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Thai government to probe assets of ex-prime minister

Thailand's state anti-corruption agency said Thursday it will investigate the assets of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and four members of her Cabinet involved in a controversial rice subsidy program.

The move by the National Anti-Corruption Commission follows a May 22 military coup that overthrew the elected government Yingluck had led. She was forced from office herself by a court ruling earlier in May that she had abused her authority in approving the transfer of a high-level civil servant.

Regimes that come to power through a coup usually seek to publicize alleged corruption by the governments they overthrew as a way of discrediting them and justifying their own takeover. Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra faced similar treatment after a 2006 coup ousted him from the prime minister's job. He is in self-imposed exile to escape a jail term, on a conflict of interest conviction.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission had already indicted Yingluck over charges of dereliction of duty in overseeing the rice subsidy program, charging that she failed to heed advice that it was potentially wasteful and prone to corruption. The Senate could have held an impeachment trial that might have barred her from politics for five years, but the parliamentary body was dissolved by the army after the coup.

The commission is known for having made several significant rulings against Yingluck and her government, which her supporters suspect was part of a conspiracy to oust her from office.

They believe that independent agencies such as the commission, along with high level courts, are aligned with Thailand's conservative traditional ruling class — guided by royalists and the military — who were alarmed at the political power of the Shinawatra family and its political machine. Thaksin and his allies have won every general election since 2001. The independent agencies and courts were seeded with anti-Thaksin personnel after the 2006 coup.

Criticism of the commission has focused on whether it is appropriate for a small, unelected body, instead of voters, to judge government policies.

In its earlier ruling, the commission said it was unclear whether Yingluck was involved in corruption or had allowed it to take place. Very few, if any, prosecutions in court have been launched in connection with the rice program.

The brief announcement said three former commerce ministers and a former deputy commerce ministers would also be investigated, without elaborating why it was forming a new subcommittee to probe them.

The subsidy program bought rice from farmers at above-market prices in an effort to boost rural incomes.

As the world's top rice exporter, Thailand hoped to control the market and push up prices. But India and Vietnam increased exports, which prompted stockpiling by Thailand as it tried to contain losses from its subsidy policy. The program incurred huge financial losses for the government, though there is no reliable estimate of the total.

The program was denounced by Yingluck's critics as being designed to win votes. But it became a major political weapon when protesters began rallying against Yingluck last November and successfully pressured banks not to lend to the government, delaying the payments to farmers.

Shortly after the coup, the new military government announced that it would make the long-delayed payments.

The coup, Thailand's second in eight years, deposed an elected government that had insisted for months that the nation's fragile democracy was under attack from protesters, the courts, and finally the army that had rendered it virtually powerless by declaring martial law two days before the coup.