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Thai women cheer first female prime minister

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Sun, 3 Jul 2011 22:19 GMT
Author: By Ploy Ten Kate
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By Ploy Ten Kate

BANGKOK, July 3 (Reuters) - After six prime ministers in six years of sometimes bloody political upheaval, Thais might be excused for shrugging their shoulders about voting in number seven.

But this time there's one big difference. The new prime minister will be a woman, the first to hold the position in Thailand.

Yingluck Shinawatra, a 44-year-old businesswoman who wasn't even in politics two months ago, is poised to get the top job after the stunning election victory of Puea Thai (For Thais), whose de facto leader is her brother, fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Yingluck, known as Pou (Crab), the nickname her parents gave her, has never run for office or held a government post, so she has a lot to prove to show she can run the country.

But some Thais, especially females, want to give her the benefit of the doubt and see this as a big step for women in a country where they have struggled for equal representation in government.

"I've always wanted to have the first lady prime minister," said Areerak Saelim, 42-year-old owner of a sunglass shop in a Bangkok market.

"I've seen too many men failing to run the country. Maybe this time, things will be different. What women are -- and men aren't -- is meticulous . I'm pretty sure she can do the job based on her age and successful career."

Yingluck has promised to revive her brother's populist policies and raise living standards among the poor, vowing to pursue national reconciliation to end a six-year political crisis, without seeking vengeance for her brother's overthrow by the military in 2006.

"More and more women are capable, knowledgeable and can actually get the job done these days," said Yaowalak Poolthong, first executive vice-president of Krung Thai Bank Pcl .

"I don't think gender should be an issue, limiting who can or can't do the job."

MAN BEHIND THE WOMAN

But some wondered whether she was her own woman.

"It's obvious who she represents ," said Puttasa Karnsakulton, a 37-year-old clothing shop owner.

Thaksin, a twice-elected prime minister who is now living as a fugitive from Thai justice in Dubai, has said he wants to come home, and one of Yingluck's policies is an amnesty for political offences.

"I can't accept it if having the first female prime minister means she'll come in to benefit one person. There are doubts in my mind that this is simply a woman in front of a man," Puttasa said.

Puea Thai's plan to give each province 100 million baht ($3.2 million) to support the income-generating activities of women's groups has left some women's rights advocates sceptical.

"Who is to decide who will get the money? Will this be just a one-off handout? Will it work as a revolving fund?" asked Sutada Mekrungruengkul, director of the Gender and Development Research Institute.

Siriphan Noksuan, associate professor at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science, said it was far too early to say what kind of leader she would be.

"People know she's a political novice," Siriphan said.

"But they also trust that she will have an army of pundits and economic advisers behind the scene to help her."

For now, she can bask in her victory after a campaign that left defeated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, a career politician, struggling from day one.

Abhisit doesn't have the common touch. Yingluck, a wealthy businesswoman, and Thaksin, a billionaire former telecoms tycoon, do.

"In some way, I feel like I can connect with her and her brother even though we're poor and have nothing," said Malai Jiemdee, a maid from Nakhon Ratchasima province. ($1 = 30.795 Baht) (Additional reporting by Manunphattr Dhanananphorn; Editing by Alan Raybould)

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