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Thai Ex-Leader Yingluck Shinawatra's Flight Eases Risk for Junta

27 Aug 2017 3:57 pm
By James Hookway 

BANGKOK -- Thailand's military junta might have got the result it wanted when former leader Yingluck Shinawatra fled the country before a court could hand down a verdict in her negligence trial last week.

Her flight freed the generals from the risk that she could be viewed as a martyr if she were convicted and jailed for allegedly mismanaging a botched multibillion-dollar rice subsidy. Ms. Yingluck, 50 years old and the mother of a young son, was facing up to 10 years in prison for a crime she says she didn't commit. Thousands of supporters, many of whom benefited from the subsidy before her government was ousted in 2014, converged on Bangkok to hear the verdict last Friday, matched by as many if not more police.

While the prospect of mass disturbances appears to have been averted, many people here say the political forces Ms. Yingluck and her older brother Thaksin Shinawatra unleashed with their policies favoring the poor will continue to pose a threat to Thailand's militarist old guard. And the turmoil that has hamstrung what was once one of Asia's fastest-growing "tiger" economies will likely continue.

"The Shinawatras left a crucial imprint upon Thailand of waking up the political aspirations of Thailand's rural majority with the implementation of welfare policies. Rural voters are not likely to forget this," said Paul Chambers, an expert on the country's politics and lecturer at the College of Asean Studies at Thailand's Naresuan University.

People familiar with the military's thinking said the junta had grown wary of mass protests erupting if Ms. Yingluck were jailed. They feared a repeat of the rioting that racked Bangkok after a 2006 coup ousted Mr. Thaksin, who then fled the country to evade a corruption conviction.

One person close to the situation said the junta aimed to gradually increase the pressure on Ms. Yingluck until she too broke and fled. It isn't yet clear where Ms. Yingluck has gone; people close to her political party said only that she had left. Her brother Mr. Thaksin spends much of his time in Dubai. Ms. Yingluck couldn't be reached for comment.

Another person close to the Shinawatra camp suggested that Ms. Yingluck's decision to leave was left to almost the last minute after it became clear there was a very real risk of her being jailed. Previously she had said in interviews that she intended to pursue the case to the end.

"It's better for all sides if she just disappeared," this person said. "The sight of her going to prison could set the country on fire."

In the short term the country's junta will gain from Ms. Yingluck's exit from the political stage, Mr. Chambers at Naresuan University said. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who ousted Ms. Yingluck's government three years ago, is already making the most of the situation, suggesting that her decision to skip the court verdict revealed everything there was to know about the case.

"If she's not guilty she should stay and fight," Gen. Prayuth told reporters.

The Shinawatras' political machine isn't finished. The family has dominated politics here since the turn of the century after tailoring economic policies to appeal to the poorer segments of Thai society who had largely been ignored. A one-time telecommunications billionaire, Mr. Thaksin introduced cheap credit and health-care programs to help boost living standards and remains the only Thai prime minister to have been re-elected.

After he fled the country following the 2006 coup, Ms. Yingluck was elected in a landslide and quickly put in place a rice subsidy that involved paying farmers up to double the market price for their crops.

The scheme was wildly popular among farmers, who enjoyed a surge in living standards. It helped the economy, too, for a time. Around 40% of Thailand's workforce depends on agriculture and Ms. Yingluck repeatedly defended the policy in court as a way of redistributing wealth for the benefit of all Thais. Her government intended to pay for the program by withholding its new stocks of rice from the global market, steering prices higher.

Instead, India entered the market after a long absence and Vietnam expanded production. Thailand fell from its position as the world's top rice exporter, and the government was left with vast stockpiles that it had to sell at loss. Officials estimate that the program cost Thailand at least $15 billion, and the army and its allies in Bangkok's royalist establishment used the shortfall as an argument for removing Ms. Yingluck as a political force.

Last October the junta ordered Ms. Yingluck to pay nearly $1 billion in civil damages. The government began freezing some of her bank accounts in July.

In the days leading up to the verdict in the criminal case, a person close to Ms. Yingluck's camp said signs were growing that she would also be jailed.

"That couldn't be allowed to happen," this person said.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 27, 2017 11:57 ET (15:57 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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