Like it or not, the prime minister has to speak up

opinion June 22, 2013 00:00

By The Nation

So far, Yingluck Shinawatra has remained tight-lipped, or professed ignorance, on controversial issues. With criticism mounting, it's time for her to do her job and be accountable

Silence may no longer be golden for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, although it’s not getting any easier for her to speak up on issues. She has reached the point where keeping her mouth shut can be seen as a form of provocation. At the same time, trying to address an issue head-on might only inflame it. Thailand’s first female head of government is finding her job increasingly delicate and difficult.
An example of the extreme dilemma for Yingluck concerns an assault by pro-government red shirts on anti-government “white mask” protesters in Chiang Mai last week. It was natural for government critics to call on Yingluck to take a stance on the incident, since government spokesmen stayed silent. But what was she supposed to say, really? Politically and logically, she couldn’t criticise those who were attacked for “asking for it”, and yet one wrong word against the assailants could antagonise the entire red-shirt movement. There was no stance that could pacify one side and not make the other go berserk.
Partly, she can blame it on the national divide. Partly, she can blame her brother Thaksin, whose growing desire to be whitewashed and come home a free man is not allowing her to perform her prime ministerial duties normally. But Yingluck also has herself to blame for always resorting to elusiveness as her key strategy. She has done so since taking office in 2011.
Yingluck’s characteristic reticence has earned her much ridicule. But it has also helped her through difficult circumstance, as when the Foreign Ministry undertook dubious diplomatic manoeuvring to make life in exile easier for Thaksin. As a reluctant newcomer to politics, Yingluck scraped through the early days thanks to her perceived naivety as well as bitter understanding among rivals of Thaksin that she might not like what she was doing that much. 
Such political luxury is long gone, and what is expected of Yingluck now is what is expected of any prime minister anywhere. Being the premier of a deeply divided nation doesn’t make it any easier, but she should have realised that when she decided to stand for the post two years ago. More importantly, she should have known that leading a strife-torn country requires even greater communication in itself, never mind communication skills. As it turns out, Yingluck has left several issues for the likes of Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung to handle publicly – sometimes to disastrous effect.
Everyone knows that Yingluck is not a great public speaker. But if she can deliver a speech overseas attacking political opponents in Thailand, people can rightly assume that she can also take a prime ministerial stand on political protesters who were physically assaulted by the government side while exercising their right to free speech. She also needs to comment publicly on the murky circumstances in the murder of a hardcore anti-government businessman. Yingluck has let partiality dictate her public role too often, which makes her silence on certain issues much more deafening.
Her government earlier this month formed a proactive public-relations team. It earlier appointed a new government spokesman and a new director-general for the Public Relations Department. But nothing has changed. It’s still one-way communication – from the government to its supporters, who form a vast comfort zone for the ruling Pheu Thai Party. Between the government and its political opponents is nothing but mistrust and exchanges of hostility.
One might ask what Yingluck is supposed to do. Bluntly put, she must bite the bullet. It’s true that, in many cases, it’s a no-win situation for her, but trying to explain things to the public comes with her job in a democracy. Her predecessor, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was forced to handle hot topics several times and address highly hostile activists directly. Even if Yingluck lacks Abhisit’s eloquence, she is nevertheless now wearing the same hat he did, and it’s the same heat in the same kitchen. She has dealt with it differently, applying silence to constant political tumult, and to considerably good effect until recently. But that luxury is no longer available to her.