YINGLUCK Shinawatra’s failure to show up at the Supreme Court for the verdict in the rice scheme trial is the latest twist in a long running drama which has overshadowed Thai politics since her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, became prime minister in 2001.
Yingluck, who was prime minister between from 2011 to 2014, is charged with negligence over a rice subsidy scheme which cost Thailand US$8 billion. During the trial, Yingluck argued she was not responsible for the day-to-day running of the scheme and claimed she was a victim of political persecution.
As the two-year trial drew to a close, it appeared increasingly likely Yingluck would be found guilty, a verdict which carried a maximum 10-year jail sentence. Yingluck’s failure to attend the Supreme Court on Aug 28 resulted in the court issuing a warrant for her arrest and ordering her to forfeit her bail of US$900,000. The Supreme Court judges also postponed the trial verdict until Sept 27.
Other members of Yingluck’s government who had been on trial for their roles in the failed rice scheme were handed their sentences that day. Ex-commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom was sentenced to 42 years in jail for executing fake government-to-government deals while former deputy commerce minister Phumi Saraphol received a 36-year jail term for approving bogus government-to-government rice export to China.
Given the severity of the sentences handed to members of Yingluck’s former government, it is predicted she will receive the maximum sentence of 10 years’ jail time.
Although Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan initially suggested Yingluck was still in Thailand, it is now widely believed she fled the country just before the verdict to join her older brother, Thaksin, who has been living in Dubai. Thaksin went into self-imposed exile in 2008 after being found guilty of corruption by the Supreme Court.
A senior member of the Puea Thai political party, who declined to be named, confirmed rumours Yingluck was in Dubai, saying: “She went to Cambodia and then Singapore from where she flew to Dubai. She has arrived safely and is there now.”
Yingluck’s ability to “escape” Thailand just before the trial verdict has raised some awkward questions for authorities.
Thailand’s justice system has a mixed record of administering justice, as the infamous case of the Red Bull heir Vorayuth Yoovidhaya has demonstrated, and with over 170,000 outstanding arrest warrants across Thailand, Yingluck is not alone in avoiding jail time.
However, considering how Yingluck was central to Thailand’s highest profile trial since Prayuth Chan-ocha and the National Council for Peace and Order came to power in the 2014 coup (against Yingluck’s government), it’s perplexing that authorities did not keep a closer watch on her movements.
Why was Yingluck not more closely monitored by authorities? And how was she able to leave the country just hours before the verdict was due?
Yingluck’s fascinating disappearance from under the nose of the military government has spawned a wealth of conspiracy theories.
The BBC‘s Jonathan Head in Bangkok suggested Yingluck may have been warned about the heavy sentence her ministers were to receive, which may have prompted her decision to flee the country.
Bangkok Post quoted an unnamed source who claimed that some state officials were complicit in Yingluck’s flight from justice:
“Let’s just say the powers that be gave her the green light to go.”
Implausible as it may seem that authorities would have aided Yingluck’s departure from the country, there are arguments which make these conspiracy theories more convincing.
As prime minister, Yingluck was widely regarded as a puppet politician, sitting in place for her elder brother Thaksin. The rice scheme was an absolute disaster that cost taxpayers billions of dollars and it is completely reasonable to believe the scheme’s failings were the result of greed and corruption.
However, it is also clear that Yingluck was not one of the “masterminds” behind the rice scheme. Had she been convicted and jailed for 10 years, she would have been easily portrayed as a victim and imprisoning Yingluck could have inadvertently established her as a martyr figure, turning an inept politician into an Aung San Suu Kyi-like idol.
Comparisons between Yingluck and Burma’s Suu Kyi are extremely superficial. Suu Kyi is an Oxford-educated democracy icon who sacrificed decades of her life in her fight against a violent military dictatorship, while Yingluck is an inexperienced puppet politician.
However, in this “post-truth” era, it wouldn’t be too difficult for Yingluck’s supporters to claim she was following in the footsteps of Suu Kyi; after all she is a democratically-elected female leader being given a lengthy prison sentence by a supreme court during a period of military rule.
The portrayal of Yingluck as the victim of a repressive military government is already well-established among her supporters, as one farmer who was waiting outside the Supreme Court on Friday, explained: “We have to support her, like we support Suu Kyi.”
Furthermore, because Yingluck remains a very popular figure among rural communities in the North and Northeast of Thailand, her imprisonment would have also given the government’s critics a focal point to rally behind.
Yingluck’s absence from the country now weakens her supporters’ argument that she is a victim of political persecution as she becomes a deserter rather than a symbol of democracy. Her “escape” from Thailand also undermines her supporters’ justification to publicly protest her treatment by the military government.
As such, Yingluck’s disappearance actually makes life easier for the authorities than if she had stayed and accepted the trial’s verdict, as one unnamed source explained to Bangkok Post:
“If she had been convicted or jailed it would have caused more trouble and social unrest, so letting her leave was considered the best option.”
The Shinawatras’ political foes, the PAD, have petitioned the government to investigate Yingluck’s escape and severely punish any state officials who helped her flee the country. It will be interesting to see just how vigorously authorities pursue Yingluck and her accomplices.
Regardless of who facilitated Yingluck departure from Thailand, authorities may well welcome her disappearance, hoping she remains in Dubai – out of sight and out of mind – although it is highly unlikely this will be the final chapter in the Shinawatras’ long-running political drama.