Thailand's New Prime Minister Is Stylish and Steely

Yingluck Shinawatra, ousted Premier Thaksin Shinawatra's sister, waves to the crowd outside her party's headquarters in Bangkok on July 3, 2011. Damir Sagolj / Reuters-Landov

Yingluck Shinawatra, who has been elected the first woman prime minister of Thailand, has been a shadowy figure on the Thai scene up to now. In her TV interviews she comes across as a typical Thai female presence: deft, slightly steely, understated, her gestures measured and imperturbable, the charm calculatingly uncalculating. She will cut an interesting figure on the world stage. At once corporate and feminine, dynastic and individual, she has joined the ranks of Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, and Indira Gandhi without the gender-war boilerplate of her American counterparts or the stern asexuality of an Angela Merkel.

Thailand’s easy tolerance of the sexual-entertainment business has often befuddled outsiders into assuming that Thai women enjoy little in the way of independence or status. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s no Annie Oakley in Shinawatra, but then there doesn’t need to be. She has gotten what she wants by stealth and speed. Three months ago, she was hardly a political figure at all.

But of course she has not been elected purely on her merits. Yingluck’s older brother is Thaksin Shinawatra, the bête noire of Thai politics. The former prime minister was ousted by an Army coup in 2006, and from his exile in Dubai he has often vowed to return with a vengeance. His little sister might be able to help.

When Shinawatra is asked if she is merely her powerful brother’s “clone,” she says, without batting an expertly sculpted eyelash, “Yes, but only when it comes to logical thinking.” She is often asked if her femininity will be the key to her ability to affect conciliation in a country rocked by massive unrest and conflict, and again the answer is yes. “Female two-way dialogue,” she says, smiling like a restaurant hostess while looking the male interviewer in the eyes as if she is about to impale him on the fine point of a hairpin. It’s charm as bone-breaking jujitsu.

Shinawatra has degrees from the Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Chiang Mai and from Kentucky State University, where she gained an M.A. in public administration. She became head of the Pheu Thai Party (PTP) only on May 16 of this year, having previously shied away from the job, and it should be recalled that the party itself is only three years old. The PTP is the reincarnation of an older party known as Thai Rak Thai, which was dissolved when a bloodless military coup swept it from power, along with Thaksin. It was the Army that installed the current ruling party, the Democrat Party, and its chief, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Yingluck’s sudden prominence, therefore, is not as meritocratically neutral as it might at first appear. Thaksin has always vowed to return, and his sister’s landslide may well be his cue to get on a plane from Dubai and head for Bangkok. After all, he was not removed from power through an election. The country has seethed ever since.

Thailand is a unique society in the contemporary world: a Theravada Buddhist monarchy with a parliamentary system. The clarinet-playing king, revered as a living incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, rules via lèse-majesté over a hedonistic and technology-obsessed economy centered in one of the world’s most sophisticated urban cultures. Herein lies the conflict. The country’s farming-hinterland soul is incompatible with its urban head.

Thaksin came to power in 2001 on populist rural resentment and on demographics rooted in the country’s northern provinces. He immediately set about alleviating rural poverty and implementing land reforms. He also embarked on a brutally lawless war on drug dealers, killing 2,500 of them extrajudicially. Simultaneously, he took a hard line with the Islamic insurgency in the south of the country. All these policies made him broadly popular with the poor and with the north.

A strange kind of civil war has erupted in Thailand between the “reds,” who supported Thaksin, mostly drawn from the rural poor, and the “yellows,” who come mostly from the military, the monarchists, and the liberal urban middle classes and professionals rooted in Bangkok. Last year a ragtag army of reds occupied much of the capital’s core near the Erawan Shrine (almost 100 people were killed when the Army ejected them). Earlier, in November 2008, however, I remember being trapped in Bangkok’s international airport by hordes of yellows crying “Martyrdom! Martyrdom!” while they occupied the control tower. Who is worse or better?

Between these two camps now steps the first woman prime minister, conciliatory, charming, untainted by scandal, breaking the impasse by virtue, perhaps, of her gender—or so it is sentimentally hoped. She may well become a typically instant modern celebrity for this very reason, trading on her femaleness in a way that is both media-savvy and effortlessly traditional. Female charm is highly valued in Thailand, while curiously reviled and repudiated elsewhere. Whereas Nancy Pelosi hits you with a mental shovel, Shinawatra offers you a drink and asks you how your mother is.

But if being a woman is going to help Shinawatra, so is her class. The Shinawatras are descended from Chinese immigrants in Chiang Mai and a scion of Thai nobility—a family that became wealthy through things like “tax farming,” silk, and construction. The Chinese side of the family adopted the Thai name of Shinawatra, which means “routinely appropriate action,” a name whose irony has not been lost on Thaksin’s innumerable enemies. Their father, Lert, was a leading Chiang Mai politician who later became an entrepreneur who owned movie theaters and orange farms. Coming from one of the richest and most powerful families in Chiang Mai, Thaksin was able to build his own empire à la Donald Trump, and his sister has gone along for the ride. What is interesting about her victory, however, is that she has swept up the vote of the poor so comprehensively. She is now the “people’s candidate,” the seeming avatar of grassroots change, the Joan of Arc of the rural sans-culottes. It may not be true, but it’s going to be a vibrant myth for a while.

Shinawatra is a company woman. She grew up inside “Shinawatra Inc.,” attuned to its methods and its mindset. Her favorite words are “management” and “organization.” But unlike many Thai celebrities, she is rarely to be seen in trendy nightclubs making a fool of herself, and yet she is—as many are fond of pointing out—“cute” and youthful, though some have suggested that she is not Thaksin’s sister at all but a distant cousin who has been drafted into the role. (“Nonsense,” she retorts, blowing off the Obama echo. “I can show my birth certificate!”) She has also vowed to eradicate the drug problem in one year, and poverty in four, both by way of the usual “wars” against them that have failed miserably elsewhere. Beyond that, her plan is merely to heal the country.

The natural Thai inclination toward conciliation might have found its proper symbolic incarnation at long last. It’s something to do with that quiet demeanor and cunning air of deference. And as she insists, with a smile that seems impossibly unrehearsed and yet exquisitely mannered, “Style will be my style.” This might be a terrible thing, but at least it makes you feel warm inside for a while.

Osborne is the author of Bangkok Days (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).