BANGKOK Jan 30 Six unmarked vehicles with
pitch-black windows threaded quietly through Bangkok's northern
suburbs on a recent Thursday afternoon. Inside one sat the
curiously unruffled figure at the heart of Thailand's latest
political maelstrom: caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck
Four months ago, police cars with wailing sirens would have
whisked her through the city.
That Yingluck's convoy is now so keen to avoid attention -
it even stopped at some red lights - is a small victory for the
thousands of protesters who first poured onto Bangkok's streets
three months ago to try to topple her government.
For them, Yingluck, 46, is the hated puppet of her
billionaire elder brother Thaksin, who was ousted as prime
minister in a 2006 military coup and now lives abroad to avoid a
two-year jail sentence for corruption.
For her supporters, however, Yingluck's low-key convoy shows
the tactical brain of a former business executive who had proved
surprisingly adept at negotiating Thailand's cut-throat politics
until anti-government protests erupted in November.
Yingluck was a political neophyte when she swept to power in
a July 2011 election on the back of support in Thailand's
vote-rich rural north and northeast.
Despite being sometimes dubbed the "reluctant prime
minister", she had been groomed for office longer than many
people realise. Once there, she deployed formidable personal
charm to preside over two of the most peaceful years in
Thailand's turbulent recent history.
The economy motored along, but there were signs of the
rampant corruption that would later fire up the protesters. In
2011, Thailand ranked 80 out of 182 countries in Transparency
International's Corruption Perception Index; two years later, it
placed 102 out of 175.
GAME OF ATTRITION
Interviews with government officials, diplomats, relatives
and the prime minister herself reveal a resolve that suggests
Thailand's seemingly intractable and often violent eight-year
political crisis could endure well past Sunday's election.
The protesters have already forced Yingluck to abandon her
central Bangkok offices and shuttle discreetly between desks at
a half-empty military building and a heavily guarded air force
base on the city's outskirts.
But while opponents say she is on the defensive, up close
she appears less a leader on the run than a player in a brutal
game of attrition, quietly confident she can win any election.
The protesters, drawn mainly from Bangkok's middle classes
and the wealthier south, want parliament replaced by an
unelected "people's council" to reform politics before any
They also want the resignation of Thailand's first female
prime minister and the exile of her rich and influential clan,
who they accuse of corrupting politics through widespread
vote-buying in their poorer but populous northern heartland.
The Shinawatra family came 10th on a 2013 Forbes list of
Thailand's richest with a combined fortune of $1.7 billion.
Yingluck refuses to resign and sees herself bound by duty
and by law to guide a troubled nation to its next election.
"I stand for democracy not for politics," she told Reuters.
"The people would like me to continue work. The election will be
the final judge(ment) by the people of Thailand."
Yingluck's serene exterior can't hide Bangkok's increasing
instability. On Tuesday, shots were fired at protesters
besieging an army facility where she was meeting election
officials. One man was wounded by a bullet and another badly
beaten by protesters.
Last month, in an attempt to defuse the crisis, Yingluck
dissolved parliament and called an election for Feb. 2. But
protesters have vowed to disrupt the poll, while the opposition
Democrat Party is boycotting it.
Meanwhile, Thailand's anti-graft commission is fast-tracking
an impeachment investigation into Yingluck's role in a wasteful
and opaque rice subsidy programme.
Opponents say the multi-billion-dollar scheme is riddled
with corruption and benefits landowners and local politicians
more than poorer rice growers, while farmers who haven't been
paid are blocking provincial highways in protest.
"She's under unimaginable pressure, but she's coping very
well," said Suranand Vejjajiva, Yingluck's chief of staff. "She
feels she is elected by the people and has to protect their
rights and liberties."
Yingluck hails from a wealthy and sprawling ethnic Chinese
family in the northern Thai capital of Chiang Mai.
Like Thaksin, 64, she was steeped in politics since
childhood, accompanying her father Lert, a businessman and
member of parliament, when he visited rural constituents.
Her cousin Chaisit Shinawatra, a former Thai army chief,
said Yingluck's patience was a "family principle" inherited from
their grandfather, a silk merchant, who knew the painstaking
process by which thread was woven into cloth. "Our strength
comes from our lineage," said Chaisit.
Yingluck first chose business, not politics, although she
remains untested outside the family's corporate empire.
In 1991, after graduating in political science and
administration, she took her first job as a trainee at a
Shinawatra telephone directory business. She then joined
cellular operator Advanced Info Service Pcl (AIS) in
1999, and was made president three years later as Thailand's
mobile phone market become one of Asia's fastest-growing.
Yingluck left AIS after Thaksin sold its parent company Shin
Corp to Temasek Holdings Pte Ltd, Singapore's sovereign wealth
fund, in a 2006 deal worth $3.8 billion that helped precipitate
years of political instability.
The controversial, tax-free sale fuelled anti-Thaksin
protests until the army intervened in September 2006.
Yingluck then took the helm of SC Asset Corp, the
family's property development firm. But politics beckoned after
her brother was convicted in 2008 and left the country to avoid
She was not a natural politician. In 2009, even Suranand,
now a top advisor, remained "dismissive of her political
prospects", according to a U.S. diplomatic cable published by
By the time she declared her candidacy in May 2011, Yingluck
had become an influential figure within the Puea Thai Party.
She was mobbed by adoring voters while campaigning in the
north and northeast, where her brother's populist policies such
as cheap healthcare and microcredit had won widespread support.
"She gained more confidence when she visited rural areas,"
said a close advisor, who requested anonymity.
Three months later she was prime minister.
CLONE NO MORE
Her first big test was the devastating floods that engulfed
swathes of Thailand's central plains and Bangkok soon after she
took office. She was widely criticised for mismanaging the
disaster, and pilloried on social media for wading through
flooded areas in luxury rubber boots.
But according to her cousin Chaisit, a retired general, the
disaster helped Yingluck forge good relations with the Thai
military. Flood-relief was part of the military's effort to
repair its image after a bloody crackdown on pro-Thaksin
protesters in 2010.
"They worked together for the people during the floods, and
that's why they understand each other better," said Chaisit,
likening the relationship to two friends bound together by a
life-changing experience. Before, he said, "the prime minister
and the army sat at different tables".
Thaksin once famously boasted that Yingluck was his "clone".
When pressed, her advisors admit she speaks to Thaksin, although
they're coy about how often. "She consults a lot of people,"
Big brother is influential, agreed Thailand scholar Duncan
McCargo, but Yingluck is no meek proxy making decisions on his
behalf. With cabinet appointments, for example, her refusal to
"reshuffle on demand" and accept all Thaksin's choices showed
Yingluck setting her own agenda, he said.
Yingluck could not have survived nearly 30 months in office
without striking what McCargo calls "an elite deal" with the
establishment to paper over Thailand's deep political divides
and establish a kind of peace.
That deal was shattered by Puea Thai's disastrous bid to
pass a sweeping amnesty bill that would have pardoned Thaksin,
he said. But its "residual strength" helps explain the
coup-prone military's reluctance to intervene in the ensuing
"Yingluck's diplomatic skills and personal charm have been
invaluable assets in her efforts to restore and then maintain
good relations with the military and other key actors," said
McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the
University of Leeds.
Yingluck moved out of her Bangkok home after it was targeted
by protesters. Uppermost in her mind, said advisors, was the
safety of her nine-year-old son.
Yingluck insisted to Reuters that protest numbers were
dwindling. "People see that the requests of the protesters are
impossible under the (law) and constitution," she said. "That's
why the number of supporters is getting less."
In fact, protest numbers fluctuate, with a diehard few
camping out in Bangkok's streets and parks.
If re-elected, said Suranand, Yingluck will stay on for a
year or more with a mandate to reform Thailand, before holding
another general election. She is number one on Puea Thai's
roster of party-list candidates and has no plans to leave
"The ballot box doesn't solve everything - and she knows
that," he said. "But at least it's the right step."
(Additional reporting by Khettiya Jittapong and Pairat
Temphairojana in Bangkok; Editing by Jason Szep and Alex