Former PM Yingluck awaits verdict

Originally aired on Channel NewsAsia on August 24, 2017

The Supreme Court is expected to deliver the verdict against former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Friday. She’s on trial for negligence of duty in her government’s handling of the rice-pledging scheme and could face up to 10 years in prison, if found guilty. Here's my Channel NewsAsia preview at the implications for Thailand’s political landscape.

TRANSCRIPT

Many Thai politicians are all too familiar with the walk to the courthouse – and Yingluck Shinawatra is no exception. Indicted in early 2016, the former Prime Minister faces criminal charges for negligence in her government’s handling of the rice-pledging scheme.

The program, a major campaign promise that helped propel her Pheu Thai Party to victory in the 2011 elections, bought rice from farmers at 50% higher than the market price. While the policy proved very popular with her predominantly rural supporters, it was often described as a disaster for the state’s finances.

"This program definitely helped the farmers," says Dr. Nipon Poapongsakom, President of the President Thailand Development Research Institute, "but [what is] unforgivable is that at the end, the last season at the end of the program, the government failed to secure liquidity to pay 1 million farmers for their rice that the farmers already delivered to the government warehouses."

In the end it was these massive public losses that fueled protests against Yingluck, and her government was eventually toppled by the 2014 military coup. Thailand was left with 18 million tonnes of rice stockpiled under the scheme.

Critics and opponents of Yingluck say that this was a direct result of corruption, something the current military government has vowed to crack down on since its takeover. And that is why Yingluck’s supporters say the trial against her is politicized.

"The rice-pledging case against Yingluck is definitely a case of political origin," criticizes Wattana Muangsuk, a former MP of Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party, "so with that in mind, IF she is found not guilty - how can the military junta still claim that this was a problem that justified their coup? And if she is found guilty, that would retroactively justify the seizure of power."

While the Pheu Thai Party is expected to win again when Thailand eventually returns to democratic elections, it will not have Yingluck Shinawatra as a front runner regardless of the outcome of the trial, since she has been retroactively impeached and banned from politics for five years.

However, a guilty verdict against her will not only be seen as yet another strike against her and her brother - the exiled yet influential former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - it could also discourage any future government from pursuing any policy that requires huge public investment.

"So the government or policy makers would have to think carefully whether they would be charged for whatever they are going to introduce and implement. And it’s a kind of wrong idea to use this case as a case against Yingluck," says Dr. Titipol Phakdeewanich, the dean for the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University.

The outcome of the case against Yingluck Shinawatra is a litmus test for Thailand’s political future -- and whether or not she will ever be allowed to take part in it again.

Saksith Saiyasombut, Channel NewsAsia, Bangkok