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Thailand's ousted Shinawatra clan defies junta with publicity drive

Monday, January 18, 2016 - 11:23
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A supporter of ousted Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra holds a picture of her (right) and her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, at the Supreme Court in Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan 15, 2016.

[BANGKOK] Former Thai prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck are cranking up their promotional machines to reconnect with supporters in apparent defiance of the military that toppled their governments.

The publicity drive, which includes a cooking display by Yingluck Shinawatra and the distribution of free books, could signal the family's intention to one day return to power, one expert said.

Yingluck, who was overthrown in 2014 by the junta that has ruled Thailand since then, gave thousands of photo books about herself to journalists and diplomats as a New Year gift.

Her brother, deposed by the military 10 years ago, also sent a coffee table book called Thaksin Shinawatra: Life And Times to extol his achievements as prime minister.

Thailand's military has purged the bureaucracy of Shinawatra sympathisers and detained, monitored and restricted the movements of politicians loyal to the family.

Yingluck and Thaksin are despised by Thailand's military-backed royalist elite but they remain hugely popular in their traditional powerbase in the country's north and north-east.

Many analysts believe their Puea Thai Party would still easily win the next general election, which the junta has vowed to hold next year.

Their recent self-publicity is designed to reassure their base and needle their enemies, said Kan Yuenyong, an analyst with Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank.

"The Shinawatra family want to send a message to the elite and to their own followers: 'We're still here. We haven't disappeared'," he said.

The government has taken note. "Mr Thaksin's administration was leading Thailand into a political conflict," said a foreign affairs ministry statement about his book.

It noted Thaksin faced "serious allegations" of corruption and human rights abuses.

SALAD DRESSING

Yingluck welcomed reporters to her Bangkok home on Jan 8 to show off her organic vegetable garden.

She then mixed up a salad dressing, throwing back her hair and smiling when a photographer called her prime minister.

She and her brother have also been active on social media.

Kan Yuenyong said the publicity drive was timed to coincide with what promises to be a testing year for the junta. It has struggled to energise Thailand's export-dependent economy and snuff out opposition to its rule.

The draft of a new constitution is due to be finished this month, paving the way for a 2017 election.

Neither Shinawatra can run but, with Yingluck's charm and Thaksin's money, they will likely fuel a Puea Thai Party campaign.

Thaksin, who remains one Thailand's wealthiest people, fled into self-exile in 2008 to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.

Yingluck was impeached last year by a junta-appointed assembly and banned from politics for five years.

She is currently on trial on criminal charges over corruption in a multi-billion-dollar rice subsidy scheme.

Authorities in northeast Thailand banned the distribution of thousands of 2016 calendars featuring Thaksin and Yingluck earlier this month.

"What's this calendar for?" Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief, asked reporters earlier this month."Can any criminal distribute a calendar with his face on it, then?"

REUTERS