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Thailand's PM Faces Hostile U.S.-Trained Military

Thailand's Female Prime Minister Faces Hostile U.S.-Trained Military

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Parliament elected Yingluck Shinawatra as Thailand's first female prime minister on Friday (August 5), but she faces a hostile U.S.-trained military which toppled her brother from power in a 2006 putsch and crushed last year's anti-coup Red Shirt insurrection, resulting in 91 people killed and 1,400 injured.

Mrs. Yingluck (pronounced: "Ying-luck"), 44, was described as a sibling "clone" by her self-exiled authoritarian brother, former billionaire prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who now influences her from his base in Dubai.

Mrs. Yingluck is currently awarding ministerial posts to eager politicians, who especially covet the powerful defense, foreign, internal and finance ministries.

"Thaksin and other members of the family have no involvement" in her current choice of cabinet members for her new government, Mrs. Yingluck said on Thursday (August 4), trying to deflect opposition complaints that her popular brother runs her administration.

With her brother's help, Mrs. Yingluck's Puea Thai ("For Thais") party won a landslide victory of 265 parliamentary seats in a nationwide election on July 3, when they boasted in their slogan: "Thaksin Thinks, Puea Thai Acts."

The photogenic Mrs. Yingluck was a top executive in her family's telecommunications and real estate business and, until May, had no political experience.

She received a M.A. in public administration from Kentucky State University.

She now leads a majority coalition in the 500-seat lower house and hopes to use that mandate as a public shield against the military's possible attempts to destabilize her.

Mr. Thaksin hopes his sister will be able to cancel his conviction and two-year jail sentence for corruption during his 2001-2006 administration, refund his $1.2 billion in assets which a post-coup government seized, and allow him to return home a free man.

His opponents vowed to block all such "amnesty" moves, claiming it would violate the justice system.

Mrs. Yingluck's five-year term will also be challenged with containing an Islamist separatist war fought by minority ethnic Malay-Thais in the south of this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian country, which has left more than 4,500 people dead on all sides since 2004.

The military, engrossed in trying to dominate Bangkok's politics while arranging personal promotions and lucrative weapons contracts, has been unable to pacify the south despite decades of training by the U.S.

More than 5,000 jungle-based Islamist insurgents are using assassinations, arson attacks and improvised explosives, including car bombs, to frighten Buddhist residents and uncooperative Muslims into leaving the three Muslim-majority southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Yingluck's alliance with the Red Shirts may prove fragile because some Red leaders and supporters demand immediate trials and harsh punishment for outgoing prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, his Deputy Prime Minister for Security Affairs Suthep Thaugsuban, and several top military officers for using deadly force to crush the nine-week insurrection in May 2010.

The "army leadership during the [2010] dispersal, plus Abhisit and Suthep, should stand trial and that will be true reconciliation," the operator of the Red Shirts' Facebook page, Ratchaprasong News, demanded on Thursday (August 4).

"Add Anupong Paojinda, Prayuth Chan-ocha, Prem Tinsulanonda and others to the list," a Red Shirt activist nicknamed "Gj Bkk" quickly posted in response.

That comment refers to a now-retired army commander-in-chief, Gen. Anupong Paojinda, who helped stage the 2006 coup, and also Thailand's current Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Prayuth Chanocha, who led the military's assault on the Reds' insurrection.

The emotionally volatile Gen. Prayuth is considered staunchly opposed to Mr. Thaksin, Mrs. Yingluck and the Reds.

It was unclear if Mrs. Yingluck and Mr. Thaksin will be able to placate Gen. Prayuth with their recent soft-spoken assurances that their new government will not seek "revenge" against the military.

The Reds' 2010 insurrection was mostly a protest against the military's 2006 coup which toppled Mr. Thaksin.

But it quickly degenerated into street clashes between Reds and the military which used armored personnel carriers, snipers and other tactics against demonstrators who tried in vain to fight back with explosives, gunfire, slingshots, fireworks, burning rubber tires and Molotov cocktails.

The Red Shirts' menacing bamboo barricades have been dismantled from Bangkok's wealthy Ratchaprasong intersection, but about 100 suspects remain in prison charged with terrorism and other crimes while awaiting trial.

Red Shirt supporters in northern and eastern Thailand, and in Bangkok, voted in large numbers for Mrs. Yingluck and cheered her on to victory as prime minister.

Mrs. Yingluck appears to be trying to quell allied hardliners among at least eight Red Shirt leaders who stripped off their blood-colored clothing and donned black suits for their appearance in parliament after also winning seats in July's election.

Officially titled as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, the handful of Red leaders elected to Parliament include three of the most outspoken: Weng Tojirakarn, Natthawut Saikua and Jatuporn Prompan.

After Mrs. Yingluck's election by the lower house as prime minister on Friday, her name will be submitted to Thailand's constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol, for endorsement.

Her government is expected to continue Thailand's capitalist, open-door business policies of inviting foreign investment and tourism while launching large-scale infrastructure projects for mass transit, flood control and agricultural use.

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Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is
http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com

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