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What should Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s policy priorities be?

Question submitted by Georgia Ossorguine, from Grace Church School, April 22, 2013

Answered by: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia

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Yingluck Shinawatra was elected prime minister of Thailand in July 2011. She has so far achieved the most important thing in Thailand today, which is preserving a fragile peace between different interest groups and political sides. These are generally divided into the "yellow shirts," who tend to be wealthier and more centered around the monarchy and the Democrat Party, and the "red shirts," who tend to be less wealthy, more from upcountry, and centered around the political party started by her brother Thaksin, a former prime minister who was overthrown in a military coup. And, by launching peace talks with a southern insurgent group, she has brought the concept of some degree of southern Thai autonomy into the mainstream discussion.

Still, Yingluck has failed to focus on several critical priorities. For one, she has done little to improve Thailand's woeful education system. The majority of Thai students remain focused on rote learning, and lack the English skills and creativity that Thailand needs to move into higher-value industries. In the long run,Thailand cannot survive only on lower-value industries and tourism powering its economy. Second, although Yingluck has at least initiated negotiations with some southern insurgents, it remains unclear whether the people her government is dealing with have the power to really end the insurgency. Her approach to the south must become more comprehensive, including real and detailed discussions of southern autonomy, and she must also strive to negotiate with as wide a range of southern insurgents that she can.

Finally, the prime minister should focus on reforming the country's draconian "lese majeste" law (which in theory protects the monarchy) and online speech laws, which have been criticized by international human rights organizations as some of the harshest in the world. These laws have led to hundreds if not thousands of Thais (and foreigners) being locked up for free speech, and are increasingly used as political weapons, since the laws are being interpreted in an impossibly broad manner and since anyone (not only the actual monarch himself) can file a lese majeste charge against anyone else.