Stereotypes dominate debates about first female Prime Minister in Thailand

Khun Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand
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Khun Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand

Six months have passed since Yingluck Shinawatra was elected to the first female Prime Minister in Thailand. The first woman on the top of the government provoked debates about her person. Yingluck is closely under observation: the military, the cabinet and Thai society are following every step of her actions carefully. There is divergence of opinions about her as a Prime Minister. The statements range from mockery to mixed feelings to critical or hateful. Yingluck´s plan to provide women funds and statements like “I will utilize my femininity to work fully for our country” could have made feminists confident but since the very beginning of her leadership they have been critical. A major critique has been about her handling of the epic floods and her relationship to her big brother and former Prime Minister in exile Thaksin Shinawatra. Popular ways to debate her role have been through caricatures in the daily press, which broach issues of current happenings. During the debate the public has focused on her alleged personal weaknesses, which are directly and indirectly connected to her womanhood.

Tears as political weapon
Since her nomination as a PM candidate the daily press has discussed the fact that Yingluck has cried repeatedly in public. Some people tried to establish that her tears were calculated and that she used them as a political weapon. According to this line of thinking, she wanted to grab attention and tears would be a woman´s weapon to confuse foes and critics. Others pointed out that her tears were a sign of her weakness, vulnerability, lack of leadership skills and that she would destroy the picture of women who are strong and capable. Some comments even say that she is using women´s trickery to get people´s sympathy but in reality most of the people didn´t feel any sympathy for her tears at all and declared that it seemed to be fake.

A hate speech on Facebook
In the beginning of November the radical Anti-Yingluck voice was given a face in businessmen Akeyuth Anchabutr who posted racist and sexiest comments about her on Facebook, which the daily press, declared to be a misogyny hate speech. The hate speech against northern women was clearly meant to be an attack against Yingluck, who was born and raised in the North. He describes Northern women as “uneducated or lazy and that intellectually retarded will look for an easy job that normal women won´t do… namely prostitution (…) you should know which profession suits you.” Interestingly, the debate turned out to be more about why it took weeks for Thai feminists and women movement groups to react to these posts. After ten days a northern women´s group called for a public apology. After the debate on the hate speech one thing turned out to be really clear: Yingluck has little feminist support. They seemed to be muted even though the attack was applied to Thai women in general.

The Burberry Boots case
While Thailand faced the worst flood in written history a fashion topic reached the top of the headlines. During a flood inspection Yingluck wore expensive Burberry boots while visiting people in need. Since then the Boots have been a recurring item in the papers. The incident became a symbol for how Yingluck is always taking care of her beauty. For some people she seems to take good looks more seriously than politics. That has led numerous people to dismiss her on those grounds without considering her actual work dealing with the flood situation. Critics have said that she is always looking perfect, which isn’t appropriate during a crisis. According to some, her style is similar to her leadership style – namely, not suitable to her position.

Personal skills
A reappearing debate around her person is about her personal skills. It is no secret how Yingluck came into power. So it is not surprising that the observing mass is taking every false step as a confirmation that she is not skilled enough to be the leader of a country. The papers are full of bad- mouthing statements about how she is embarrassing Thailand with a lack of political experience and language skills. Some people accuse her for making mistakes in public (reading numbers or names wrong). This debate is handled in a dismissive way and is connected to the belief that Yingluck is only an instrument of her older brother.

Despite the fact that Yingluck has used family ties to get into her position, the main problem during the debate is that woman leaders are expected to behave differently. In the public opinion Yingluck confirms popular clichés about women: wearing fashion boots even during a natural disaster, trying to look perfect and confirming the idea that a woman cries quickly. Many other politicians also look nice and cry in public. But why is it in Yingluck´s case a gender issue? Do people expect her to govern more like an ideal women politician: strong, tough and rational…or just more like a man? Cultural aspects are key factors during this debate. Since Thailand is known to follow hierarchical systems the Thai author Tomorn Sukpricha shared his view about “Thatcherism” and Yingluck as “the little sister”, during the Heinrich Böll Foundation seminar “Gender Discourse in Thai Politics”. According to his statements the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher counts as the most famous prototype of the female politician. Thatcher is also known as the “iron lady”, describing her as a strong-willed woman. In Tomorn´s opinion people transferring women to men, if they want women to behave like an “iron lady”. Another reason why Thatcher was such a successful female politician is that she was the personifying of a “mother” or a “big sister” – to be caring and protective. Yingluck has no such characteristics. She is a “little sister”. Connected to cultural aspects it is difficult for Thai people to take her serious the time they recognizing the personifying of a “little sister” as the leader of their nation. Stereotyping women is still an issue in Thailand. Even if women are highly visible all over the country and they have almost an equal role in economics, there are still few women in politics. The Buddhist picture of woman as a mother and nurturer combined with the belief that a political leader has to be strong and rational like men, could be a reason why Yingluck has a difficult time in office. She is close to the stereotype picture of women in Thai society, in which beauty is important and emotional actions are characteristic for women.

In spite of all this negativity, positive voices can also be found. Some people think that Yingluck´s premiership has broken the political glass ceiling for woman and reflects a high development of gender equality in Thailand. Her premiership could signalize and inspire young girls that if a woman is on the top of the government, there are no limits for woman in Thai society at all. Yingluck would face the same critics male colleagues also have to deal with. But if the debates about her are a gender issue, what is the reason that feminists in Thailand are ignoring her presence and the debates around her? Chalidaporn Songsamphan, a famous Bangkokian feminist stated, “No matter how you as a feminist behaving towards Yingluck, it is going to be denounced.” Under the headline “Thailand's first female PM no victory for feminism”, the coordinator of Women Networks Reshaping Thailand, Sutada Mekrungruengkul stated “How can we be proud? The whole world knows it’s about Thaksin.” It seems that Thai feminists don´t trust her. On the one hand, people don´t take her seriously because she doesn´t “govern like a man”. On the other hand, feminist´s don´t support her, because she is not taking a gender lens in politics at all. Considering these facts it will be difficult to achieve a consensus about her leadership in Thai society.

Elisabetha Huber graduated in Thai studies.