February 12, 2016 / 11:55 AM / 2 years ago

Turning over new leaf: Ousted Thai PM picks lettuce for the cameras

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra opened her home to foreign media on Friday in what analysts said was a bid to boost her family’s profile ahead of a possible election next year.

Ousted former Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra holds up a head of lettuce from her vegetable garden while she receives foreign media at her house in Bangkok, Thailand, February 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

It was Yingluck’s first press conference for foreign journalists since her government was overthrown by the military in 2014 and took place in defiance of the junta’s ban on political activity.

Yingluck strolled through the vegetable garden at her mansion in northern Bangkok, pausing to pick some lettuce for the cameras in what she said was a “simple get together” with no agenda.

But Kan Yuenyong, an analyst at the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank, said the family was laying the groundwork for a 2017 election campaign.

“What is simpler than a Yingluck in her garden presenting herself as a housewife and one of the people?” he said.

    Yingluck, Thailand’s first female prime minister and sister of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, swept to power in 2011. Shinawatra-backed parties have won every general election since 2001.

In a country where the military has banned political activity, the event was nothing if not political, said analysts, and an extension of a publicity campaign Thaksin and Yingluck are ramping up to reconnect with supporters.

    The Shinawatra family and the Puea Thai Party it backs are despised by Thailand’s military-backed royalist elite but they remain hugely popular in their traditional powerbase in the country’s north and northeast.

The generals running the country have promised a 2017 election but critics, including political parties, fear that a military-backed draft constitution will weaken their influence and consolidate the military’s wide-ranging powers.

“We need to keep quiet and give the junta a chance,” she said, adding that she hopes the government will “do as it promised” and hold a general election.

    Yingluck said she spends her days tending to her vegetables, visiting temples and meeting friends. She regularly speaks to her exiled brother, Thaksin, who fled abroad in 2008 to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.

“We were taught to be close through good times and bad,” she said.

    Neither Shinawatra can run for office but they will likely boost any Puea Thai Party campaign.

“I think I can do more than watering plants,” said Yingluck.

She was banned from politics until 2020 after a military-appointed assembly found her guilty of mismanaging a multi-billion-dollar rice subsidy scheme.

Yingluck faces criminal charges over the scheme that could result in a 10 year jail term.

    She maintains her innocence.

“We’ll try to prove ourselves to the court and to the public,” she said.

    Many analysts think Puea Thai Party will still win the next general election.

    “Thaksin and Yingluck don’t have to do much,” said Kan.

“They just have to present themselves to the public and some might think that during the Shinawatra administration Thailand was more modern, especially compared to the current military administration which harks back to the 70s or 80s.”

Editing by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Nick Macfie

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