Capturing Yingluck

Over the years I often photographed Yingluck Shinawatra, and several times I even had the opportunity to talk with her. Now, as Yingluck has finally fled Thailand, and every political pundit speculates what will take place in Thai politics after she supposedly joined Thaksin—and an increasing amount of Thai political dissidents—in exile, I want to present a brief pictorial essay on how I experienced the career of Thailand’s first female prime minister.

The first time I saw and photographed Yingluck was during a birthday bash for her elder brother on 26 July 2009, in the huge Chinese Mangkorn Luang Restaurant in Bang Na. At the time she was just one of Thaksin’s siblings, and nobody expected that one day she would be Thailand’s prime minister. She was charming and very patient with both photographers and Red Shirts who liked to be photographed with her and her elder sister Yaowapa—who was at the time a far more powerful person in the party hierarchy, and the wife of former prime minister Somchai Wongsawat.

The 2010 crackdown came and went, and it came as a huge surprise when Yingluck was nominated to be the Pheu Thai Party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2011 elections. I followed the election campaign quite closely, being hired by several German language magazines and newspapers to work with their writers as coordinator, translator, photographer, and so on.

At the time the 2010 killings were still very fresh in the minds of the people, and many Red Shirts were in prison, or in temporary exile. The PAD had protested since early 2011 at Government House against the former allies of the Democrat Party government over the Preah Vihear issue and had erected a permanent protest camp (one with very few protesters, however: on average days several hundred, and on special occasions a few thousand at most). The PAD’s “New Politics Party” decided to boycott the elections, leading to a split in their leadership between party leader Somsak Kosaisuk, who wanted to contest the elections, and the other four core leaders.

The first campaign event I went to was in Chiang Rai, with Thilo Thielke, the then Spiegel Southeast Asia correspondent.

In the evening we even got a one-on-one interview with Yingluck, who made time in spite of her very busy schedule. I did not need to translate. While her English was by far not as good as then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s polished Oxford English, it was quite sufficient. What she may not have had in language skills she could easily compensate for with her charm and honesty. This made her generally a much easier interview partner than Abhisit, who at times was very argumentative and outright prickly when he did not like the tone of a question.

A few days later we went to Udon Thani, where Yingluck spoke at Thung Si Mueang in front of a massive crowd, which she charmed with her election speech, promising to continue and improve on Thaksin’s policies, emphasising her relationship with Thaksin—“if you love elder brother, give younger sister a chance”. She answered the accusations that she had no experience in politics by saying that she learned about politics since she was a young girl through her family. A surprise at Thung Si Muang was to see Sanoh Tienthong, who in 2006 (before the coup) broke with her brother and appeared on the PAD’s stage. The presence of this political survivor was a sign that things were going well for Pheu Thai.

The following day Yingluck went on a tour through neighbouring provinces, starting in the early morning with an appearance in Khon Kaen’s market.

We then flew then back to Bangkok, where I met Abhisit and his entourage at the airport. I asked for an interview with the magazines and newspapers that hired me, which he said OK to, and asked me to call Panitan Wattanayagorn to make the appointment. This later turned into a bit of a nightmare, as was trying to report on the entire Democrat Party election campaign. Whereas Pheu Thai had a well-organised press office that always knew Yingluck’s whereabouts, fixed interview appointments, and made media invitations, it was almost impossible to find out where Democrat Party election campaign stages were. Calling the party headquarters, one could not get an answer, and in the end I managed to get the information by calling Special Branch Police.

Getting an interview with Abhisit turned out to be even more difficult. When I finally called Panitan, he said that now Korbsak Sabhavasu was responsible for scheduling with the media. When I called Korbsak, he was quite unfriendly, and said we would have to make a written request at the Party HQ. I tried to explain that this would be quite problematic with the tight deadlines we had to work under. He then said that he neither cared about that, nor that Abhisit promised us interviews, nor what Panitan said, and hung up. I then called Dr Buranaj Smutharaks, who was rather embarrassed about this, and could only fix us with a spot in a group interview with Abhisit. I explained that the Spiegel and Stern would not do group interviews, only one-on-ones, and that after we had each one-on-ones with Yingluck and with Thaksin in Dubai, it would only be in their interest to also be present in Germany’s two biggest print news outlets. In the end, it was only the group interview, which I attended with Swiss News, but not Spiegel or Stern. The irony came at the Democrat’s last election stage at Central World, where Korbsak accused the foreign media of being in Thaksin’s pocket and not giving Abhisit the same space, while angrily looking at me.

The Pheu Thai election machine, meanwhile, was highly professional. Thaksin, who seems to be very strategic in his timing when granting interviews, opened his house in Dubai to foreign media outlets. I flew there with Stern’s Asia correspondent Janis Vougioukas, where Thaksin gave as a lot of time for a one-on-one interview.

A few days later we went again on Yingluck’s campaign, where she visited a Muslim community in Bangkok. She gave Stern an interview, and also Dan Ten Kate from Bloomberg interviewed her.

On 15 June 2011, foreign media were invited to observe Yingluck on another campaign tour through in Isan. I went there with Swiss News. The organisation was stunning: Yingluck went on around 20 stages in three provinces. Cars were supplied to the media, and the bigger outlets got one-on-one interviews in between stages, being invited into Yingluck’s car. At the same time a computer car had staff observing what the media reported, including social media, which then was summarised and sent on to Yingluck’s assistant in her car. Yingluck then read the briefs, and worked them into her speeches at her following appearance on stage.

On 1 July 2011, it was the last campaign stage, in Rajamangala stadium. Yingluck held her speech in the pouring rain.

As expected, two days later on 3 July, the Pheu Thai Party won the elections, and Yingluck Shinawatra became Thailand’s first female prime minister. The party HQ was filled with supporters and a massive presence of both local and foreign media.

From then on I took a break from high politics, and concentrated again on what interested me most: street politics and political developments in the grassroots and community sector. I did not hang around Government House and stayed away from the usual little infighting and jealousies there, so I am quite unaware what went on in the echelons of power, and heard only the usual rumour and gossip.

I next met Yingluck when I took photos for the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand at the prime minister’s dinner, a regular event with most elected (and semi-elected) prime ministers, both in 2012 and in 2013. On her first dinner, on 23 March 2012, Yingluck was visibly nervous (more so her entourage), but managed with her usual charm to deflect some of the more difficult questions.

On her second dinner, on 11 March 2013, she was already far more confident.

Here I took a picture with some historical significance, which I found while browsing through my images for this story: Yingluck together with former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom on her right, who was just sentenced to 42 years in prison over the government-to-government rice sales case.

Later that year, Yingluck came under increasing pressure when the Yellow Alliance began to topple the elected government, and with it electoral democracy in Thailand, by the old and proven strategy: building a street movement with elite support to create chaos, in order to give the military the excuse to step in. The insults against Yingluck became vicious. I have even heard Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva on a protest stage insulting Yingluck with an extremely derogatory term for a prostitute.

A particularly racist slide presentation I saw during a speech by academic and ultra-nationalist fanatic Kaewsan Athibodhi on 15 November 2013, at the anti-government protest stage at Democracy Monument.

Even her immediate family was not spared, when PDRC protesters regularly accosted her son in front of his school.

I met Yingluck during this terrible period only once, when she attended the funeral of Police Senior Sergeant-Major Narong Pitisit, the police officer slain by PDRC fighters. Visibly distraught, she talked with the family and paid her respects.

The coup had taken place before I met Yingluck again, at the funeral of Dr Apiwan Wiriyachai on 12 October 2014. When we photographers took her picture on this rare occasion of her going out in public, she recognised me, and with genuine concern asked me about my situation and if things were better now since the hate campaign and the violence of the PDRC directed against me.

The last time I met Yingluck was when she opened her house to the foreign media on 12 February 2016, about 8 months before I left Thailand. At the time I was still under quite a bit of pressure and could hardly work anymore, being followed by intelligence whenever I made an appearance at political events. Therefore I usually stayed away from Yingluck’s appearances at court, and her later trips to visit supporters upcountry. Yingluck was very cautious during the interview sessions, avoiding direct political statements that could have brought her into trouble with the junta (which was not very happy about the event). The invitation was ostensibly about showing her hydroponic garden to the media, serving us organic salad, and giving us samples of her salad and salad sauce—politics, while avoiding politics.

I could not help myself making a selfie with Yingluck, and posting it on Facebook, which earned me the most likes and shares ever. To be neutral, a month later I posted a selfie with former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, who is a strong opponent of the Shinawatra clan.

I have met Yingluck as a photographer and journalist and I have not much knowledge of the workings of her inner circle. Nor can I judge or comment much on her qualities as a politician or prime minister. I especially cannot comment on the legal cases against her; others are better placed and more knowledgeable on these very complex matters.

As a human I found her always a polite, friendly, and caring person. Her charm and warmth endeared her to diplomats and journalists alike, and quite possibly these qualities led to the decision to nominate her as Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate in the first place. She could bring political tensions down several levels so that Thaksin and his elite opponents could hold talks—unsuccessful, as we saw with the 2013 PDRC protests and the 2014 military coup—after the 2010 crackdown.

In the aftermath of her escape from Thailand I read much punditry on the future of Thai politics, and again predictions of the end of the Shinawatra clan’s influence in the Thai political scene.

I may add my own bit of punditry here.

It is very difficult to make any predictions now. Too much is still in a state of fluidity. Since the 2006 coup I have seen too many analysts predicting the end of Thaksin a bit too regularly. It hasn’t happened, as we have seen in the 2007 elections, the 2009 and 2010 uprisings, and in the 2011 elections. I very much doubt that Yingluck leaving Thailand will mean the end for either Thaksin, the Shinawatra clan, the Red Shirts, or efforts to introduce a stable system of democracy in Thailand.

While Thaksin and Yingluck may be extremely important symbols for the now somewhat dormant Red Shirt movement, and the voters of Pheu Thai, this movement identifies itself with far more than just these personalities. While an imprisoned Yingluck may have served as Thailand’s version of Aung San Suu Kyi, one should also question whether this would really be good for Thailand’s political development in the long term. Idolising and sanctifying a human being will inevitably lead to disappointment, as every symbol will fall short of human reality. Democracy does not come from such artificial saints, but from the people and leaders who earned the trust of the people. One should also not forget that Yingluck is a mother, and has already sacrificed much.

A year ago, people close to Thaksin told me that he anyhow planned to remove his family from the front seat of Thai politics, steering things from the background, and working on reforming and modernising Pheu Thai. In this sense, news that some power brokers of that party would think of leaving Thailand may even be an advantage, as the party can slim down and make a fresh start. Yingluck’s importance in the running of the party after the 2014 coup was negligible (if indeed she ever played a large role in the game of power is rather doubtful as well).

While I would rather not speculate on the future of Thai politics now, I am however sure that we have not seen the end of the Red Shirts, the Pheu Thai Party, Thaksin, or Yingluck. The game will continue, as Thai politics is always good for a surprise. Yingluck’s Houdini move was most likely not the last of these.


Nick Nostitz lived and worked in Thailand for 23 years as a photojournalist and writer, and has contributed extensively to New Mandala’s coverage of Thai political life and conflict since 2008. His books include Patpong, Bangkok’s twilight zone: a photographic diary and Red vs. Yellow (Volume 1: Thailand’s Crisis of Identity & Volume 2: Thailand’s political awakening).

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