Yingluck Shinawatra rice trial: Thailand awaits the verdict

Yingluck stands trial for alleged criminal negligence. Will civil unrest follow?

by John Pennington, edited by Anne Hwarng

Thailand’s former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is currently on trial. She stands accused of criminal negligence for her role in the state’s costly rice subsidy scheme in 2014. Soon to provide her closing statement to the Supreme Court, she is to face jail, political exile, and financial penalties if she is found guilty.

Her supporters claim the case against her is politically motivated. They argue the ruling junta wants to destroy the Shinawatras’ power base. Troops will be deployed to keep order on July 21, when the final hearing is expected.

Whatever the outcome of Yingluck’s trial, unrest in the country is likely to follow. If found guilty, she may become the rallying point for an uprising against the junta. If found not guilty, the junta will have to face questions about its ability to govern effectively.

Yingluck and her supporters claim the trial is politically motivated

Three years after the scheme to pay farmers more than market price for their rice catapulted her into power, she was charged with criminal negligence. “In terms of the order, it is not right and it is not just,” Yingluck said when her assets were seized in 2016.

According to her supporters, the case against her is part of the junta’s ploy to reduce or eliminate the influence of the Shinawatras. Some experts agree. “It is par for the course of the military coup which was to put down the Thaksin challenge once and for all,” assessed Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University. “The military government would like Yingluck to go away and the Thaksin era to be extinguished,” he added.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin is Yingluck’s brother and the architect of the disastrous rice scheme. The junta ousted him in 2006. Yingluck herself says that by putting her on trial, the junta is attempting to undermine the populist movement that has been successful in every election since 2001.

The junta denies the claims and has thrown out allegations of intimidation

The junta claim they are not singling the Shinawatras out, and they maintain that the 2014 coup that sidelined Yingluck was necessary. They believe they had to act as protests against the then-leader (arising in part from the losses the rice policy incurred) threatened to get out of control.

Yingluck registered a complaint with the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office-Holders, claiming that the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) intimidated her witnesses and investigated them after they had testified.

“I therefore plead for justice,” she said. “If this keeps happening, nobody will dare testify for me as they fear charges.” The court threw out her petition saying the NACC operates independently and without influence.

Wide-ranging consequences of the trial

Yingluck faces a 10-year prison sentence, a political ban, and will have to pay a heavy fine if the court delivers a guilty verdict. A fine of around 35 billion baht (US$1 billion) would equate to roughly 20% of the losses the government incurred as a result of the rice scheme.

Unlike Thaksin, who fled rather than face a two-year jail sentence for his part in the Ratchadaphisek land case in 2008, Yingluck says she will stay in Thailand and accept justice. “I’m ready to face fate,” she said. This defiance in the face of adversity can be seen as shrewd political manoeuvring from an experienced operator.

In the event of a guilty verdict, imprisonment could see her political stock eventually rise and lay the foundations for a triumphant return on her release. A guilty verdict would also give Shinawatra supporters a rallying point to launch political attacks. Yingluck’s elder sister, Monthathip Kovitcharoenkul, or veteran Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan might lead the Pheu Thai Party in her absence.

“The public might rebel if they think she is being treated unfairly,” Yingluck’s former chief of staff Suranand Vejjajiva suggested. Supporters in the rural north and northeast will likely protest and provoke the current stable situation in Thailand.

A not guilty verdict is unlikely but will also have far-reaching effects

A not guilty verdict would be a huge blow for the junta. It would exonerate Yingluck while galvanising her support and the populist movement. The trial has already cost the junta a significant amount of money. It would threaten the junta’s hold on power while calls for a return to civilian-led democracy would grow louder.

Thaksin Shinawatra remains in self-imposed exile, but he still holds significant influence. Reportedly a close friend of the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, he could hold enough sway to affect the outcome of Yingluck’s trial. Still, with all nine members of the court previously delivering verdicts against Thaksin, it is hard to see how his relationship with the royal family will do his own dynasty any favours in this instance. Especially as critics believe Yingluck to be little more than Thaksin’s mouthpiece.

Whatever the verdict, whatever the sentence, chaos is the consequence

It is easy to see why Yingluck and her supporters believe the court to be partisan and biased against her. Similarly, most analysts and experts think a guilty verdict is on its way.

Whatever the verdict, and whatever the sentence, this case is a big test of the junta’s hold on power. A harsh sentence against Yingluck will lead to unrest in rural areas and make her a political martyr for her supporters. There may even be some appetite for rapprochement between her Pheu Thai Party and the Democrats in an anti-military coalition, further straining country-wide divisions.

Meanwhile, a not guilty verdict or a lenient sentence will weaken the junta’s position and strengthen the Shinawatras’. A country divided between many competing factions, Thailand experienced 13 coups in 85 years. The junta must tread carefully if they are to avoid a 14th, but it may already be too late. There will be unrest, whatever the verdict.