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Can Thailand's first female PM Yingluck Shinawatra heal divided nation?

updated 5:24 AM EST, Mon December 2, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yingluck Shinawatra became Thailand's first female PM after a landslide victory in 2011
  • She's the sister of country's ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra who critics say still calls the shots
  • She says they have similar management style, but she is not his "clone"

Editor's note: CNN's Kristie Lu Stout interviewed Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in October 2013. Leading Womenconnects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) -- First, you may be dazzled by her gentle smile. But then the obvious question comes to mind.

Am I sitting across a true leading woman or is her big brother actually calling the shots?

At Government House in Thailand, I recently interviewed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra -- a woman who has heard those questions -- and more -- before.

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She is Thailand's elected leader, the country's first female Prime Minister, and -- as I found out -- ready to fire back at her critics and defend her authority.

In 2011, and about ten weeks into her political career, she won a landslide victory to lead a country of 67 million people.

Just months into her political career, she was criticized for her handling of Thailand's worst flooding crisis in more than 50 years.

Two years on, Yingluck Shinawatra says she has been making decisions based on her own experience and wants to be judged by her achievements.

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"You have a lot of key stakeholders," Yingluck tells me. "So you have to make sure the stakeholders are happy."

She has raised the country's minimum wage, helped pass a massive loan bill to overhaul Thailand's transportation infrastructure, and also become the country's first female defense minister -- a position she says she is uniquely qualified to handle because she is a woman.

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"Males and females can do this role," she says. "But females will be more concerned about the morale and the support, and building teamwork."

But more recently, protests have erupted in the nation's capital amid opposition to a proposed amnesty bill.

As part of a push for unity in the country, the government proposed an amnesty bill which includes a controversial amendment offering a reprieve for any politically-related offenses since January 1 2004.

The public dissent -- which has seen thousands march through Bangkok's streets -- stems from the fact that the period specified in the bill includes the time her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in power, reports the Bangkok Post.

It's this family connection where the Thai Prime Minister has been unable to bridge the deep political divide in her country.

Yingluck Shinawatra is the youngest sister of the charismatic and deeply polarizing former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who led the country for five years before the military removed him from power in 2006.

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"Males and females can do this role ... But females will be more concerned about the morale and the support, and building teamwork.
Yingluck Shinawatra, Thai Prime Minister

Even though Thaksin remains in exile, critics say he is still ruling through his sister.

Yingluck concedes she has a close relationship with her brother, but insists she has always been independent, even though her brother at one point called her his "clone."

"Clone means the same kind of thinking and management style," she says. "It doesn't mean reliance."

In the last two years, Yingluck has sought to prove herself and her leadership.

"I think there is less criticism about this because if I'm relying on him, I don't think I could be so wise to handle the hard times," she tells me.

The Thai Prime Minister is under scrutiny not only because of the shadow of her older brother, but for everything from her number of trips abroad to her fashion choices.

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Recently in Milan, she wore a Thai silk jacket that drew attention since it was stained by the flood waters of 2011. It generated a media debate about whether it was appropriate for Thailand's Prime Minister to be seen wearing it.

But Yingluck has also used the media to advance her own platform, including the launch of "Smart Lady Thailand" -- a reality TV show out to empower young women.

"Clone means the same kind of thinking and management style ... It doesn't mean reliance.
Yingluck Shinawatra, Thai Prime Minister

The show prompted a jab from Thai opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva who made reference to a "Stupid Woman." While Vejjajiva later said the remark was not directed at a particular person, and not intended as an insult to women, Yingluck supporters called it sexist.

Yingluck Shinawatra offered a neutral response: "I don't want to interpret what he meant, but ... please give a chance for all ladies and Thai people."

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Our interview was only the second time CNN sat down with the Thai Prime Minister on camera. My local producer commented to me that Yingluck today, comes across as more media savvy, confident, and serene compared to two years ago when she first came to office.

Yingluck may never fully leave the shadow of her brother let alone the scrutiny of her naysayers, but she appears to be a woman trying to make peace with her position.

"People expect you to run the country with sincerity and hard effort to deliver what we promise to the people," she says.

Cue that dazzling smile.

CNN's Kristie Lu Stout interviewed Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in October 2013.

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