots women’s movement will thrive with or without the traditional Thai feminists’ support, she predicted.

Jitra Kochadech, a leading female labor activist and a Redshirt supporter, said at the Chiang Mai seminar that she would like to look at gender through the class lens. She would elect a political leader based on what policy benefits s/he offers rather than whether the person is female because “women also oppress.” Jitra is known for her slogan dii-tae-poot (ดีแต่พูด) “only good at paying lip service” after she raised her placard and shouted the phrase at former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and it stuck.

In her interview with the Bangkok Post, Jitra explained how she came up with the slogan idea:

I had researched and found out that Mr. Abhisit talked a lot about women workers’ rights and made various promises, none of which materialized. An idea popped into my head that Mr. Abhisit was only paying lip service to policy.

However, she said the phrase can apply to any politician.

If Ms. Yingluck fails to honor her campaign promises, she will be ridiculed with that slogan just as Mr. Abhisit was. I believe her opponents would like to apply this phrase to her, and are waiting for the right opportunity. She must be careful about what she promises.

There is no doubt that the first female prime minister of Thailand faces a very daunting task ahead. Among the most daunting are healing the divided nation plagued by social injustice and widening inequalities and dealing with an economy in a looming global recession.

The problems of social injustice and inequalities that Yingluck will be asked to address involve not only women and girls but also many marginalized populations: rural and urban poor, ethnic minorities, Muslims in the restive South, migrants, etc. All will put their demands on her government. She has to find a delicate balance in pleasing both the Redshirt supporters who helped put her in power who will demand that she deliver justice and more equitable distribution of resources, wealth and power, and the aggressive military and the unhappy elites who are not eager to share.

It is worth noting that while many leading Thai feminists are lukewarm at best or dismissive at worst at Yingluck’s sudden rise to power, men seem more willing to withhold judgment at this early stage. As most observers are tentative of the kind of leadership Ms. Yingluck will offer, her current support comes more often from men:

Chris Baker, political analyst: 

Until we see her strut her stuff it is difficult to judge, but everything we have seen of her so far suggests she has quite a lot of substance.

Chookiat Panaspornprasit, Chulalongkorn University political science lecturer:

I think she should be given a chance. So far, so good. She could be a strong leader.

Men seem to also appreciate her femininity more and see it as a good asset in her leadership. And as for Ms. Yingluck  herself, despite the criticisms coming from her fellow Thai women on the value of her femininity, she stands firm:

I will repeat again that females are the symbols of nonviolence… Another thing I would say is that a female is more compromising. A female can talk with anyone easily.

Also, while everyone has noticed that Ms. Yingluck is beautiful and it is possible that she may have benefited from the so-called “beauty premium,” one cannot help wonder whether the “beauty premium” effects are felt more strongly among men than among women.

If polls are to be believed, Thai men are more supportive of the first female prime minister of Thailand than Thai women in general. A Suan Dusit poll conducted during the two days after the election with 1,574 Thai men and women revealed 78% of men and 60% of women supported the idea of Thailand having a female prime minister, and 63% of men and 37% of women had confidence in Ms. Yingluck as the first female national leader. Both men and women saw identical weaknesses in Yingluck’s leadership:  indecisiveness (50%), appearance as Thaksin’s nominee and may not be able to handle pressure (28%).

Another poll also by Suan Dusit conducted a month later during August 5-6 (1,336 respondents) showed 68% thought that Yingluck would probably succeed or fare reasonably well in her job, with 52% thinking she should be given at least six months to prove her mettle. The figures in the second poll are a bit more supportive (the news report does not give breakdown figures by sex), so the question remains open to what extent Thai women are willing to give Ms. Yingluck a chance. Indeed, what she has asked for herself and her cabinet is six months to give it a go at the job before the gloves come off. Hopefully by that time more Thais, especially Thai women and feminists, will have adjusted to having a woman prime minister.

7 responses to “The First Thai Female Prime Minister and Thai Feminists

  1. Great article. (I was a fan since the Siam Voices version.)

    I have to add that Abhisit also benefited from the ‘beauty premium’. Wouldn’t you say so?

  2. It’s probably fair to say Abhisit has benefited from the beauty premium as well. Middle-aged and elderly ladies are among his most loyal supporters. In fact they are commonly known in Thai as แม่ยก /mÊE yók/ lit. “patroness(es)”. 🙂

  3. I agree with most of the written facts in this post. But I think that Yingluck could be a hope for Thailand.
    Actually it doesn’t matter if she is feminist or not, it only matters that she is able to manage all the old gray hair politicians in the parliament and in the industrial lobbies. If she needs to act masculine in this matter than she should do so, if she needs to act like a princess, she should do so ether. Important is the result, and with her brother in the back hand, she is for the moment kind of untouchable. Let’s hope the best for Thailand, but let’s hope that she knows the boarders of the law better than her brother.

  4. I’ve just stumbled across this site – thank you so much for the comprehensive discussions.

    After months of postering – finally last week during her frustrated moments, we got real working photos of a grown woman, instead of a sweetly smiling sao-suai figurehead. I strongly agree with top Thai feminists that Yingluck does not speak to women’s key issues. However, I am hopeful that she may yet grow into a positive role model. I hope that she will wear her crown with a sense of duty rather than entitlement, and that she will replace populist promises with sustainable solutions.

    Time will tell if Yingluck lets herself be used as the ‘mission-accomplished’ impediment to gender equality, or if she will allow the real needs of women to ride her coattails.

  5. Thanks, Jojo for your thoughtful comment, and Khun Pamela for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

    Feminists, including myself, would have been delighted if Khun Yingluck had shown inclination for feminism. She might have made us feel better in having in her a poster girl – first female PM who’s a feminist to boot! But well, it wasn’t to be, and there is no guarantee that her espousing feminist ideals would make much, if any, difference, for the issues facing her in her first year at least will be all consuming far beyond women’s rights, and the climate in which she will work is not particularly conducive–one may argue not appropriate either–to push for women-specific policies at this early stage. We have a serious case of class division and grievances about injustice and inequity that pervade the entire society that sourly need addressing. The populist policies may or may not be her undoing, time will tell. But we all can only hope that if she works hard to address the larger issues of social inequality and injustice, and becomes more familiar with social and women’s issues as she goes along, gender equality will get its due attention in her government (as I see no reason why she would or should specifically exclude it). Also, it is incumbent upon us and those who care about gender equality to bring to her attention the issues that need to be addressed.

    One huge test for Yingluck is to demonstrate to both her supporters and detractors that she is her own woman. However one may think of her, I believe she deserves a fair chance to prove herself. So far she has proved to be a fast learner. She has conducted herself very well, her inexperience and lack of oratory skills notwithstanding (but I personally don’t think oratory skills are so important to get things done). What pleases me is that she seems to listen, is hard-working, humble and conciliatory (i.e., all positive things she believes femininity offers). She also seems averse to confrontation, which at this point is a plus. But I do hope that she will grow to be more confident without the hubris that plagued and contributed to her bother’s downfall. Let’s hope for the best for her, for if she does well and is allowed to carry out the will of the people, I believe it is for the benefit of the country. 🙂

  6. Wow, so this is where all the intelligent women congregate, on this site! I don’t know what I could add to what’s already been set to the page. Thanks for restoring my faith in women in Thailand. We shall all contribute our thoughts to Yingluck, and hope that she listens and implements our advice.

  7. Interesting that men are apparently more willing to cut Yingluk a break than are women (hard-core feminist establishment women, anyway). I would have thought the opposite to be the case. While the ‘beauty premium’ doubtless plays a part in this (See: Palin, Sarah), I’d like to think that it’s a sign of progress, too; it wasn’t that long ago that the very notion of a female PM would have been considered ridiculous, especially among traditional men.
    Of course, the fact that the overwhelming majority of male politicos have demonstrated themselves to be complete bone-heads has certainly helped pave the way for female leadership. Perhaps the men surveyed figured, like I do, that if I have to watch someone lying to my face while screwing up the country, I might as well try to salvage a little enjoyment out of the process. She really is quite beautiful, isn’t she? (in the above picture, at least).

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