By GRANT PECK Associated Press © 2011 The Associated Press
U.S. diplomats concluded as early as 2009 that the surprise front-runner to become Thailand’s next prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, had a “bright future” despite a low profile in the shadow of her famous brother’s troubles.
Then-Ambassador to Thailand Eric John characterized the youngest sister of billionaire fugitive ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a Nov. 25, 2009, diplomatic cable as “far more poised” than in past meetings. He noted that she spoke with confidence about the “operations, strategy and goals” of the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party, with which she held no official leadership position at the time.
A Thaksin confidante who accompanied her to a meeting with John even joked that he was dealing with Thailand’s next prime minister, the cable said.
Other embassy cables contain compliments for Yingluck’s rival in next month’s election, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who faced down repeated and sometimes violent challenges to his government by Thaksin’s supporters.
John’s evaluation was in one of more than 2,000 American diplomatic cables from Thailand that were leaked to the WikiLeaks organization and subsequently obtained by The Associated Press.
Yingluck is the top candidate of the Pheu Thai Party on the so-called party list, a ballot by party preference in the July 3 general election. The candidate listed first is traditionally that party’s candidate to become prime minister, which could make Yingluck the country’s first female leader.
There had been speculation that she could be tarred by association with Thaksin, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 after being accused of corruption and disrespect to Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Thaksin’s critics blame him for protests by his supporters last year that culminated last year with street battles in Bangkok in which about 90 people were killed and 1,800 wounded.
However, polls show Pheu Thai with a growing lead over Abhisit’s incumbent Democrat Party, as Yingluck — a 43-year-old businesswoman who has held no political office — has proven to be an effervescent campaigner, and association with her brother seems to be more of an asset than a handicap. Thaksin won two landslide election victories and remains popular in rural areas for populist policies he implemented.
In another embassy cable, John described a Nov. 23, 2009, meeting with Yingluck and former Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama, one of Thaksin’s lawyers, after Abhisit had spent almost a year in office and had faced a round of protests by Thaksin supporters, who claimed he came to power illegitimately.
“Yingluck claimed that Thaksin was not a stubborn person; he was simply interested in dialogue, and as a true businessman, he just wanted the government to ‘make him a deal,’ wrote John, adding that Noppadon also spoke of $2.3 billion of Thaksin’s assets that had been frozen by Thai authorities after the coup. Thaksin was a telecommunications tycoon before becoming prime minister in 2001.
“Yingluck appeared far more poised during this meeting than she has been in the past. She spoke with confidence about (Pheu Thai) party operations, strategy and goals, and deferred less to Noppadon, who has accompanied her to all of our sessions with her. While it was obvious that politics does not come as naturally to Yingluck as it does to her brother, one suspects she may well have a bright future with the party.”
As they departed the residence, Noppadon quipped: “‘You just shook hands with Thailand’s next Prime Minister’ (i.e., Yingluck).”
The cable cited Yingluck saying that “Someone could easily emerge relatively late in the game to take the reins of the party and serve as the next Prime Minister… .” Only two months earlier, some of Yingluck’s own colleagues in the pro-Thaksin camp were pooh-poohing her prospects.
A Sept. 9, 2009 cable, also signed by John, said former Deputy Prime Minister and “close Thaksin ally” Sompong Amornvivat told the embassy he did not envision a big role for Yingluck in the Pheu Thai Party, and that “Thaksin himself was not eager to raise her profile within the party, and was more focused on finding ways to keep his own hand active in politics. ”
Abhisit gets generally good marks in the leaked embassy cables, which cover from 2005 to February last year. However, a Dec. 15, 2008, cable marking Abhisit’s selection as prime minister by the House of Representatives noted that Thai politicians say he has difficulty appealing to rural Thais and claimed he devoted time to his family at the expense of politics.
Nine months later, as Abhisit remained precariously perched in office, John described him as “the only politician in Thailand with favorability ratings” near Thaksin’s.
“In fact, Abhisit is in many ways the glue that holds this fragile house of political cards together, and those complaining lack other viable options,” he wrote on Sept. 9, 2009.