- - Thursday, June 23, 2011

BANGKOK — The sister of Thailand’s disgraced former prime minister has set her sights on becoming its first female prime minister - and then initiating tribunals for the military’s deadly crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators last year.

Yingluck Shinawatra, who has never held elected office, has been leading in polls ahead of the July 3 nationwide election, and has based her campaign on the lingering grass-roots popularity of her self-exiled elder brother - former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a bloodless coup five years ago.

“If you love my brother, will you give his youngest sister a chance?” she routinely asks the crowds at her campaign events across the country, according to the Associated Press.

The answer is always a resounding “Yes.”

Mrs. Yingluck, who celebrated her 44th birthday on Tuesday, is a wealthy top executive in her family’s telecommunications and property businesses.

Her brother Thaksin is a billionaire telecommunications mogul dodging a two-year prison sentence for public corruption. He has called Mrs. Yingluck his “clone,” giving rise to speculation that her victory in parliamentary elections would enable his return to Thailand.

What’s more, Thailand's U.S.-trained military, which has staged 18 successful or attempted coups since the 1930s, is concerned that a parliamentary victory by Mrs. Yingluck would enable her to investigate the army’s 2006 coup that toppled her brother.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who assumed office in 2008, held a campaign rally Thursday at the Bangkok street intersection that thousands of anti-government Red Shirts had barricaded in spring 2010. His government’s quashing of the uprising ended with more than 90 dead and 1,500 wounded.

The prime minister said the rally would allow his Democrat Party to tell “the truth” about the two-month protests that paralyzed the heart of this Southeast Asian city, the AP reported.

“There has been one-sided criticism against the government and that [has] somewhat swayed the people,” Mr. Abhisit told reporters Wednesday.

“I’m confident people will open up for the speech and they would like to know [what happened last year] - it’s something that’s always on their minds.”

The tribunals that Mrs. Yingluck has proposed could blame Mr. Abhisit and the military for using snipers, armored personnel carriers and other specialized weapons against the Red Shirts.

“If there is evidence, then there must also be fair trials,” Thaksin said when asked about the government’s crackdown during a Der Spiegel magazine interview published this month.

Immunity from prosecution is the real game behind the campaign speeches on both sides.

After overthrowing Thaksin in 2006, the military cloaked itself in immunity from prosecution, and now it wants to keep its generals out of court.

The generals and Mr. Abhisit granted themselves additional immunity when they clamped much of Thailand under a “state of emergency” during and after the Red Shirts’ insurrection last year.

Thaksin also wants immunity, or “amnesty,” before he returns to Thailand.

Mrs. Yingluck has said that if she becomes prime minister, she will grant a blanket “amnesty” to several people, including her brother, and she is expected to return the $1.2 billion that the government seized from Thaksin’s accounts.

“During the past five years, it is obvious that the coup was unable to solve any problems,” Mrs. Yingluck told the Bangkok Post. “It only inflicted extreme pain on my family.”

Thai analysts warn that a blanket amnesty could provoke a violent backlash by anti-Thaksin generals, politicians and their supporters.

During a recent televised debate hosted by the BBC, Mr. Abhisit accused Thaksin and his candidates of wanting to “subvert the rule of law” by granting himself amnesty.

While the Reds tend to support Thaksin’s return, they also seek equal justice under the law, a redistribution of wealth and tax-funded assistance, especially for poor agricultural and industrial workers.

They sometimes cast their struggle as a class war between deserving Red “prai” - a feudal description of lower-class citizens - and a selfish “ammart,” or ruling elite, which includes Mr. Abhisit, the military, royalists and many rich politicians and businessmen.

The July 3 election is for 500 seats in parliament’s lower house, contested by several parties that want to form a coalition government. Some parties in Mr. Abhisit’s coalition have offered to switch their loyalty to Mrs. Yingluck if she wins.

All sides in the election offer similar polices, including low-cost health care, financial assistance for the poor, investment in big infrastructure projects, subsidized commodity prices, improvement in education and other tax-funded plans.

Regardless of who wins the election, no change is expected in foreign policy, investment or relations for Thailand - a Buddhist-majority, Southeast Asian nation that is a non-NATO ally of the United States.

Still, many Thais wonder whether the military will tolerate a Yingluck victory or will stage another coup if Mr. Abhisit is defeated after only 30 months in office.

“Reconciliation takes time to achieve,” said retired Maj. Gen. Sanan Kachornprasart, who helps lead a midsized political party in the ruling coalition.

“But if we don’t do anything at all, a civil war may erupt after the election. And this time around, the body count may be higher,” he recently told the Bangkok Post.