Ex-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra broke her promise to face justice, allegedly left Thailand, and joined her brother Thaksin in exile.
By John Pennington, edited by Joelyn Chan
Yingluck Shinawatra was absent for the trial verdict on August 25, 2017. The 18-month trial determines her fate in Thailand as she faces charges of criminal negligence for failing to stop irregularities in her rice-pledging scheme. If convicted, she stands to face up to 10 years in jail, a life ban from politics, political exile and financial penalties amounting to billions.
As a result of her absence, the Supreme Court postponed the verdict announcement, confiscated her bail of 30 million baht (US$900,000), revoked her passports and issued a warrant for her arrest. Thousands of Yingluck’s supporters waited outside the Supreme Court, in vain hope of hearing the long-awaited verdict.
A source close to the Shinawatras claimed she was in Dubai well before the event. Meanwhile, the government claimed it had no idea where she was, and the court rejected her lawyer’s explanation that she failed to attend due to ill health.
Initially, her disappearance surprised many onlookers
Yingluck has always protested her innocence and denied allegations of corruption or negligence. Even though she claims to be the victim of political persecution, she said she would appear at the verdict hearing. “I stand firm to fight my case. All eyes are on me. I have duties and responsibilities to carry on. I assure you, I’ve never thought of fleeing,” she said in 2016.
Many people were surprised when she escaped. “The way that she had fought, it had looked like she was willing to go through with (the trial),” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, told CNN.
The current situation reflects poorly on all parties. The government is also facing criticism for their lapse in monitoring and control, which allowed Yingluck to leave. Officers were supposed to be keeping a close watch on her movements. Denials of possible participation in her disappearance quickly followed. “These are just the views of some who try to link things up,” spokesman Winthai Suvari said.
She is following her brother’s example
It is not the first time a PM flees the country. Ex-PM Samak Sundaravej had escaped to the US after the Thai appeals court upheld its conviction and issued a two-year jail sentence.
In 2008, Thaksin left the country shortly before the Supreme Court convicted him of corruption and sentenced him to prison. Despite living in exile in London and the Middle East, he retains some influence over the Pheu Thai party and reportedly has friends in the Thai royal family, particularly crowned King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Thaksin was rumoured to be lobbying the incoming king for a pardon for Shinawatras. He also briefly resurfaced in ASEAN as a Special Economic Advisor to Cambodia, a move which led to both countries recalling their ambassadors.
Ending his silence since Yingluck’s absence from the verdict reading, Thaksin quoted French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu in a tweet: “Montesquieu once said, ‘There is no crueller tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice’.”
Was it a fair trial?
Without Yingluck, the court delivered verdicts for ministers under her administration. Her former commerce minister, Boonsong Teriyapirom, received a 42-year jail sentence for his part in the same rice subsidy scandal. Eight out of the 28 accused officers were acquitted. The rest of the present defendants had jail terms and were sentenced to pay damages proportional to their involvement in the rice deal. This verdict provides an inkling of Yingluck’s possible sentence. As their leader, she can expect a harsher punishment.
There is no evidence that Yingluck profited from the rice subsidy scheme. Both her supporters and onlookers suggest that the accusations and trial proceeding were not fair. According to Forbes, “It [Rice subsidy scheme] was bad policy, not illicit corruption, and the junta’s puppet legislature previously used “retrospective impeachment” to convict her of negligence and ban her from politics through 2019.”
Thailand’s Prime Minister (PM) Prayut Chan-ocha had used the court as a political weapon against her. However, his manipulation of Thai law has not always successful in marginalising political opponents. In August, the Supreme Court acquitted two pro-Shinawatra ex-PMs, along with two ex-top police officers.
Similar to Yingluck’s current predicament, both ex-PMs Somchai Wongsawat and Chavalit Yongchaiyudh faced negligence charges. Judging from the acquittal of ex-PM Somchai, who is Thaksin’s brother-in-law, chances for acquittal still exists for Yingluck.
The verdict lies with the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. The court’s nine Anti-Shinawatra judges had previously delivered verdicts against Thaksin, and today, they stand against her in the trial. Earlier this year, Yingluck protested against the treatment of her witnesses. In response, the court denied any wrongdoing.
A deal between the government and Yingluck to secure her release is plausible
It is also possible that Yingluck did not flee. Instead, the government may have cut a deal with her to allow her a free pass out of the country. The junta would welcome her self-imposed exile if it reduces the strength of pro-Shinawatra demonstrations. Pro-Shinawatras are monitoring the verdict and may protest if the sentence is too harsh.
The possibility of accepting governmental assistance in leaving the country is low. Even if it does happen, Yingluck may have used it as the last resort. By extending a hand to help her leave, it implies the government’s prior knowledge of a guilty verdict.
Just across the border, Cambodian PM Hun Sen quickly denounced “rumours” about the country’s involvement in Yingluck’s exile.
Everybody involved is now playing a waiting game
The court will deliver their verdict on September 27, 2017, regardless Yingluck’s attendance in court.
Shinawatra supporters will continue to argue she is innocent and to claim that the trial was prejudiced. The junta will rebuff those claims and will use her departure as another opportunity to argue the Shinawatras are corrupt and dishonest.
For the moment, the junta has the upper hand. However, coercing every member of the Shinawatra family and all Pheu Thai party supporters into exile is not a sustainable plan.