BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra faced withering criticism on Friday for allowing her brother, deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, to summon government ministers for a meeting by web-cam from his self-imposed exile abroad.
Thaksin, a twice-elected former prime minister deposed in a 2006 coup and convicted of graft two years later, has been widely believed to be the dominant force behind the two-month-old administration of his sister, a political novice.
Recent events have erased all doubt for many, raising questions over whether the 62-year-old billionaire, who remains revered by the rural masses as much as he is reviled by the royalist elite, is making a new, overt grab for power.
On Wednesday, Thaksin joined a meeting with Thai ministers at Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party headquarters via Skype, the Internet-based two-way teleconference service.
“Ministers squirmed uncomfortably in their chairs as Thaksin acted like a teacher, ‘lecturing’ some of them who failed to measure up at the tension-filled meeting, which lasted for more than two hours,” The Bangkok Post newspaper reported on Friday.
Thaksin went into detail on plans for a big increase in the minimum wage and a rice intervention plan, it said, adding that he would chair similar meetings each week. Only Puea Thai ministers and deputy ministers were involved, but the party has the bulk of cabinet positions.
“It has been clearly shown who is the real prime minister,” said opposition chief whip Jurin Laksanawisit, calling Yingluck a “puppet”. “The prime minister should realise that the cabinet chief is the head of the country, not the head of the family.”
The move appeared risky for Yingluck, who had no political experience before entering Thailand’s July 3 general election.
“Thaksin has been pulling the strings for a while behind the scenes. Now he has decided to come out publicly,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “But he pushes too hard, moves too fast, and thus leaves too little room for Yingluck to breathe.”
Yingluck, chosen by Thaksin to lead her party, galvanised supporters and won a convincing victory. But she has been unable to shake off the charge she is a lightweight proxy premier, keeping the seat warm until her brother can return.
Thaksin is at the heart of Thailand’s long-running political crisis and his apparent involvement in government is bound to antagonise his enemies in military and nationalist circles.
His populist policies were opposed by the royalist elite but won over the poor, who gave him two overwhelming election victories before he was toppled by the military in 2006. He fled into exile in 2008, shortly before being found guilty of graft.
Yingluck played down the Skype episode.
“It was a normal chat, just with Puea Thai ministers, not the whole cabinet. Thaksin called during the end of the meeting to show support to all, not to advise on anything,” she said.
No one will be surprised if Thaksin wants to influence policy, but he is still, in theory, on the run from a two-year jail sentence and his presence at the meeting is provocative.
“This is the government’s weak point that opposition sides will use to attack Thaksin and Puea Thai, but it won’t make the government collapse,” said political analyst Kan Yuenyong at Siam Intelligence Unit.
Pavin in Singapore tended to agree. “Yingluck is still in the honeymoon period,” he said. “But the fact that Thaksin is involving himself directly in politics might justify a move by his opponents to discredit the Yingluck government.”
Previous pro-Thaksin administrations have been brought down by the courts and undermined in the street by the ultra-nationalist, yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy.
Pro-Thaksin “red shirts” have also held protests since 2005, including a two-month rally in Bangkok last year in which more than 90 people were killed, both civilians and troops.
Additional reporting by Panarat; Thepgumpanat and Jutarat Skulpichetrat. Editing by Jason Szep