Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra’s sudden rise to the highest position in the Thai political hierarchy is phenomenal and significant. That Thailand now has its first female prime minister has provoked reactions from almost everywhere. Mainstream media, social networks and discussion forums have poured their interest into this phenomenon. Some people see this as a reflection of the open political space for women while others are still doubtful about significant positive changes for women. The dissatisfaction that has been expressed regarding the female premier is continuously reported in mainstream media. Also, feminists in Thailand have been questioned and criticized irrespectively of whether they voice an opinion or are mute on issues concerning the female premier.
To fully understand the phenomenon of the first-female-premier, it is firstly required to examine how women in politics and gender discourse are related.
The Female Prime Minister Issue and Politics
The female prime minister issue is both new and significant for Thai society. Chalidaporn Songsamphan explained that this is because some beliefs on gender and politics still have influence on our mode of thinking. Sets of knowledge about human beings have been shaped predominantly by experiences, lifestyles, and values of men. As a result, other groups, including women, are neglected. Some sets of knowledge suggest that women do not possess ability in reasoning, and their lives are confined within the private sphere (family). Therefore issues of public interest are out of their reach and they should not engage in the political sphere, which is dominated by “male” culture. According to Assoc. Prof. Dr.Chalidaporn, Ms. Yingluck has a lot to prove and needs to show she is able to deal with a political culture that has been dominated by men throughout history.
Despite some resistance from society to her stepping into power, Somchai Preechasilapakul argued that “In a way, this makes it seem as if gender is not a problem for women, politically. Nobody has said that women are not suitable to hold public position. Nobody has spoken about this directly”. This does not mean that gender prejudices have completely disappeared. They still exist at some levels, especially in a society which still holds on to traditional beliefs. It is therefore not surprising to hear comments that the recent flood disaster was fated by the appointing of a female PM.
Unsurprisingly, some have also questioned how she was able to get into power. It is generally regarded that Ms. Yingluck got the position through her family connections, rather than her ability, which according to Chalidaporn is common. In many other countries, powerful women, including Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, have personal links to powerful men. Even for male politicians, many are political heirs.
Having a female prime minister or political representative does not always guarantee that women’s issues will be put in the limelight. Jitra Kochadej argued that campaigns to increase the proportion of women engaging in politics might not help to meet women’s goals or needs, as a woman will not necessarily always be aware or sensitive on women’s issues. Chalidaporn shared the same idea and warned that pinning too much hope on a female premier to push forward policies on women and gender may lead to disappointment.
Gender-based Criticisms against a Female Prime Minister
As mentioned above, even though it appears that having a female PM has been accepted and that gender is not a major factor in the political sphere, Somchai pointed out that, when looking closely at the comments the PM has faced, many of them (e.g. using her nickname as first pronoun in formal situations, her dress, her marriage without registration, her tears in public) are biased by “gender” or ideas of “femininity”. This has never happened to any male PM.
Well-known writer Tomorn Sukpreecha argued that such gender-related criticism is partly because society still holds on to traditional images of political culture and leaders which have “male” characteristics. Often, when rising to power, female leaders adopt these male characteristics – trying to be sharp, swift and decisive, for instance. At the same time, feminine imagery such as motherhood, goddess and being a “big sister” may also be present. Margaret Thatcher has been a prominent role model for female politicians and “Thatcherism” is widely recognized as a style of politics and leadership. The Thai female PM, as widely perceived, does not possess all these qualities and this leads to the “dissatisfaction” expressed by many. However, Tomorn sees this as a positive side of democracy. According to him, the female PM has shown that representatives of the majorities do not need to fit to the old model.
On one hand, criticisms against the PM confirm that despite weak resistance from society against having a female political leader, Thai society hasn’t moved away from gender prejudices. According to a forum participant, these are reflected by criticisms and are still obvious in mainstream media.
On the other hand, Tomorn argued that, considering the Thai gender movement in particular, the progress is rather satisfactory. Chauvinistic attacks against the PM, related to as her intimacy with a Red-shirt leader or being married without registration, do not seem to have stirred much support from society in general. Furthermore, a shocking statement by Mr. Akeyuth Anchanbutr labeling Northern women as “uneducated or lazy and intellectually retarded” has brought great public outrage.
The Female Prime Minister Issue and Gender Lens
“Should a female PM have a gender lens?” is one particular question that arose in the discussion. Jitra, a prominent political activist, responded that policy propositions on gender issues, such as bodily rights, abortion rights, etc., should be considered seriously by any government, not just one with a female PM. This is exactly what women’s movements have always argued. Nevertheless, gender rights are not the only issue to consider. Other democratic rights less related to gender are rights to freedom of public assembly and freedom of expression, citizens’ rights, etc., and should also be fostered and protected.
In relation to the same question Tomorn suggested that the PM should study and apply lessons from history to deal with existing problems, e.g. political pluralism and/or flood relief operation. Chalidaporn suggested that, since gender should not be considered in isolation but as an aspect of other issues, rather than focusing on populist economic policies, the government should consider the whole picture of Thai public policies and use gender principles as a core component. The government should consider what can be done so that men and women are not transfixed by conventional divisions, or the roles, values and expectations shaped by these divisions. This will hopefully lead to positive progress in public policy and the alleviation of many related problems.
Lastly, Somchai suggested that the PM should not try to become somebody who she is not and continue working the way she does. At the end of the day, he added, Thai society will see how feminists and other groups understand and explain the issues that arise in her governance. Having Ms. Yingluck as PM will be a point for reflection on the progress/direction of the gender movements in Thailand.
Gender or Shirt Colour?
The female PM issue involves an entanglement of both gender and politics. Recent criticisms and responses are not obviously based merely on gender but on other social conflicts. Currently there are clear divisions in the political worldviews of Thai society. Chalidaporn has stressed this issue by saying, “The gender issue in Thai politics is positioned in a very particular complicated context of a bigger conflict, or bigger differences on political worldviews. This issue is hence very special. Old knowledge and understanding that we have cannot always help (in understanding the situation)”. Somchai added that gender issues are superimposed on such conflicts so sometimes they can be apparent and other times ignored. That Thai feminists have given “dissatisfied” responses to the first female PM may not be unconnected to the current political conflicts. A remark was made by a forum participant stating that Thai feminists do not tend to side with the Red-Shirt movement which appears to have close links with Ms. Yingluck’s political party.
Supatra Bhumiprapas, an expert in the media field, argued that much criticisms of the female PM is party-bias and so the principle of gender, as well as other, is abused. “The issues are not brought to the table by the public but by those who have followed gender issues for a long time”, she said.
It has been remarked that gender is a minor issue in the political conflicts and there has been inconsistency in gender-based criticisms. The acts of crying in public by a female MP from the opposition party and a male MP have not been regarded as a big deal, compared to when Ms. Yingluck has done the same.
Jitra noticed that women in politics are not mentioned inclusively. Apart from criticizing the female PM, women engage in politics in many ways: some have been sentenced to prison while others have been killed in riots. These are women who engage directly in politics but do not get enough public recognition. The question was raised whether this is another aspect of the diminishment of gender issues under the bigger political worldview.
Living Together in Difference
If the real focus of society at the moment is not gender per se but gender under the bigger conflicts of political worldviews as mentioned by Chalidaporn, the discussed issue of women and/in politics is a good reflection of differences within the women’s movements and gender movements. Jitra commented that “Women sometimes do not support one another as we are always from different classes. I myself feel that women’s groups do not criticize the army for its lack of female generals. The army is the realm of men and they were fully armed and killed a lot of protestors during the riot suppression. With female generals in the Thai army, might there be less killing?”
This discussion also shows that gender issues cannot be considered in isolation: other dimensions of life including social class, ethnicity and political stances are involved.
Amidst differences, discordance, partisanship, extreme quarrel and blindly siding with one’s favorite side, the idea of “the new neutrality” was proposed by Tomorn. With new neutrality, he said, people are not indifferent and will still take sides. However, they can disagree with and criticize those who are on the same side, and this provides checks and improves accountability.
Regarding accountability, Chalidaporn pointed out that any public figure who rises to power by the people’s vote should be ready to be examined and questioned. Unfortunately, society is now divided into two sides: supporters and critics (of the government) and neither are open to examination or criticism. To her, “Within politics of shirt colour and gender on shirt colour, the checking process does not happen. People are ready to believe and judge, based on their beliefs and political worldviews. In the end, the world will split up. It will be completely divided and people will be prone to attack each other”.
Furthermore, Jitra suggested that accountability can be applied to other entities as well, particularly if those organizations/institutions spend people’s tax money.
The forum agreed that in the ideal case, discussion and cross-examination should occur, based on sensible reasoning, and each side should be given equal chance to speak out and listen in turn to each other without having to win as the ultimate goal. Social media can be particularly dangerous as the encounter between different worldviews is faceless and can be pushed into hatred. To lighten-up the conflicts, Chalidaporn suggested that we should not always take politics personally, especially when friendship is more precious in the private sphere.
According to Chalidaporn, by having a female Prime Minister at this critical moment, Thai society will hopefully learn to deal with differences of worldviews. Differences must be accepted in order for society to live peacefully with diversity in the political community.