The return of Yingluck Shinawatra

Media captionJonathan Head went on the road with Thailand’s former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra

When she was stripped of her job as prime minister in a controversial Constitutional Court verdict two years ago, and then, two weeks later, her government was deposed by a military coup, Yingluck Shinawatra’s brief political career appeared to be over.

It seemed a certainty after a military-appointed assembly banned her from political office for five years, and then a criminal charge was filed against her.

For most of the past two years the telegenic sister of political heavyweight Thaksin Shinawatra has been out of the public eye.

Yet in recent days she has emerged again, apparently campaigning in her party’s strongholds on the north and north-east, receiving a rapturous welcome from people who believe her government improved the quality of their lives.

It is not actual campaigning of course.

The military junta has banned all political activity. Parties are not even allowed to hold meetings of their own members. No-one knows when an election will be held again, although the latest in a series of shifting deadlines is the end of next year.

Ms Yingluck has found a way around the strictures of military rule by holding a contest among her five million Facebook followers.

She asked them to name a tourist attraction in their home provinces, and had them cast votes for the top three she should visit.

Image caption

Thais are due to vote in two months time on a new, military-drafted constitution

I accompanied her to the far north-eastern province of Bueng Kan, which lies along a bend in the Mekong River opposite Laos.

I was curious, partly to see Ms Yingluck interacting with her supporters, as I was not in Thailand when she had campaigned for the 2011 election, and partly to see whether she could avoid provoking the military, which is clearly nervous of her popular appeal.

In two months, Thailand will hold a national referendum on a new, military-drafted constitution, which would significantly reduce the number of seats won in the past by Ms Yinguck’s party, and weaken the power of any elected government.

Key facts

  • Born 21 June 1967
  • Youngest of nine children; elder brother is former PM Thaksin Shinawatra
  • Graduate in political science and business administration, master’s degree, Kentucky State University
  • Married to businessman Anusorn Amornchat; has one son
  • First woman to run for the country’s highest political office

Unsurprisingly her party, and others, object to a charter they see as intended to weaken democracy and extend the influence of the armed forces in politics.

However the military has outlawed any attempt to campaign against the constitution, even while it is funding a nationwide effort to inform the public about the 279-article draft, which will inevitably give it a positive gloss.

The people we spoke to in Bueng Kan said they knew very little about the charter, and did not appear to understand the impact it would have on their party.

Yingluck Shinawatra could not say anything about the constitution without risking a 10-year prison sentence. In fact she gave no speeches at all on her one-day whirlwind tour. But perhaps she did not need to.

She has not lost the skills she demonstrated during the 2011 election campaign for working a crowd, conversing and joking easily with everyone she met.

Image caption

Ms Yingluck remains a popular figure in some parts of Thailand

She got a rock star reception at a large high school. She was hugged and garlanded with flowers by people waiting for her at the cliff-top temple, which was the official reason for her visit. She reminded her supporters that she had not gone away, and that she could still bring a bit of political glamour to their remote corner of the country.

Quietly, many of them expressed their frustration over the way the military is running the country.

None of this guarantees that they will vote against the constitution in the August referendum.

When I asked Ms Yingluck’s advisors how they would disseminate their objections to the charter, given the ban on campaigning, they said they would have to rely on word-of-mouth, through their extant but largely inactive local networks.

With the junta refusing to say what it will do if the charter is rejected, some of Ms Yingluck’s supporters may vote for it just to bring an end to military rule and bring back some kind of election.

And with a court case carrying a possible 10-year sentence already underway against the former prime minister, her own future is unclear.

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