World

Thailand awaits verdict that could sent former PM to prison

Friends and foes alike of former Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, are anxiously awaiting a verdict Friday by the Thailand's Supreme Court on charges that she was criminally negligent in implementing a rice subsidy program that is estimated to have cost the government as much as $17 billion and could now cost her 10 years in prison.

Supporters are expected to appear outside the courthouse to show support for Yingluck, but Thai authorities have threatened legal action against anyone planning to help transport her supporters to the scene.

The verdict is generally seen as a political judgment as much as a criminal one. The case against Yingluck is the latest in a decade-long offensive against the political machine founded and directed by her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup for alleged corruption and disrespect for the monarchy.

Thaksin, a telecommunications mogul, has been in self-imposed exile since 2008 to escape a prison sentence on a conflict of interest conviction. The 2006 coup triggered years of sometimes-violent battles for power between his supporters, mainly the less well-off rural majority who delivered him thumping election victories, and his opponents, royalists, much of the urban middle and upper classes and the military, who in 2014 ousted Yingluck's elected government as they had her brother's.

Yingluck has appeared calm in the days leading up to the verdict, making merit at Buddhist temples and reportedly praying for a "victory" in Friday's ruling.

However the Supreme Court rules, the ruling junta is set to lose face, one analyst says.

If the court rules not guilty, "the generals will have egg on their face," said Paul Chambers, a political scientist at Naresuan University in northern Thailand, since the military's reasoning for staging the 2014 coup that ousted Yingluck's government was, in part, to rid the system of corrupt politicians. If she is found guilty "then the generals will have to deal with what comes next and that could be a martyr figure."

The rice subsidy was a flagship policy that helped Yingluck's political party win the 2011 general election. The government paid Thai farmers about 50 percent above what they would have received on the world market, with the intention of driving up prices by warehousing the grain.

Instead, other rice-producing countries captured the market by selling at competitive prices. Vietnam as a result replaced Thailand as the world's leading rice exporter.

The military government said Wednesday it expected by next year to finally have sold off the stockpile of 17.8 million tons of rice the subsidy created. It has earned $40 million from the sales but calculates the government lost billions because it couldn't export at a price commensurate with what it had paid local farmers.

Yingluck already has been held responsible for about $1 billion of the losses in an administrative ruling that froze her bank accounts.

Prosecutors in the criminal negligence trial argued that Yingluck ignored warnings of corruption in the subsidy program.

"I think the designer of the program did not think carefully, did not understand the functioning of the rice market, particularly the world rice market," says Niphon Poapongsakorn, from the Thailand Development Research Institute, who gave evidence at the trial.

"What they thought (about) was only the beneficial impact of the program, which is not a surprise because I believe the hidden agenda of the policy was to win a landslide election."

Yingluck was ousted as prime minister by a court ruling involving a nepotism case shortly before the coup ousting her government. Since then she's been impeached and banned from political office for five years.

The court cases and possible criminal conviction aside, Yingluck retains great popularity with her base.

Millions, like 51-year-old farmer Gaysorn Petcharat, suddenly saw their incomes rise markedly. There was money to buy luxuries and to invest in their farms.

Now her income's dropped back sharply. But her loyalty to Yingluck is unwavering.

"If you ask any farmer if they like Yingluck, they all like Yingluck because she was willing to help us," she says, pausing from harvesting her field in Chachoengsao province, outside Bangkok.

"She did her best for us. All my life I've never sold rice at such a good price as when she was prime minister."

Yingluck denies the negligence charges. She told the court she was the victim of a "political game," aimed at crushing the Shinawatra clan; first her brother Thaksin, and now her.

Some analysts agree, and believe the prosecution's approach sets a dangerous precedent.

"I think it is clear enough that politics in involved in the Yingluck trial," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"I mean, this is a government that was elected in 2011 by a simple majority and it had a policy platform led by the rice pledging scheme. The scheme led to losses probably, but on the other hand, if we use this benchmark for other governments, then we could have a lot of government leaders in jail."