Yingluck Shinawatra out of politics, not out of sight

Ex-Thai premier mobbed in northern province trip during 'tourism campaign'

Ms Yingluck posing for pictures with supporters during a visit to a temple in Phrae province, where she was mobbed by photo-taking fans.
Ms Yingluck posing for pictures with supporters during a visit to a temple in Phrae province, where she was mobbed by photo-taking fans. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A light shower turned into a downpour, but still the waiting crowd refused to budge, their mobile phones ready to take pictures at the first sight of their celebrity visitor.

When Ms Yingluck Shinawatra finally emerged in the heavy rain, they immediately rushed forward.

"Nayok!" they cried out, referring to her as prime minister, even though her premiership had ended two years ago, shortly before the Thai military staged a coup.

Over the weekend, she took a whirlwind tour of the northern Phrae province, as part of what she calls a campaign to promote tourism and meet some of her five million Facebook fans.

Publicity had been drummed up weeks before through a Facebook contest that invited her fans to nominate provincial attractions and cast their votes. The top destinations that were eventually picked were little-known places that ran right through the heart of her Puea Thai party's support base - Kalasin and Bueng Kan provinces in the north-east, as well as Phrae.

"This is not a (public relations) strategy at all," she told foreign journalists invited to the Phrae trip.

"When I ran the government, what we did was to convey to people the seriousness of our intent to take care and listen to all of them. Now that we are not in office anymore, this is the only channel we can use to connect with them."

Junta rule has narrowed political outlets in the kingdom.

With elections suspended and political gatherings banned, campaigning is risky - even though the country is due to hold a referendum on Aug 7 on what would be its 20th Constitution.

The political space is even smaller for Ms Yingluck, the 48-year-old sister of controversial billionaire and fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

She has been banned from politics until 2020, due to a retroactive impeachment by a military-appointed legislature.

She has been unable to travel abroad, due to an ongoing court case over her alleged negligence in overseeing her administration's rice subsidy scheme, which could see her jailed for up to 10 years.

Yet she deftly maintains her public profile while skirting the limits of junta tolerance.

In February, she held court with foreign journalists at a dinner party to showcase her salad garden.

On Saturday, she donned a peach silk blouse and a long, locally handwoven skirt, as she trod the soggy grounds of an ancient temple.

Her entourage, including Puea Thai acting secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai, was also dressed in Phrae's signature indigo hue.

Her teenage son Supasek soon caught the villagers' attention.

"Nong Pike! You are grown up now!" they called out using his nickname, before taking photos and thrusting their children next to him. "I don't mind this," he told The Straits Times after one such photo frenzy, but added that all the attention does not qualify him as famous.

"I did nothing to deserve it. I am just 14," said the soon-to-be Grade 9 student of Bangkok's elite Harrow International School.

His mother, meanwhile, did not make a public speech. Instead, she fielded questions from reporters next to the Buddha figurines in a museum that she had just opened.

She urged Thais to listen more to opposing views, and repeated a call for General Prayut Chan-o-cha's government to free up space for public dialogue before the referendum.

"It's like building a house," she said. "You have to ask the ones who will live inside how they would like it to be."

Asked about her fashionable shoes, her eyes instantly reddened as she revealed that they were a gift from Thaksin.

The siblings have not been able to meet since 2014.

Political scientist Titipol Phakdeewanich from Ubon Ratchathani University thinks her provincial trips are a "clever strategy".

He said: "It's a way to ensure that the momentum of Puea Thai can be maintained after the referendum, and when we have an election."

There is also a cathartic quality to these meetings, observed former Puea Thai parliamentarian Toungrat Lohsoonthorn.

She added: "The people have been frustrated, so when she comes here, it's like a release for them."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2016, with the headline Yingluck Shinawatra out of politics, not out of sight. Subscribe