Former PM Yingluck to face trial over Thai rice scheme
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Thailand's Supreme Court on Thursday ordered former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra to face trial for criminal negligence over a failed rice subsidy scheme in place while she was in power. Yingluck was ousted by the military in May last year.
"The panel [of judges] has decided that this case falls within our authority," said Judge Veeraphol Tangsuwan at Bangkok's Supreme Court, adding that the first hearing will be held on May 19.
If convicted, the charges could see the former premier jailed for up to a decade. Yingluck did not attend the Thursday court session but will be legally obliged to attend the hearing in May.
Yingluck was retroactively impeached and banned from politics for five years in January after the military-backed National Legislative Assembly found her guilty of dereliction of duty for failing to prevent widespread corruption relating to the rice scheme, which saw farmers in the rural heartland paid twice the market rate for their crops.
Shortly after her conviction, anti-corruption Commissioner Wicha Mahakhun told lawmakers that Yingluck was to blame for the graft. “Despite the warnings against it on several occasions, the prime minister, who should have stopped the damage, instead insisted on running the programme until the damage became even more devastating.”
Supporters say the rice programme was intended to benefit Thai farmers and reduce income inequality in the country. The policy propelled Yingluck to power in 2011.
In a statement on her Facebook page published shortly after the ruling on Thursday, Yingluck defended the controversial programme as one that "lifted the quality of life for rice farmers" and said the charges against her were politically motivated.
"Throughout my time as prime minister I worked honestly and I did my duties correctly according to the provisions of the constitution and the law in every respect," she wrote.
"The rice policy was one that the public trusted me to carry out."
Toppling a dynasty
As Thailand's first female prime minister, Yingluck is also the sister of exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. The Shinawatras, or parties allied to them, have won every Thai election since 2001.
Yingluck’s supporters see the Supreme Court’s decision to bring her to trial as the latest step by the royalist, military establishment to eradicate the influence of her powerful political family – in particular that of her brother, who was toppled in a 2006 coup and convicted of corruption in absentia in 2008. He now lives in Dubai to avoid being jailed.
Thaksin’s influence in Thai politics remains significant, however, with parties allied to the Shinawatras still commanding loyalty in the rural north, as well as among urban working class voters, for their populist policies.
But the billionaire telecoms tycoon and former policeman is loathed by much of the country's royalist elite, which is largely backed by the military and judiciary.
"The conflict between the elite, or the royalist military establishment, and the Shinawatras is far from over," said Kan Yuenyong, an analyst at the Siam Intelligence Unit think tank.
He said the military had to "tread carefully" or the latest court case could become a catalyst for more protests.
The decision to prosecute Yingluck will "raise the political temperature" in the country, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic at Kyoto University. He said activists might be inspired to mobilise over what they see as the “politicisation” of the courts.
Thai political analyst Puangthong Pawakapan of Chulalongkorn University said the charges against Yingluck were a case of history repeating itself. Multiple legal cases, including on charges of terrorism, were also brought against her brother prior to his flight.
"It's quite clear the elite want to force out the Shinawatras from politics," Puangthong told AFP.
The military takeover last year was the latest coup d’état in Thailand's turbulent political landscape, which has seen 11 previous military coups since 1932 as well as seven attempted coups.
Thailand’s ruling junta has said it will hold fresh elections in early 2016, once reforms to tackle corruption and curb the power of political parties are codified in a new constitution.
But the draft charter has already raised deep concerns in the kingdom, and critics doubt whether it will be able to help bridge Thailand's deep political divisions.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)