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Finally a woman Thai PM, but activists skeptical

Yingluck Shinawatra
25 Jul. 2011 1:43 AM IST

Yingluck Shinawatra wasn’t even in politics until two months ago but today she is all set to become the country’s first woman Prime Minister after a stunning election victory of the Puea Thai (For Thais) Party. But despite Yingluck’s win, prominent women’s rights leaders doubt she will do much to truly close the country’s gender gap in political representation. “This isn’t a normal situation. Yingluck has never been in politics and she has never been fighting for the rights of women,” says Sutada Mekrungruengkul, director of the Gender and Development Research Institute in Bangkok. “We cannot say this is progress or a sign of gender equality.”
The 44-year-old businesswoman’s political resume is mainly being the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister ousted in 2006 on corruption charges who retains a stronghold over the Pheu Thai Party from a self-imposed exile in Dubai.
Thailand’s outgoing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had dissolved the national parliament in May in anticipation of the elections. Women were only 15 per cent of its 650-person body, according to Pawadee Tonguthai, co-convener of Asia Pacific Women Watch, which monitors implementation of development goals focused on women set by the United Nations.
Mekrungruengkul believes that it’s Yingluck’s campaign rhetoric - full of praise for her popular older brother and seasoned with references to women’s rights - that has worked. “This attract(s) a lot of women voters and people in general who want to promote women’s rights, since this is how the Pheu Thai Party is advertising her campaign,” she says. “Yingluck is promising very big things, and if she can deliver on them, it will be good for women. But if not, it can really jeopardise our movement,” adds the activist.
The women’s rights movement in Thailand has few advocates among politicians. In fact, according to Sirirporn Skrobanek, chairperson of the Foundation for Women, a non-governmental organisation that combats violence and discrimination against women, many female candidates too view organisations devoted to women as making trouble.
Female participation in Thai government is among lowest in Southeast Asia. In 2007, women were less than seven per cent of local officials, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In 2011, that figure had climbed to almost 12 per cent - past Sri Lanka - but still lagging behind 23 nations in the region. In those countries, high-ranking female senators rose to almost 16 per cent from around 11 per cent between 2000 and 2008. In addition, Thailand has a longstanding tradition of male politicians advocating for their sisters, wives and daughters to run in their place.
This year, too, the trend continued. Of the 3,800 candidates who stood for positions in the 500-seat House of Representatives, 2,800 are men and 1,000 are women. Roughly 40 per cent of the women are related to an acting male politician.
But Mekrungruengkul is quick to point out that unlike Yingluck some of these women do also have experience in public office. Yingluck’s nomination and large following represents a revival of the pro-Thaksin “red shirts” or United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, a rural, grassroots movement formed in 2006 to protest the military government that overthrew Thaksin shortly before the elections, according to the women’s rights advocates.
The following five years of power struggle between the “red shirts” and the People’s Alliance for Democracy “yellow shirts” - royalist, urban, upper-class and anti-Thaksin - have embroiled the capital city in violent street protests and, in a sign of deep instability, a succession of five prime ministers.
Now some analysts predict Yingluck’s election could incite the “yellow shirts” and lead them to protest or launch a military coup. And such a scenario would prevent her from moving forward on campaign promises.
Among the promises Yingluck made while announcing her candidacy in May, was the setting up of a women’s development fund with $3 million in each of Thailand’s 76 provinces and the creation of an independent women’s ministry at the government level. But Skrobanek is skeptical of the campaign promises saying that it could only be a possible effort by the candidate’s brother to use her as his proxy.
The signs have all been there. Yingluck’s brief campaign attracted her brother’s loyalists, many of whom like the good-looking, amiable woman portrayed by national media. She also declined to publicly debate her top opponent, Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, and sent her party’s economic adviser in her place. “It’s better to be silent and have people think you are a fool than to be outspoken and to prove they are right,” Tonguthai says.
But one good thing has emerged from all this: The burst in female candidates this election could help Thailand to continue outperforming on the gender related areas of the Millennium Development Goals. Two gender goals - to reduce the maternal mortality rate by three quarters and to achieve boy-girl parity in primary and secondary schools - appear to be on target.
Maternal mortality rates, according to the UNDP, increased slightly from 44.50 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 49.90 deaths per 100,000 births in 2007, but Thailand is still considered on target to meet its goal of 36 deaths per 100,000 births by 2015. The ratio of girls to boys in primary schools improved from 0.93 to 0.94 per cent - with 1.0 as the target - from 2000 to 2009, according to the UNDP. A remaining goal is to double representation of women in national parliament to a quota of 30 per cent by 2015.

By arrangement with Women’s eNews.

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Amy Lieberman