In Thailand, Shinawatra legacy endures in family-linked party as election looms

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Former PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, could be vying to become Thai premier. Despite witnessing her father and aunt get ousted in separate military coups, she does not expect to meet the same unravelling.

NAKHON RATCHASIMA/KHON KAEN - Her father and aunt have, for many years, lived as fugitives outside Thailand following separate military coups that ousted their governments.

Still, political novice Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, believes this will not be her fate as she leads the Pheu Thai Party’s charge in the coming election.

“I’m not the one who invented the coup d’etat, I’m just one of the victims with my family. So I expect (a coup) is not going to happen again,” she told The Straits Times while on the campaign trail in Thailand’s north-eastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima on Saturday.

Thailand has a long history of political crises and coups d’etat, with its 13th and latest power grab in 2014 orchestrated by former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha against the elected government of Ms Paetongtarn’s aunt Yingluck Shinawatra.

The young Shinawatra, affectionately known as Ung Ing, is tipped to be one of Pheu Thai Party’s possible candidates for prime minister in the coming election that, for now, is expected to take place in May.

If successfully elected, she will be the third Shinawatra to assume the role.

She said: “Right now, we need the country to go forward... So I hope that people realise that it is not going to help the country if a coup d’etat ever happens again.”

Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s youngest daughter burst onto the scene in late 2021 at a conference held by Pheu Thai Party, an offshoot of her billionaire father’s now-dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party.

But Ms Paetongtarn told ST that she had no political ambitions as a child.

Soon after announcing her foray into politics, she was appointed head of the Pheu Thai family, putting her alongside the ranks of long-time party stewards and often taking centre stage at party events.

She said: “(But) this is me right now turning 37, so I think it’s an appropriate time for me to come in and help the country as much as possible.”

Her father, 73, and aunt, 55, led Thailand through times of economic development in the early 2000s, each enacting populist policies that targeted the rural poor and grassroots communities.

This helped them secure a strong voter base among the lower-income groups – historically concentrated in the north and north-east of Thailand – earning Thaksin-linked parties sweeping victories in the 2005 and 2011 elections.

The Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai Party is said to be positioning Ms Paetongtarn Shinawatra as one of its nominees for prime minister in the coming election. ST PHOTO: TAN TAM MEI

But the rise of the Shinawatra clan also created an era of deeply polarised and violent conflict, largely centred around the pro-Shinawatra and anti-Shinawatra camps – loosely embodied by the colour-coded Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts movements.

Critics of the Shinawatras regard their populist policies as crony capitalism and a form of vote-buying. Thaksin’s growing popularity and power were also viewed as a challenge to the monarchy and military.

Plagued by accusations of corruption and the arbitrary use of state power, the Thaksin and Yingluck administrations were overthrown by military coups in 2006 and 2014.

They are now in self-exile to avoid serving prison time in Thailand for a slew of criminal charges. They maintain the accusations are politically motivated.

Ms Paetongtarn is quick to dismiss the notion that her political involvement and possible premiership could trigger similar tensions in Thai society.

“We are not the reason for the conflict, the coup d’etat that happened, it’s not because of us,“ she said.

“It’s because some of the groups didn’t get what they wanted and created some rumours about us. But we are doing our best to make the country go forward.”

Thaksin, who is reportedly based in Dubai, has made repeated mentions of his plan to return to Thailand, giving rise to talk of political manoeuvring to grant himself amnesty. An amnesty push led by Yingluck sparked mass protests in Bangkok in 2013.

Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew has denied this is the party’s chief goal, should it achieve the “landslide victory” it is aiming for in the next election.

But familial ties run deep, and Ms Paetongtarn said she consults her father regularly. She often puts up social media posts showing them together on overseas trips to places such as South Korea and Singapore.

In the province of Nakhon Ratchasima, tens of thousands showed up at Pheu Thai Party’s campaign rallies on Saturday, easily filling up large carparks and meeting squares.

Supporters in Nakhon Ratchasima show up in shirts bearing the faces of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra. ST PHOTO: TAN TAM MEI

The province has 16 constituency seats, coming in second to Bangkok’s 33. So it is no surprise that numerous political parties, including current Prime Minister Prayut’s new Ruam Thai Sang Chart party, are jostling for voters’ attention.

Following the 2019 election, MP seats in Nakhon Ratchasima were split across four parties, including the pro-military Palang Pracharat, Pheu Thai and the Bhumjaithai party.

Most who turned up on Saturday donned Pheu Thai Party’s signature bright red shirts which could be bought at nearby kiosks, but several also turned up in worn clothing bearing pictures of Thaksin and Yingluck.

Ultimately, the Shinawatra legacy cannot be separated from Pheu Thai Party’s history and narrative. Its past policies and initiatives – such as the Universal Healthcare Coverage Scheme, known colloquially as the “30-baht scheme”, and the high-speed rail, proposed by Yingluck but derailed – were referenced repeatedly in rally speeches.

Pheu Thai Party, which has stood in the opposition camp for eight years, hopes to form the next government and introduce a fresh slate of election policies that promise increased minimum wage, debt suspension, and better transport and infrastructure.

At each rally, the loudest cheers go to Ms Paetongtarn, who is seven months pregnant, underscoring the results of several opinion polls that show her as a hot favourite for prime minister.

Still, part of the 750-member parliamentary vote for the post rests heavily on the 250 junta-appointed senators, and the fate of a Pheu Thai prime minister nominee getting chosen remains uncertain.

To bolster its chances, the party has called on support from the anti-coup Red Shirt network that aligned itself with Thaksin after he was deposed. The network stemmed from Thailand’s north-eastern region, also known as Isaan, which for decades was marginalised and left out of policy considerations until Thaksin’s rise to power.

Ms Paetongtarn Shinawatra receives flowers and garlands from supporters at a rally on March 4. ST PHOTO: TAN TAM MEI

Prominent Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikuar, a gifted and impassioned orator, has been working the crowd at party rallies, especially after he became director of the Pheu Thai family project.

The fever of the Red Shirt network and the Shinawatra grip over the country’s north-east region has, however, dimmed over the decade, say some local Isaan leaders that ST spoke to.

Mr Tossapon Wongsalee, 34, chairman of the Tha Phra Municipal Council in Khon Kaen, another major Isaan province, said Thaksin’s reputation is still influential among the older generations.

“(However) younger voters do not necessarily appreciate the effect of his policies or know the political atmosphere back then,” he said.

But undergraduate Busakorn Srishanpleaw, 25, who attended Pheu Thai’s Saturday evening rally on her own, has seen how the 30-baht scheme helped relieve the cost of treatment for her 75-year-old grandmother, who suffers from diabetes.

“My family has benefited, and I believe that they (Thaksin, Yingluck and Ms Paetongtarn) will help bring future prosperity,” she said.

This is part of a series on Thailand’s key personalities and political parties. The Straits Times reports from the campaign trail ahead of the 2023 election.

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