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Interview with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra

Aired December 9, 2011 - 05:30   ET



PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): These are Thailand's worst floods in more than half a century. Rain has inundated more than a third of the country, killing hundreds of people, leaving more than a hundred thousand homeless and leading to the closure of factories and economic pain.

A natural disaster of massive proportions and a heavy burden for Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand's recently elected first female prime minister. As she and the Pheu Thai Party swept to a landslide victory in July's election, beating her opposition and former prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand's annual monsoon had already begun.

The Kentucky State graduate and former businesswoman campaigned, the opposition says, with the political weight of her elder brother, the former Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra behind her. A political novice, prior to becoming prime minister, she had never run for office. And, as head of the Pheu Thai Party, she won with a populist campaign, like her brother.

Thaksin Shinawatra is a hugely divisive figure in Thailand and was ousted from power in a bloodless coup in 2006. He now lives in exile in Dubai to avoid being jailed in his home country for corruption. But his close ties to Prime Minister Yingluck has led the opposition to suggest that Thaksin, though his sister, is still having an influence on the country's politics.

Clashes between pro and anti-Thaksin supporters in Thailand have led, in recent years, to large-scale protests, unrest, and a bloody crackdown by the military in 2010. An ongoing divide that the prime minister has pledged to reconcile.

This week on "Talk Asia", we sit down with Thailand's prime minister in Bangkok to discuss the challenges she faces just months after taking office.


HANCOCKS: Prime Minister, welcome to "Talk Asia". First of all, I'd like to start with current events. Obviously, your country is in the grip of one of its worst natural disasters.


HANCOCKS: The floods are the worst for more than half a century. Now, there are still some areas, obviously, of Bangkok and in the Northeast and West that are still flooded. When will these waters completely recede, do you think?

SHINAWATRA: I think in the overall, it should be before New Year. But by the time, right now, we try to work really closely with the way of the water management. So we try to drain it, the water, via on the East and the West side to the river. So this is the way that we try to manage these to less damage. And, along the way, we also need to drain using some of the accelerate like pump water or do something - make the canal - is good for our flow to the river. So this is a way that I think we tried some of the West side, I think should be finished before New Year.

HANCOCKS: Now, over the past couple of months, I've spoken to a number of the residents who have been suffering from these floods.


HANCOCKS: And there is a sense of anger amongst some and frustration that they feel that their neighborhoods have been sacrificed to save the five star hotels in the central business district. Can you understand this anger?

SHINAWATRA: Yes, I think of course that I do understand the painful of the people who suffering with the flooding have. But also in term of all of the country, we need to save in term of the financial zone or economic zone. But anyway that we also try to help people who suffering from the flooding by using the water pump to accelerate the water and try to work very closely with the Royal irrigation to drain it - all the water. And also we also have some package to helping people along the way. We need to keep two-way communication to talk to them.

HANCOCKS: What help and compensation will be given to the people who suffered? I mean, there's millions across Thailand who have suffered in this.

SHINAWATRA: So we have several package to help them. Like our first on the monetary like helping them on some of the certain (ph) by ships (ph) or suffering with the flooding and helping them on the compensation with the package of the housing damage. And also that we also work other way around like using some of the technicians who help them to rebuild the house and also fix the electric city or the car or the vehicle. And, in term of financial, we helping them on the tax-free and specialists on the loaning - loaning system. And finally, that need to improve with the feeling, because I think we need to recover them to bring back of the feeling and start up with the new life as fast as we can.

HANCOCKS: Now, Prime Minister, there have been some critics, obviously, of the way that you and your government have handled this situation.


HANCOCKS: Opposition politicians saying that you don't have the experience to deal with such a disaster. And the government, at times, has been very slow to respond or underestimated the disaster. How would you respond to that?

SHINAWATRA: I think, in fact, that on the initial disaster, of course that in term of the positive will be difficult. I think I work on allowed (ph) across (ph). And I think this way that this time is the worst of the initial disaster in Thailand and the case that happened - about 27 serious of the Pathum (ph) Province that's one third of Thailand. So of course that I think I have to apologize on inconvenience of the how we handle because we - in Thailand we never handle with this kind of crisis managing before then. And this level that I think we don't expect to get this problem. And since, also, the last why that since I took over from the office, the water already happen. And all the water in the dam - dam level already fall. So that's why quite difficult to handle. But we will try my best to handle and to cope with all the problems.

HANCOCKS: Looking forward, then - clearly flooding and water management has become one of the defining issues of your premiership, whether you wanted it to or not, it is the most important issue that people are looking at now. What are you doing to try and make sure that a similar situation doesn't happen next year?

SHINAWATRA: Thank you to ask me this question. Because we saw the suffering of the Thai people. I think we won't allow this case to reoccur in Thailand. And we will learn from this experience - past experience. And we announce that we have the two committees. The first committee that will talk about strategic water management system, which will capture all the problems that we face today and to find the new way of redesign. So we take this as the opportunity for Thailand to redesign the front (ph) way or redesign the water resource management.

Also, another committee that we announced that because of the damage of the disaster, so we have to make sure on the economics security and the full security - this is the problem that all the (INAUDIBLE) are talking about this. Also, we have one policy to redesign the water management system. So continue this very seriously and to make sure to build a country back to Thailand.


HANCOCKS: Coming up - Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra opens up about her relationship with her brother and former Thai leader, Thaksin.

SHINAWATRA: One thing that I can't avoid the fact I'm Thaksin's younger sister. So this is (INAUDIBLE)




THAKSIN SHINAWATRA, THAILAND FORMER PRIME MINISTER: I willing to go back urgently if it were to be that I would be part of the solution.


HANCOCKS: If I can ask about your brother, the former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, now he was ousted in a political coup 2006. Currently living in Dubai after being sentenced to two years in prison for corruption. Did he have an influence on you when you were deciding whether to run for prime minister?

SHINAWATRA: No. I think I have to run with my cabinet team and all the situation in Thailand moving really fast. So it would not be by myself. So I can't run up until now.

HANCOCKS: Your foreign minister said that Thaksin may be given back his Thai passport within a month. This was obviously taken away from him by the previous administration. Is this correct?

SHINAWATRA: I don't know exactly, because this will be the handle of our Ministry of Foreigns Department to be handle. But anyway that I still be stick in the principal since I announce to the public that we will stick with the by of the rule of law. And everything must to be equal and fairness to everyone. So I will stick with this. So I won't be involved in this case. So will be on their own judgment and decision.

HANCOCKS: But this obviously gives your opposition plenty of ammunition. They can say, "The Prime Minister is helping her brother". And there will be cries of nepotism. How can you argue against that?

SHINAWATRA: I think as long as they using the principals they can know the answer. So whatever they decide - so I will respect what they decide. Whether keep or not, that case the passport, so I think I will respect what other Foreigns Ministry has been decide.

HANCOCKS: Now critics have been saying that you are in this position of prime minister because of your brother. There have been critics who have said that he is pulling the strings from Dubai. What do you say to that?

SHINAWATRA: Of course that we are in the free democracy, so people can give their opinion. People can speak out. But for me, I still handle and I still be on myself to make decision for the country. And not be handle and do as the leadership, so I don't think people will allow me to be this person and get clear mandate from election.

HANCOCKS: How much do you consult with your brother on political matters? Obviously, he has a lot of experience.

SHINAWATRA: I think maybe don't say as he consult, because the consult - because everything will handled in Thailand. But we won't deny of the good idea of good experience, because my brother, also he has very good experience in the past and several campaign that has been successful. So we can get this information. But decision and what type that we will use will depend on our cabinet.

HANCOCKS: Now, your business background is obviously very closely linked to your brother, Thaksin. You were CEO of the telecoms company, AIS, which Thaksin founded. You were director of Manchester City, the British football club, which your brother bought. And also CEO of SC Asset Corp, which is a property developer that Thaksin's children are majority owners in. Can you understand why people believe that you have not emerged from your brother's shadow? And how do you prove that you have?

SHINAWATRA: One thing that I can't avoid the fact, because I am Thaksin's youngest sister. So this is cannot avoid. But the experience in the past from the business, of course, that because I'm the sister. So this might - some people might think related. But all the - most of the people are in the profit company. So I don't think all the shareholder will allow me if I just do for the family. Because you also understand on the principal, everything that's good government and tendency of the Stock Exchange, our company. So have to be official enough to run a business.

HANCOCKS: There was speculation at one point that your government was considering putting Thaksin Shinawatra's name forward for the list of pardons that would be given by the King of Thailand. Now, that hasn't happened. Did you consider it?

SHINAWATRA: First of all, that he is absent. So this is just a normal process that they running every year. But people might criticize me for is that this (ph) happen and I think the Justice Minister already has been announced officially. And since, in the beginning, doesn't have any - my brother name list - in the list. And of course that in the process must to be the committee. And the same way back to the principal - I won't do anything that illegal. I will do everything by apply with all the legal and apply with the rule of law. And the main important thing that I have to be fairness to everyone, not just only one person.

HANCOCKS: If your brother does come back to Thailand - if the pardon happens, if he receives his passport - would you consider stepping down at the next election and letting him run again?

SHINAWATRA: I think we - I get clear mandate from Thai people. So Thai people must be decide. So I think they decide should be by democracy election way. It's not me just only, easily (ph) by step (ph) way (ph). So I think I get the mandate from the people, so it was myself to help country. So this is important.


HANCOCKS: Coming up - We find out how Thailand's first female prime minister is using her femininity to her advantage.




HANCOCKS: Now, during the campaign trail, obviously, some of the rallies that you went to - there were like 10,000 people there. How important was it for you that there were a lot of people - that you got to speak to people, rather than just be a politician on a stage who's dictating their policies?

SHINAWATRA: We need to talk to them with the friendly. People meet me sincerely meet together instead of just reaching (ph) the politics. Thailand playing the politics for so long and finally Thai people won't get any results or now Thai people expect someone to manage and right (ph) all the benefits to the country. And how we can cross the camp of the policy of the Thai people.

HANCOCKS: Now, obviously, with your political family as well, what sort of grounding did this give you in politics? Also being the youngest of nine children, obviously all quite politically motivated. What sort of grounding did this give you for this job.

SHINAWATRA: The better to keep me to understand of the nature of politics. So we can understand how we handle.

HANCOCKS: So obviously in a very male-dominated world of politics here in Thailand, brining the female touch can make a big difference.

SHINAWATRA: Female can understand more detail and really care for the consequence and understand all the process. But male might think about in term of (INAUDIBLE). We need to combine. So I think I understand this point.

HANCOCKS: Now I notice this wall, Prime Minister, and they are all men. How is it working in such a male-dominated political climate?

SHINAWATRA: So sometime the expectation of the female by a high expectation. Because peoples think that female were weak in term of, like, of the physically and compared to the men. But I think this time of Thailand, I will use this - the weak point to be strength to use as the female to soft with everyone and try to build up the reconciliation and the peaceful back to Thailand.

HANCOCKS: Now, looking at your campaign to become Prime Minister, you clearly have a tremendous amount of business experience. You have less political experience and you also said that you didn't want a political career up until January of this year. What was the late change of heart? Why did you decide to run?

SHINAWATRA: My experience and of course that people might think that I don't have any politics experience. But I think the politicians family since my dad, my father, and everybody are politicians. So I learn and I understand the nature of politics. Only one way that I didn't (INAUDIBLE) to be the expert at the politicians. But this time, I do believe that this Asian people need someone who be who running the country with the management and how to handle the problems. So this is the key important more than just only be politician and having been life of the resolve to Thailand or to Thai people.

HANCOCKS: Now, you are the youngest of nine children in a very political family. Was anything else other than politics ever talked about at the dinner table?

SHINAWATRA: Just the normal people that since you can imagine that nine people all-together and what they want to talk. But definitely want to ask how well they are and share the pain and the happiness together with the family. And make sure to help them.

HANCOCKS: So it wasn't always politics?


HANCOCKS: Piecing together a fractured society and reconciliation was one of the main pledges as well. And one of the reasons that you were elected. Obviously, that's no longer the main issue because of the floods. But how do you get back to trying to reconcile this country, which has been through so much, politically over the past few years?

SHINAWATRA: Well, reconciliation - we already endorse the committee by Dr. Kanit Nakorn who has - who is the head that endorse by last government from Ex-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, so he will run the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. So we will wait for this result and this reconciliation and I won't enroll in this case - just get the recommendation and do the thing that government can support this committee to make sure that this committee has been neutral and fair for everyone.

HANCOCKS: Now the Thai political scene has been unstable at best in recent years. There have been six prime ministers in six years. Do you think you can last longer than one year?

SHINAWATRA: I think last long or not last long is depend on people who give me the mandate. I believe that Thai people will give me a chance to prove myself as the position of Prime Minister of Thailand, who get the clear mandate from Thai people.

HANCOCKS: Prime Minister, thank you very much.

SHINAWATRA: Thank you very much.