The junta is using all the powers at their disposal to hurt Yingluck. But she has one weapon they don’t, the public.
By Oliver Ward
Yingluck Shinawatra is looking down the barrel of ten-years in prison. The case brought against her for her involvement in implementing a rice buying scheme in 2012, limps towards its final stages. She awaits the Supreme Court’s verdict on August 25th which will decide her fate.
Despite her brother’s friendship with the King, the military junta has gone all out against the former Prime Minister. The Justice Ministry froze 16 bank accounts, which reportedly contain US$18 million, and 37 of her properties. Last year, a state-appointed committee demanded that she pay 35 billion baht (US$1 billion) for her involvement in the loss-making scheme. She also faces 11 other cases of power abuse brought against her by the National-Anti Corruption Commission (NACC).
A political witch-hunt?
Yingluck’s supporters call the case a deliberate attempt to undermine the populist movement. The populist movement under the Puea Thai Party has won every free election since 2001 and the Shinawatra family represent a real threat to Prayut’s control of the country. They command swathes of the support across the rural northeast of the country.
The charges focus on her involvement in a rice buying scheme to help the rural poor. From 2012 to 2013, Yingluck’s government bought rice from the farmers for prices of up to 50% above the market value in an attempt to drive up global prices. Other players like Vietnam and India filled the market with cheaper rice and the Thai government were left with more than 18 million tonnes of rice, which were sold for huge public losses. The state-appointed committee claims the scheme cost the state purse 178 billion baht (US$5 billion) over the two years it was in operation.
Yingluck faces charges of criminal negligence for her involvement in the loss-making scheme. Prayut has also accused her of taking money from the scheme, however, no evidence has been presented to show Yingluck took any money from the rice scheme.
Nine Judges vs 10 million people
Prayut controls the legal system, which has frozen her accounts, leaving her without financial weight behind her. But, she has a weapon of her own. She has a large power base of support. Yingluck is adept at mobilising the population. She took to Twitter to rally her supporters ahead of her recent court date saying, “I would like encouragement from my fans and my Thai brothers and sisters”.
On August 25th, when the verdict is given, there are likely to be plenty of Yingluck’s supporters mobilised outside the courts. General Prayut himself issued an ominous warning to those considering making the journey to Bangkok to show their support for the ex-Prime Minister. “They won’t face [legal action] that day but they certainly will later,” he said. Even if the junta can convince the nine judges that Yingluck should serve jail time, it will have a much harder time persuading the public.
Former Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva expressed his concerns, saying, “there are not nine judges in the case. They [Pheu Thai Politicians] have said 10 million people will also judge”.
Prayut is using the law to his own personal gain
Yingluck faces charges under Section 157 of the criminal code, which is known as the malfeasance law. The law was designed to protect the people from arbitrary abuses of power. It specifies that any official performing their duty wrongly or dishonestly can be sentenced to up to ten-years in prison.
But Prayut is using the law as a political weapon, in an example of the exact kind of behaviour, it was designed to prevent. Since the military seized power in 2006, two members of Thaksin Shinawatra’s cabinet have been prosecuted under the law for their implementation of the rubber saplings scheme and the two- and three-digit lottery scheme. Of the 90 defendants in these cases, only three convictions were secured. The rest were acquitted due to lack of evidence. Prayut’s manipulation of Thai law to suit his objectives is a thinly veiled attempt to remove political opposition and undermine the opposition. It has seen limited results so far, but Yingluck’s conviction would be a major scalp for him.
The junta themselves have undertaken inefficient projects and are guilty of corruption
The junta themselves have not maintained an unblemished record of managing state finances. The Purple train line launched in August of 2016 is only operating at less than one-third of capacity because the route is inconvenient, takes too long and fares are too high.
Prayut’s own brother faces corruption allegations. Preecha-Chan-Ocha is a senior army general and has faced serious allegations after one of his sons won several lucrative construction contracts from the Third Army, which Preecha used to lead.
Prayut has even introduced an almost identical rice scheme to that which Yingluck faces charges for introducing, in an attempt to gain support amongst the rural population.
If Yingluck is found guilty and is sentenced to prison on August 25th, the precedent will be set that a leader can face jail-time for mismanaging funds. Not only could this come back to haunt Prayut in the future, when his own leadership is fading, but it could also dissuade future leaders from attempting to tackle problems with bold, new initiatives. The fallout from the case will go far further than just one failed rice scheme but could linger over future leaders heads for years to come.
Will Prayut succeed at breaking populist support?
“The more the military pushes the Puea Thai Party, the more sympathy the party gets. Rotcharin Waratsirisophon, from the north-eastern province of Khon Kaen, added, “Puea Thai is even more popular now”.
The harder Prayut pushes against Yingluck and Thaksin and their populist movement, the more people turn to them. His thinly veiled attacks on the Shinawatra family with the weight of Thai law, only serve to highlight his hypocrisy, illustrated all the more by the adoption of his own, similar rice scheme.
If Yingluck is found guilty and serves prison time, she will be martyred in the eyes of the people. Prayut’s government will be the target of much public outcry. But Thailand’s future will also be damaged. Future leaders will have to contend with the precedent of an ex-Prime Minister jailed for mismanagement looming over their heads. It will not be an easy yoke to bear for the country.