- - Thursday, August 4, 2011

BANGKOK &mash; Parliament on Friday will elect Thailand’s first woman prime minister, who faces challenges in dealing with a hostile military that overthrew her brother in 2006 and crushed a pro-democracy insurrection last year.

In addition, Yingluck Shinawatra will be challenged in containing an Islamist separatist war waged by minority ethnic Malay-Thais in the south of this Buddhist-majority kingdom. More than 4,500 people have been killed in the conflict since 2004.

The stakes are high for Yingluck Shinawatra, a 44-year-old political newcomer, and for Thailand, one of the U.S.’s oldest allies in Southeast Asia and a key trading partner. China, which has been asserting its dominance in the region, has been courting Thailand in diplomatic and economic arenas.

Friday’s parliamentary vote is expected to be a formality because her political party and its coalition partners make up three-fifths of the lower house. After the vote, she must wait for an official endorsement from King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

She has begun awarding ministerial posts under the shadow of her older brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in self-exile in Dubai and is widely believed to be directing his sister’s administration.

“Cabinet selection is being worked out here in Thailand, and Thaksin and other members of the family have no involvement” in the process, she said Thursday in an effort to rebut opposition complaints.

Popular among Thailand’s poor, Thaksin Shinawatra became a rallying point last year in pro-democracy demonstrations led by “red shirt” protesters. Their nine-week rebellion in the heart of downtown Bangkok was quashed in a military crackdown that ended with 91 people dead and more than 1,000 injured.

Thaksin Shinawatra, who is evading a two-year prison sentence for corruption, also was a prominent feature of his sister’s campaign, which was tinged with an anti-military sentiment and all but his return if she won the election.

Her Puea Thai (For Thais) party won in a landslide last month, taking 265 of the 500 seats in the lower house of parliament. Her party’s slogan: “Thaksin Thinks, Puea Thai Acts.”

Thaksin Shinawatra has referred to his sister as his “clone” and has hinted at an “amnesty” for himself and his supporters who have been jailed or otherwise punished in the wake of the military coup that overthrew him.

Yingluck Shinawatra proposed a blanket amnesty policy during the campaign.

The Democrat Party of outgoing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has lodged an as yet unresolved complaint against Puea Thai, alleging that banned politicians were involved in its campaign, Agence France-Presse reported.

Now Yingluck Shinawatra aims to use her solid victory as a shield against any military’s attempts to destabilize her administration. The U.S.-trained military has toppled 18 governments since the 1930s.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s army has been unable to quell an Islamist insurgency in the country’s restive southern regions, despite decades of training by the U.S.

More than 5,000 jungle-based Islamists have used assassinations, arson attacks and homemade bombs to terrorize Buddhists and uncooperative Muslims into leaving the three Muslim-majority southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.

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