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Monday, May 16, 2011
Is this country ready for a woman prime minister?
The notion that Thailand may have its first woman prime minister after the July 3 election has not been warmly greeted by many among us. Initial reactions have ranged from scepticism and criticism to contempt and outright rejection. Which is not unusual for something quite unprecedented and unfamiliar _ at least for this country, although not for many other countries in this world.
What’s the big deal? Yingluck Shinawatra seems to be asking, as chances are that she will be nominated by her brother to lead Pheu Thai.
There are many smart women in the private and government sectors and in non-governmental organisations. We have had women as ministers, top executives, diplomats, famous writers, doctors, etc, but never a female prime minister since the country turned from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy in 1932.
But that does not mean Thailand cannot have a female as the top government leader. Historically, there have been several great Thai women who were posthumously declared "heroines" for their courage and sacrifice for the motherland. Among them were Queen Suriyothai who was killed as she drove an elephant to shield her husband, King Maha Chakraphat, from a fatal attack by a Burmese king; Thao Thepkasatri and Thao Sri Soonthorn who led locals to defend Phuket from invading Burmese forces, and Thao Suranari who fought to save Korat or Nakhon Ratchasima from Laotian troops led by King Anuvong.
A woman prime minister may be new for this country, but not elsewhere. There have been more than 50 women presidents and prime ministers. The famous ones included former prime minister of Great Britain Margaret Thatcher; former Philippine president Corazon Aquino, India's former prime minister Indira Gandhi and former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the world's first woman prime minister in 1960, while Isabel Peron of Argentina was the world's first woman president. Ms Thatcher, for instance, ruled Britain when the country went to war against Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1984. Ms Meir also led Israel in the Yom Kippur War against its Arab neighbours in 1973. These so-called "iron ladies" were as witty, tough and capable as their male counterparts. So gender is not a problem in running a government or a country.
It has come as little surprise that several members of the opposition Pheu Thai Party are sceptical about Yingluck Shinawatra _ the youngest sister of deposed former prime minister Thaksin _ becoming the party's candidate for the premiership, in direct challenge to Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party.
As far as political experience is concerned, Ms Yingluck is no match for Mr Abhisit. Although it has been claimed that she has been running the party financially on behalf of Thaksin and was instrumental in convincing Sanoh Thienthong of the Pracharaj Party to join Pheu Thai and in taming Chalerm Yubamrung, these achievements have been described as "no big deal" and cannot be construed as "experience" in real politics.
But because she has the backing and trust of Thaksin, her biological brother, it looks certain that the party, at its meeting today, will have little choice but to name her as the party's candidate for the premiership post. Once that is made official, she will be at the centre of the media spotlight, intensely and closely scrutinised and watched as never before.
This means that her private life, which as yet remains largely unknown to the public, may come under examination as well. This will pose a new challenge for her and will also prove her mental strength.
Democrat deputy spokesman Boonyod Sukthinthai made an ungentlemanly move last week when he raised an issue about Ms Yingluck's husband and especially her 9-year-old son. Although mud-slinging is the norm in politics, there must be a limit to such dirty tricks as far as children are concerned.
It is an open fact that it will be Thaksin who has been _ and will be _ running the show. He will decide who is to contest the election via the constituency and party lists; he is the master formulator, as clearly evident in the party's slogan "Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts". As he is bankrolling the election campaign, he will certainly pull the strings during the post-election period _ if the party wins the election.
Unless there is an "accident", Ms Yingluck has a good chance of becoming Thailand's first woman prime minister if Pheu Thai wins more than half of the 500 House seats _ 375 constituency MPs and 125 party list MPs. If that comes true, I believe it will be widely accepted and respected, with one big question mark: can she be a real prime minister and not just a nominee or puppet of her brother?
If this country does eventually have its first woman prime minister for all of us to feel proud of, and to look forward to with hope, we'd expect that, at least, she will be her own assured self, capable of thinking and making her own judgements, without having to be dictated to by someone else.
Of course, she may seek advice from others, her older brother included.