BANGKOK: Thailand’s first female primeminister Yingluck Shinawatra faces court Tuesday at the start of a negligence trial which could see her jailed for a decade and deliver a hammer blow to the political dominance of her family.
It is the latest legal move against Yingluck—sister of fugitive billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra—whose administration was toppled in a military coup nearly a year ago.
She is accused of criminal negligence over a populist but economically disastrous rice subsidy scheme, which paid farmers in the rural Shinawatra heartland twice the market rate for their crops.
Yingluck is not accused of corruption but of failing to prevent alleged graft within the program, which cost billions of dollars and galvanized the protests that eventually felled her elected government leading to last May’s coup.
Thailand’s military-appointed parliament impeached Yingluck in January over the scheme, a move which banned her from politics for five years.
But the criminal case could see her jailed for up to a decade, an outcome that could ruin any chance of an imminent political comeback if and when the military eventually hand back power.
Analysts say the trial is the latest move by Thailand’s military rulers to neuter the Shinawatra clan since they seized power.
“This trial is being brought in order to permanently remove Yingluck from the political scene,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.
“But placing her behind bars—a friendly, female ex-prime minister—would make her look like a martyr,” he told AFP.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai politics expert at Kyoto University in Japan, said convicting Yingluck risked enraging the Shinawatra’s “Red Shirt” support base, who have largely remained quiescent since the coup.
“Putting her in jail may unnecessarily resurrect the Red Shirts and force them to come out and fight against the NCPO,” he said, referring to the junta’s official name, the National Council for Peace and Order.
Play nice Thaksin
However Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Thai politics expert at Chulalongkorn University, believes the military intend to use the threat of Yingluck’s prosecution as a way to keep the Shinawatra clan subdued, rather than push for an actual conviction.
“The criminal and other charges against her will be bogged down in red tape as long as she and other forces loyal to her brother Thaksin behave and play nice. If they agitate and mobilise against the coup, then the noose will tighten on her,” he told AFP.
Yingluck herself has defended the controversial rice scheme as one which “lifted the quality of life for rice farmers” in the poor northeast of a country where subsidies to farmers have long been a cornerstone of Thai politics.
“As prime minister I was always honest and served the Thai people, who voted for my government. I have not done anything wrong at all,” she wrote in a Facebook statement in February after the charges against her were first announced.
The army takeover last year was the latest twist in a decade of turbulent politics in Thailand.
Thaksin, who was toppled by a previous coup in 2006 and now lives in self-exile to avoid jail on a corruption charge, sits at the heart of the political rupture.