BANGKOK, Thailand -- Yingluck Shinawatra may become Thailand's first female prime minister next month, so Thais are focusing on her face, gender, inexperience and relationship to her "clone" brother, Thaksin, a popular premier who was overthrown by the U.S.-trained military in a bloodless 2006 coup.

But even if all goes well for Mrs. Yingluck in a nationwide election on July 3, her victory could create fresh strife in this troubled, Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation which is a non-NATO U.S. ally.

Thailand's top generals are concerned that her government would purge -- and possibly punish -- officers involved in toppling Thaksin Shinawatra, including current Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha who was promoted after helping to orchestrate the coup.

Mrs. Yingluck insists her goal is "reconciliation," but many people either do not believe her or worry that scores of current political and military leaders will be allowed to escape justice in a trade to exonerate her wealthy brother.

The government and military also oppose Mrs. Yingluck's scheme to grant "amnesty" to her brother so he can return from self-exile abroad where he is dodging a two-year prison sentence for a corrupt real estate deal involving his former wife.

The government seized $2 billion of Mr. Thaksin's assets after he profited from another financial deal, tax free, while in office.

"If it comes to pass that an amnesty law is needed, everyone must be pardoned, not just a single individual," Mrs. Yingluck said in a published interview when asked about her plans to pardon her brother.

The government expressed dismay at the call for a blanket amnesty, even if it includes officials linked to allegations of wrongdoing after the 2006 coup, because it would make a mockery of justice and apparently include imprisoned dissident "terrorists" who have not yet been put on trial.

The military and top government officials earlier awarded themselves amnesty for involvement in the 2006 putsch and its aftermath.

They also granted themselves amnesty for their actions when the army crushed a nine-week insurrection in Bangkok staged by up to 100,000 pro-democracy Red Shirt demonstrators, resulting in 91 people killed, most of them civilians, in April and May 2010.

The Red Shirts, officially titled the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, are still a potent force and many of them support Mrs. Yingluck's Puea Thai, or Party for Thais.

The Reds say they favor capitalism but want a redistribution of wealth, an end to the military's domination of politics, equal justice, and Mr. Thaksin's return.

Mr. Thaksin and his candidates won three previous elections, and their new slate of Puea Thai politicians may score enough votes to form a coalition government with smaller parties eager to share the spoils of power.

Thai media and analysts describe the election as a fascinating but dangerous fight between a "clone" and a "puppet".

Mr. Thaksin repeatedly described his sister as his "clone" who would implement his popular policies which include cheap health care, easy loans, big infrastructure projects and other tax-funded giveaways.

"Thaksin Thinks, Puea Thai Acts," is their party's election slogan.

"You have given me such a warm reception, but how much grander would it be if my brother came himself?" Mrs. Yingluck recently told 15,000 cheering supporters in northern Thailand's Chiang Mai city.

Born on June 21, 1967, Mrs. Yingluck gained a Master's degree in public administration from Kentucky State University and became a chief executive in her family's telecommunications and real estate businesses.

She has no direct political experience, but appears comfortable as a business manager.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva meanwhile enjoys the military's support after taking office in December 2008 and allowing them to crush the Reds' insurrection.

But Mr. Abhisit appears to be struggling in a tough race against Mrs. Yingluck because she is an attractive stand-in for Mr. Thaksin.

Hoping to emerge victorious in the election, Oxford-educated Mr. Abhisit has tried to shrug off a widespread perception that he is a "puppet" of the military after he appeared to give the generals a relatively free hand in procuring controversial, expensive weapons contracts.

People who vote for Mr. Abhisit "will get a government that works for the Thai people as a whole, not a government that will serve only one person," Mr. Abhisit told supporters, in a dig against Mr. Thaksin's political maneuvering.

"I have not yet decided who to vote for, because I have to study the issues," said one conservative Thai executive scrutinizing the choices.

"But I don't care who wins, if they can just bring peace," she said.

High prices for pork, chicken, cooking oil and eggs are also problems for many people.

Mr. Abhisit's Democrat Party depends on a coalition, but the Bhumjaithai Party -- the biggest group in his government -- said it would dump him and join Mrs. Yingluck if she could form a new government after the polls.

"We must be in the government, that is our only goal," said the Bhumjaithai Party's deputy leader, Transport Minister Sohpon Zarum.

"We don't care who will be the next premier. We have to be in the government," Mr. Sohpon said.

His desperate bid to remain in power, despite policy differences, stunned Thais who judged it as a shameless low for the party.

The Bhumjaithai Party's leader, Newin Chidchob, earlier supported Mr. Thaksin but turned against his candidates and joined Mr. Abhisit's coalition in 2008 -- and was rewarded with cabinet posts.

Many Thais fear an increase in bloodshed during the election campaigns, or a military coup before or after the polls to prevent Mrs. Yingluck from winning.

"No one wants to see Thailand turned into a bad Hollywood movie, with hysterical civilians breaking down the gates of the U.S. embassy hoping to jump on that last helicopter lifting off from the rooftop," wrote Bangkok Post columnist Voranai Vanijaka.

"It happened to our neighbors, it could happen to us," Mr. Voranai said.

Mrs. Yingluck is meanwhile drawing extensive coverage and public attention, proving that Mr. Thaksin still has some cards to play in his bid to return home without going to jail.

Thais have suddenly become quite vocal in debating the possibility of a woman being able to control this country's treacherous and often sleazy political chaos.

A female editor at the Bangkok Post questioned why Mrs. Yingluck's gender was an issue when more important concerns were at stake.

"Is she going to remind everyone she has a vajayjay [vagina] to get her way? Will she put a push-up bra on the economy to help boost it?" editor Sumati Sivasiamphai wrote in a satirical analysis.

"Maybe Abhisit could employ the same gender tactic as Yingluck? 'I will use my mighty penis to quash anyone who doesn't want reconciliation!' might make a good campaign slogan," according to Ms. Sumati.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is:

Asia Correspondent (Copyright 2011 Richard S Ehrlich)