Left motherless at a young age, Yingluck Shinawatra says her eldest brother became like a parent to her. From college in the U.S., to running Thailand’s biggest mobile phone company and now seeking to become prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra guided her life.
Just how much the 61-year-old exiled former leader continues to do so is a growing risk for investors as Yingluck, 43, leads in polls before July 3 elections. Concern a victory would reignite the political conflict that has racked the country and prompt a coup like that which toppled her brother in 2006 has helped drive more than $1 billion in overseas money from Thai stocks since she emerged as a candidate last month.
“He’s the one who took care of me and helped in terms of education and teaching me on the management style,” Yingluck said in a June 8 interview conducted in English at a Bangkok slum, where hundreds of supporters thronged around her. She described Thaksin as her “second father,” while adding that when it comes to leading the country, “I will be myself.”
The youngest of Thaksin’s eight siblings, Yingluck has spent the past month introducing herself to voters after being picked by the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party on May 16 to challenge Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Democrats. As Thailand’s first female leader, Yingluck would inherit inflation at a 32-month high and a political divide that has seen parts of Bangkok consumed by clashes leaving more than 100 killed since 2007, and the seizure of its international airport by protesters.
At the center of the political divisions in Thailand that have seen 10 military takeovers since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 are ethnic and social segmentation, with the poorer north and northeast supporting Thaksin’s group. The benchmark SET index of stocks has dropped the past four weeks, the longest losing streak since 2008, as concern escalated that violence may accompany the aftermath of the vote.
The baht fell 0.2 percent to 30.59 per dollar as of 11:02 a.m. local time today and earlier touched 30.62, the weakest level since March 1, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The baht has weakened almost 1 percent in the past month, the worst performer among 10 major currencies in Asia excluding the yen.
A veteran corporate executive in the Shinawatra family’s business group, Yingluck’s lack of political experience means Thaksin will likely continue to steer the party from abroad, where he’s lived since fleeing a two-year prison term for abuse of power in a 2008 court ruling, analysts said.
“People know very little about her thoughts,” said Kongkiat Opaswongkarn, chief executive officer of Asia Plus Securities Pcl (ASP), Thailand’s third-biggest brokerage. “She reports directly to Thaksin. The slogan the party uses, ‘Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai implements,’ will be exactly the way it is.”
Thaksin described Yingluck as “not my nominee but my clone,” in an interview published May 20 in the Bangkok-based Matichon newspaper. “I raised her like my eldest daughter because mom passed away when she was young,” Matichon cited him as saying, referring to Yingluck’s childhood in their northern hometown of Chiang Mai. Thaksin declined, through his aides, requests for an interview.
Yingluck said she still contacts Thaksin two or three times a week to check on how he’s doing. “We are a very close family.”
Her father, Loet Shinawatra, who died in 1997, owned two cinemas, a bus service and a BMW dealership in Chiang Mai province before he was elected as a lawmaker in 1969, according to the biography “Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand.” Thaksin followed in his footsteps, winning a state concession to start a mobile-phone business in 1990 and joining Parliament five years later.
Burden of a Name
Yingluck obtained a master’s degree in public administration in 1990 from Kentucky State University in the U.S. The Frankfort-based school is about 50 miles northwest of Eastern Kentucky University, where Thaksin earned a master’s degree in criminal justice fifteen years earlier.
On her return, Yingluck took a role in Thaksin’s business group, serving at Shinawatra Directory Co., then as president of Advanced Info Service Pcl, Thailand’s largest mobile-phone company. In a 2003 interview with The Nation newspaper, Yingluck said she was “a little bit nervous to show up, knowing that somebody might think I’m here because of my name.”
Thana Thienachariya, former chief corporate affairs officer for Total Access Communication Pcl, Advanced Info’s top rival, said that in business Yingluck was “honest, compromising and diplomatic.” He said she didn’t use “the media to attack her competitors or anything like that. She avoided confrontation.”
When the family sold its flagship Shin Corp. to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings Pte for 73 billion baht ($2.4 billion) in 2006, Yingluck netted 985 million baht, stock-exchange filings show. The deal sparked protests on grounds no tax was paid on the proceeds, and it paved the way for a coup later that year.
Since then, Yingluck has run SC Asset Corp., a property developer owned by Thaksin’s children. She has one son and is married to Anusorn Amornchat, managing director of M Link Asia Corp. Pcl, a Thai distributor of mobile-phone handsets founded by another of Thaksin’s sisters.
Yingluck echoes Thaksin’s populist style, tapping into the enduring support for her brother among urban poor and in rural areas. The north and northeast, joined in the 1800s to the nation then known as Siam, has an average income about one third that in Bangkok, according to data from the National Statistical Office. The areas were home to a Communist insurgency that faded in the 1980s.
Shanty Town Embrace
Wearing a short-sleeved white shirt with a sketch of herself on the front, she picked her way through cheering Bangkok slum dwellers in temperatures that reached 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit). After wiping sweat from her face with a tissue and brushing away a fly, she sat down on a white plastic chair for the interview.
“This is better than any television studio,” she said, glancing at the houses made of tin and scrap metal 30 feet (9 meters) away as people crowded around her on the debris-strewn dirt floor. “I feel very glad for all the support.”
One area where support is less forthcoming is among investors, with stocks underperforming since Yingluck announced her candidacy. The SET Index has fallen 5 percent in the past month, lagging behind benchmarks in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Red Versus Yellow
“Foreign investors were buying Thai stocks before on the assumption that the Democrat party would win,” said Takahide Irimura, head of emerging-market research at Tokyo-based Kokusai Asset Management Co., which oversees $57 billion. “Since Thaksin’s sister was assigned to lead the Pheu Thai party, it has regained popularity and in line with that foreign investors have accelerated stock sales as their victory may reignite political instability.”
Opponents of Thaksin, who wore yellow shirts at protests in distinction from the red-shirted supporters of the former prime minister, have said he posed a threat to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 83, who has ruled Thailand since 1946.
Thai Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who commanded troops in the coup that ousted Thaksin, urged voters to pick “good people” in the election and warned that criticism of the monarchy won’t be tolerated, in a nationally televised interview on June 14.
An internal police poll excluding Bangkok and the far south found Pheu Thai leading in half of 331 constituencies, compared with 25 percent for the Democrat party, the Bangkok Post said June 12. Of 500 seats, 375 are selected in districts and 125 are through proportional representation. A Bangkok University poll June 2-9 showed Pheu Thai leading in 21 of 33 constituencies in Bangkok, with Democrats ahead in six and six too close to call.
The Democrat party, seeking its first general election win since 1992, has sought to convince voters that Yingluck’s top priority would be to grant Thaksin amnesty. She has avoided a debate with Abhisit, 46, who has a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University.
Yingluck “has in business consistently acted as a nominee for her brother,” Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, deputy leader of Abhisit’s party and a former chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM)’s Thai unit, said in a May 26 interview. “There’s no hiding the fact that he’s using her again as his nominee.”
There are signs that Yingluck’s connection to Thaksin may be used to disqualify her. A member of the military-appointed panel that investigated Thaksin’s wealth after the coup, leading to the seizure of 46.4 billion baht, has urged police and prosecutors to file perjury charges against Yingluck for testimony at the trial.
“This is an old case and must be followed by due process,” Yingluck said. “I would be ready to explain myself.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at email@example.com