BANGKOK — Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Sunday became the first woman to head the kingdom’s defense ministry in a cabinet reshuffle that gives her more influence over the powerful army that ousted her brother.
As defence minister Yingluck claims a seat on Thailand’s defence council which appoints army top brass in a nation where the military has carried out numerous coups, the most recent toppling her brother Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.
The leadership of the army is due to undergo an annual reshuffle in October, although it is unclear whether its current chief will retain his position despite approaching the end of the customary three-year term.
Speaking before the reshuffle was announced, Yuthasak Sasiprapha, who was appointed deputy defence minister, said Yingluck would not cause problems with the military.
“She can do it, she can work with the army,” he told reporters.
Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanjana said the prime minister had considered the reshuffle “carefully and “selected suitable people” for cabinet posts.
The hugely influential army is the official protector of the revered monarchy and is also seen by many as the guarantor of the establishment.
It draws a large budget and is fighting a rebellion in the kingdom’s southernmost provinces which has killed more than 5,700 people in nearly a decade.
But the army has also been a key player in the nation’s tumultuous political history.
Thailand has been plagued by political divisions and sometimes violent street protests involving so-called ‘Red Shirt’ supporters of Yingluck — and her self-exiled brother Thaksin — and ‘Yellow Shirts’ who support the pro-establishment opposition.
Thaksin was ousted by an army coup in 2006, prompting years of bitter political jousting that has at times spilled into bloodshed.
The country is still recovering from street protests by Red Shirts in 2010 that culminated in a bloody crackdown by security forces.
About 90 people were killed and nearly 1,900 wounded in a series of clashes in May 2010 between demonstrators and security forces.
Courts have ruled that some protesters were killed by security forces, leading to charges of murder being laid against then-Prime Minister and current opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva — accusations he strenuously denies.
No army officials have been charged over the unrest.
Several protest groups have sprung up in recent months against the government of Yingluck and the influence of her brother, who is seeking a return to the kingdom but faces jail over corruption charges.
On Saturday the Bangkok Post predicted the move would allow Yingluck — much pilloried as Thaksin’s stooge — to tighten her grip on power, and indicated that she enjoyed a “rock-solid relationship” with army top brass.
Elsewhere in the reshuffle, outspoken former deputy prime minister and staunch Thaksin loyalist Chalerm Yubamrung was downgraded to head the labour ministry.
Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom was axed after facing weeks of flak over a controversial scheme guaranteeing prices to rice farmers that caused the kingdom to lose its place as the world’s top exporter of the commodity last year.