So Thailand joins the ranks of Germany, Argentina, India, even Pakistan. Bolivia, Iceland, Switzerland, Malta. The Philippines. Nicaragua. Ireland.
Damn. Is there any country that hasn’t had a female head of state? It almost doesn’t feel like an accomplishment anymore. Oh wait. There’s the US, in good company with Mexico, much of Africa, much of the Middle East and Russia. Awesome.
I’m not as up on Thai politics as I used to be but the second I saw Thailand’s newly elected PM’s last name I felt like the headlines in Western media got it wrong. It’s not really Thailand’s first female PM. It’s just another Shinawatra. Her family practically owns the country. Her brother got ousted in a coup shortly after I left in 2006, and her sister’s husband was in power following, in 2008. Is same old same old really something to celebrate, even if she’s got different anatomy?
Thaksin, her brother, was beloved in the rural north - her family is from Chiang Mai, the ancient Northern capital, and Thaksin’s policies purported to be pro-rural poor. He reduced rural poverty by half in four years, enabling Thailand’s poor to acquire modern amenities like cell phones. Coincidentally, the family is a telecommunications giant.
He allegedly gave away free bags of rice in exchange for voting, resulting in the largest voter turnout in Thailand’s history in 2005. The roads were clogged with pro-Thaksin convoys chugging toward the capital; it was impossible to decipher genuine enthusiasm from free rice.
He allegedly backed massive extrajudicial killings in drug-war-infested villages, but the villages got cleaned up. In many places, it wasn’t safe to be out at night before his human rights violations.
He’s currently in exile in Dubai and has acquired Montenegrin citizenship.
Many of the development workers in the area were suspicious of Thaksin when I was there, but at the end of the day, they reasoned, at least he paid attention to the poor. In contrast, I read reports in Bangkok newspapers claiming, for example, that Thailand shouldn’t have a full-on democracy, but something like a weighted vote for urban dwellers, with rural folk’s vote getting some fraction of a whole. Sounds eerily familiar.