27 August 2017

“She is a former prime minister and some officials might have helped her...”

Democracy Monument

Former prime pinister Yingluck Shinawatra left Thailand this week, shortly before the Supreme Court was due to deliver its verdict in her trial for dereliction of duty. Yingluck had been due in court on 25th August, though her lawyer claimed that she was too ill to attend. The court rejected that claim, as no medical certificate was presented, and the reading of the verdict was delayed until 27th September.

Announcing the delay, the court released a written statement saying: “the defendant may attempt to abscond and therefore the Court duly issued an arrest warrant”. It soon became clear that Yingluck had indeed absconded, crossing the border into Cambodia and then flying to Singapore. How or when she left Thailand has not yet been established, though it seems that she left at the last minute, only a day or two before the verdict was to be delivered.

The case stems from a rice subsidy scheme she spearheaded in 2011. Her government bought rice from farmers at up to 50% above the market rate, intending to withhold it from the world market and thus drive up the price. The result, however, was that other countries in the region increased their rice exports. Pheu Thai was left with vast stockpiles of rice that it could not sell, and that it was unable to pay for. Yingluck was charged with implementing the loss-making scheme and failing to prevent the corruption associated with it.

Throughout the trial, Yingluck had defended the policy in court, and had pledged to accept the verdict. On 11th July, she told the Bangkok Post: “I’ll be there in court to the end.” (The Post previously interviewed her in 2014, though that interview was later retracted.) Her self-exile is all the more surprising as she seemingly avoided detection when she crossed the border. On this point, deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan initially told the media: “She is a former prime minister and some officials might have helped her if she is running away.” Later, the government denied this, with one source implausibly suggesting that she had fled in a speedboat.

Her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, also left the country suspiciously easily during a Supreme Court trial. (He was given permission to visit Beijing for the Olympics, and didn’t come back.) He was convicted in absentia in 2008, and his assets were seized in 2010. The coups of 2006 and 2014 were attempts by Thailand’s traditional power brokers, the military, to terminate the Shinawatra family’s political influence.

The eventual verdict in Yingluck’s case is a foregone conclusion, given that she has already been removed from office, retroactively impeached, and fined the equivalent of $1 billion. Yingluck was either facing a jail sentence after a politicised trial, or a life in exile as a fugitive from justice. Her decision to leave is arguably the ideal scenario for the military, as she would have been regarded as a martyr by her red-shirt supporters if she had been convicted and jailed.