People

'Commoner' Yingluck still in focus

Ousted Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra rolls up her sleeves to make salad for invited reporters at her Bangkok residence on Jan 8.
Ousted Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra rolls up her sleeves to make salad for invited reporters at her Bangkok residence on Jan 8.ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Military keeps eye on ex-Thai PM, who stays in constant touch with fans via daily activities

The slabs of meat sizzle on the charcoal grill as the afternoon heat begins to ebb, and someone hauls up a box of chilled herbal drinks.

Save for the brief whir of an unidentifiable helicopter overhead, there are no overt signs of military surveillance.

Ms Yingluck Shinawatra strides out from the back door of her palatial Bangkok home, grabbing the arms of familiar journalists as she calls out New Year greetings.

Today, the former prime minister of Thailand - ousted by the Constitutional Court in 2014 shortly before her government was overthrown by a coup - is showing off her salad garden. Wearing her hair loose and sleeves rolled up, she pulls a head of lettuce from its hydroponic bed, giving vegetable planting tips while surrounded by a gaggle of cameras.

And her secret to good vegetables?  "You have to give lots of love and care," she tells The Straits Times.

Formally, Ms Yingluck is out of political action until 2020... But she has stayed in the limelight on her own terms, praying at temples around the country while being closely trailed by soldiers as well as millions of fans on social media.

These are strange times for Thailand. The military government, now into its second year of rule, is not expected to conduct elections any time before 2017 while a handpicked committee draws up a second draft of a new Constitution. In the meantime, the junta has tried to suppress dissent and suspend political activity in the deeply divided nation.

Up in north and north-eastern Thailand, where Ms Yingluck's Puea Thai party draws most of its support, the junta has tightly policed against red garments, flags or banners to eradicate symbols of the allied "red shirt" movement. Villagers have been forced to remove posters of her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, another ousted prime minister. He lives abroad to evade a corruption-related jail sentence.

Formally, Ms Yingluck is out of political action until 2020 - a penalty imposed after she was impeached by a military-stacked legislature last year for alleged negligence over her government's costly subsidy scheme for rice farmers.

She is facing a lengthy trial in the Supreme Court over the same issue - a case that could land her in jail. The government is further trying to use an administrative order to claw back from her billions of baht spent on the rice scheme.

But she has stayed in the limelight on her own terms, praying at temples around the country while being closely trailed by soldiers as well as millions of fans on social media.

At home, she has planted mushrooms and vegetables in small enclosures beside her carpark, which itself covers about half the size of a football field in an exclusive district in north-eastern Bangkok.

On Friday, to the tune of nostalgic Thai pop music, she harvested some batavia and butterhead lettuce as New Year gifts for invited reporters. A curious beagle and a terrier peeked out from the back door as her aides, dressed in identical white T-shirts with a discreet logo of a red crab, mingled with the salad party crowd. Ms Yingluck's nickname is "Pu", which means "crab" in Thai.

She picked some organic parsley too. "Phak chee is normally hard to wash," she half-muttered to herself. "If it is not grown with chemicals, it is easy to use."

One of her aides quipped: "Give this phak chee to the government!" The crowd giggled. The Thai phrase "phak chee roi na" refers to the act of garnishing something to make it appear to have more substance.

Ms Yingluck swept to victory after Puea Thai's big win in the 2011 election. Yet she could never shake off allegations that she was merely Thaksin's proxy.

In July 2014, when she left for a holiday in France with her school- going son, many thought she would never return.

But the 48-year-old former business executive did, to live what she calls a "commoner's" life.

Unlike some of her Puea Thai party colleagues and red shirt leaders, she has refrained from publicly criticising the Thai junta. In return, no military vehicles are stationed outside her house, remarked an aide. "They give us space," he said.

Yet Ms Yingluck remains an important symbol in Thailand's personality-driven political landscape. Her Facebook page has some 4.7 million "likes", double that of Democrat Party chief Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Although she appears to be "doing nothing much", she is constantly communicating with her fans through her seemingly everyday activities, observes political analyst Kan Yuenyong from the think-tank Siam Intelligence Unit.

"Someone once said it's like in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where Liu Bei grows vegetables so as not to alert Cao Cao (about the plot against him)," Mr Kan quips, referring to the feuding warlords in the famous Chinese historical novel.

The military understands her potential very well, he says.

She was denied permission to leave the country last year after being invited by European parliamentarians to talk about the situation in Thailand.

Earlier this month, officials seized 2016 calendars bearing a photograph of her hugging her brother, citing the need to foster reconciliation. It turned a mundane item into a sought-after memento.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2016, with the headline 'Yingluck still in focus People'. Print Edition | Subscribe