US President Barack Obama on Saturday warmly praised Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra’s victory at the ballot box as “inspirational”, in a boost to her young leadership.
Thailand, a longstanding US ally, has been riven by political divisions that culminated in protests in Bangkok last year, during which more than 90 people died in clashes between the army and supporters of Yingluck’s brother Thaksin.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup but Yingluck, who Thaksin once described as his “clone”, was named Thailand’s first female prime minister after her Puea Thai party won a general election in July.
At a meeting on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit on the Indonesian island of Bali, Obama said he wanted to “extend congratulations to the prime minister” for an “inspirational election”.
The symbolism of Yingluck’s appearance alongside Obama is unlikely to be missed in Thailand, and his choice of words — which went well beyond standard diplomatic niceties — sends an unmistakable signal of support.
Parties led by or linked to Thaksin have won the last five general elections thanks to his huge support among the rural poor.
But the Bangkok elites, who have power bases in the judiciary, bureaucracy and military in a country that has seen 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932, despise him as authoritarian and a threat to the monarchy.
As well as Thaksin’s own military ouster, two of his allies have been removed from the premiership by the courts — one of them for being paid to host a cooking show on television — and two of the parties dissolved.
Days after this year’s poll, the defeated Democrat party launched a legal bid to have Puea Thai disbanded on the grounds that banned politicians such as Thaksin were involved in its campaign.
Since coming to power Yingluck has been sorely tested by Thailand’s worst flooding in decades, which has left almost 600 people dead and outer parts of the capital Bangkok inundated.
She has been heavily criticised over her government’s handling of the crisis, and the confusing information it has provided, with the army in contrast winning praise for its response.
“We will extend any assistance we can,” said Obama. “The US and Thailand are two of the oldest allies, with great friendship. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the victims of the flood.”
Yingluck thanked Obama for his co-operation.
Obama’s warm words come after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Bangkok this week, where she said she was reassured of Yingluck’s commitment to democracy in comments also seen as supportive of the government.
A US warship is in port in Thailand to help recovery efforts and Washington has pledged more than $10 million in flood aid.