BANGKOK – Thai police on Friday were examining a car they believe was used to help former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra flee the country ahead of a court verdict that could have seen her jailed for a decade.
Yingluck, whose government was overthrown in a military coup in 2014, has not been seen since she failed to turn up for the Aug. 25 verdict and there has been no confirmed information about her whereabouts. Yingluck is accused of negligence in overseeing a money-losing rice subsidy program that critics say was riddled with corruption. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the charges, which she denied and said were politically motivated.
Investigators have suggested Yingluck traveled by land into Cambodia and then by air to a third country, perhaps to Dubai to join her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, another former prime minister whose government was toppled in a 2006 military coup and who faces a jail term if he returns to Thailand.
Police said late Thursday that they used surveillance camera footage from the border province of Sa Kaeo to track down a Toyota Camry believed to have carried Yingluck to the border. The car was found in Nakhon Pathom province, just outside Bangkok. Police said they were still trying to confirm their theory that Yingluck left her home two nights before the verdict, switched vehicles in an outlying suburb and then continued on to the Cambodia border.
Pol. Gen. Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, a deputy police commissioner, said he was unable to publicly confirm that Yingluck had fled through Cambodia because doing so at this time could affect international relations.
He also said three of his officers had been questioned on suspicion of helping Yingluck flee, but they would not be charged with criminal offenses because there was no warrant for her arrest at the time.
"We will keep investigating until police can conclude the case," he said.
Thailand's ruling military junta had stepped up security ahead of last month's expected verdict as thousands of Yingluck's supporters traveled from around the country to the court. Yingluck never appeared though, instead sending her lawyers with a statement saying she could not attend due to an earache. The court didn't buy the excuse and issued a warrant for her arrest. The verdict was postponed until Sept. 27.
The junta faced a quandary with what to do with Yingluck, who became Thailand's first female prime minister when her party swept elections in 2011 and remains popular among the rural and working class voters who powered her family's political machine to victory in every national election since 2001. Unlike past leaders ousted in the coup-prone country, Yingluck had refused to flee and instead vowed to remain in the country to fight any charges against her.
Acquitting Yingluck risked alienating those in the powerful protest movements that in late 2013 and early 2014 seized government buildings and disrupted snap elections, setting the stage for the military to stage the coup. Jailing Yingluck threatened to turn her into a martyr and set the stage for a new era of upheaval and mass protests. That has led to speculation that the junta may have been aware of Yingluck's intention to flee and allowed it to happen, though the junta has denied it.