Thailand Elects its First Female Prime Minister

yingluck_victory.jpgDespite reports of irregularities, confrontations, and all the other drama that comes with an election process in a nation of 67 million people, tonight early results from Thailand’s general election indicate a crushing victory for the opposition Pheu Thai Party with about 264 out of 500 seats in parliament, making Yingluck Shinawatra the first female prime minister of Thailand. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva conceded the defeat on national television, and extended his congratulations to his opponents.

When I started working with the Red Shirt movement one year ago, it is hard to look back at everything that has transpired without feeling amazed about the transformation that has taken place. A year ago, our movement had been written off as finished. Our leaders were in prison, on the run, or silenced by the strict conditions attached to their bail. Our organization had been disrupted by mass arrests, military intimidation, as well as the censorship of our main publications, radio stations, and television channel. Worst of all, the government’s campaign of psychological warfare appeared to have persuaded the public that the massacre of ninety-two people was not only justified, but somehow not nearly as tragic than the loss of a few buildings.

People were so scared to talk about the killings they witnessed, and terrified to publicly show disagreement with the government (a fact demonstrated by the solitary one-man protests of Sombat Boonngamanong to hang a banner at Ratchaprasong).

A year later, we celebrate a stunning victory for our movement. Theelection result is all the more stunning when we consider the odds PheuThai was up against. Even with the full backing of the state, theassistance of the army, the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousandsof voters, the control of the media, the jailing of our candidates, andthe disqualification of dozens of our leading politicians, the Democratswere no match for a party, and a movement, that have inspired andempowered millions of Thai citizens.

Far more than for our movement, however, this election is a historicvictory for Thailand. A year ago, with the country under emergency rule,the people’s freedoms at their lowest point in decades, Thailand’scommitment to democracy and the rule of law appeared in doubt. Today,the Thai people have yet again dispelled those doubts by standing up tointimidation and fear mongering. Their message was clear– enough coups,enough censorship, enough judicial meddling, enough massacres, andenough lies. On this day, we stand in awe of the people’s resolve,wisdom, and pride. Thailand’s leaders, yellow and red, elected andunelected, have much to learn from the people they are so privileged toserve.

Our joy, hope, and renewed confidence in Thailand’s future istempered by the sadness we feel about the loss of those who gave theirlives to put the country back on the path to democracy. As we said onMay 19, their sacrifice will never be forgotten, for the loss of theirlives has given ours new meaning. But to those who died or suffereddebilitating injuries last year we owe much more than our appreciationand gratitude. What we owe the victims of last year’s crackdown is thefulfillment of their vision for a better, more democratic country– onewhere no one else has to die to earn recognition and respect for theirbasic rights.

A few days ago, Human Rights Watch issued a statement urging bothmajor parties to “make human rights a priority.” We could not agreemore. The next government owes it to its own martyrs to find out thetruth about past abuses, no matter who was in power at the time theabuses took place. This process should be undertaken not out of anythirst for revenge, but rather because almost every one of thosevictims, whatever their political affiliation, religious creed, orideology, was a citizen of Thailand. That ought to count for something.More difficult still, the next government must dedicate itself todismantling the system of impunity that makes the abuses systematic andtheir commission unremitting. Transforming Thailand into a first worldnation requires more than the improvement of its physicalinfrastructure, the expansion of economic opportunity, and theenhancement of standards of living. It requires the consolidation ofreal democracy, the institutionalization of the rule of law, and theelevation of individual freedom above any consideration of partisanadvantage or practical expedience.

As exhilarating as this day has been, this election only marks thefirst step towards the fulfillment of these ideals. Years from now, whenthe history of this political crisis is written, we can only hope thatthis election will be seen as a turning point in Thailand’s politicaldevelopment. Hopefully, this will be remembered as the moment whenThailand began to shake off the idea that “reconciliation,” as ThongchaiWinichakul describes it, requires “the sacrifice of justice and thesuspension of the rule of law that could incriminate the ruling eliteand their networks,” and started to build a sustainable peace on alasting foundation of justice, fairness, and accountability. It’s ourjob to make that kind of history.