Yingluck Shinawatra is a soft-spoken, guarded, exasperating interviewee. Her answers, at least in English, manage to sound both rehearsed and rambling. But then she is having a bad week.
I profiled Thailand’s first female prime minister for Reuters in the run-up to a February 2 general election that anti-government protesters have vowed to disrupt. Ten people have been killed and hundreds injured since the protests began three months ago. Bangkok is braced for further violence on Sunday.
Yingluck is a hard study. Her big brother Thaksin, who was toppled in a 2006 military coup, famously described her as his “clone”. Today, her public persona – bland, solicitous, unfazed – seems crafted to remind the world that she is not her brother, a notorious hothead.
Thai politics is dominated by men. I watched Yingluck, a former company president, chair a meeting of about hundred people to discuss the election. Not counting reporters, she was one of perhaps five women in the room. Only when you get closer to Yingluck does her entourage swell with female advisors, female bureaucrats, female bodyguards.
For protesters, Yingluck’s gender makes her a target of abuse. “Paying taxes for a whore to travel,” read a placard at one Bangkok protest site, referring to her frequent overseas trips. A university lecturer suggested on stage that young men should be dispatched to molest her. Another speaker, who was a doctor, offered to give her vaginal reconstruction surgery.
Yingluck’s opponents are trying in vain to “to exploit her femininity to make her break down,” said Suranand Vejjajiva, her chief of staff. But while rightly condemning such misogynist abuse, her aides (and Yingluck) routinely extol the supposed political benefits of femininity in a way that might also be viewed as disparaging.
“Being a female, and being a (former) manager of companies and new to politics, she is willing to bend more, to listen to people,” said Suranand. Another close advisor told me Yingluck’s gender meant she focused on “resolution not revenge.”
I asked Yingluck how she felt about the abuse she got from protesters. She replied in a voice so hushed I could barely hear her. “I think first thing we are the public people,” she said. “We have to be very patient. One thing that I think is that people who know me they know the answers.”
As I said, exasperating.