A Supreme Court verdict due on August 25 could imprison former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for ten years for alleged “negligence” in her management of a loss-making rice price support scheme before the military toppled her elected government in a May 2014 coup.
Weeping, wealthy and worried, Yingluck, 50, has said she is innocent of all the allegations. A ruling either way could determine Thailand’s future stability under a junta trying to justify its legitimacy and maintain the peace between her supporters and opponents.
The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) charged Yingluck for allegedly failing to stop massive financial losses after her government paid farmers — her key constituents — much more than international market prices for 20 million tons of rice to boost their living standards.
During her 2011-14 administration, Yingluck hoped to sell that rice at a profit after predicting the international price would zoom higher, but prices dropped instead. Thailand later had to sell the subsidized rice at a loss of US$5 billion, the court was told.
The junta, led in authoritarian fashion by coup-maker Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, recently froze her locally held assets as possible “compensation” toward the loss. That compensation case, where she could be on the hook for as much as US$1 billion, will be judged later.
The August 25 verdict will also consider allegations that Yingluck did not stop unidentified people from intentionally labeling some high-quality rice as low-value when the government purchased it. Brokers allegedly profited by privately buying it from the government and reselling it at a higher price.
Additionally, some low-grade rice was allegedly described as expensive when the government purchased it, so people could pocket higher prices when selling to the government. Other allegations involve a failure to stop thieves pilfering the government’s rice, the use of inefficient insecticides, and falsification of documents.
The trial heard testimony describing the subsidies as benefiting mostly wealthy farmers, rice millers and dealers, and not many poor farmers. Many allegations, however, were never fully investigated or proven, according to legal expert observers.
Today, after two years of storage, the military government is still trying to sell four million tons of “rotting rice” to make ethanol, after selling much of the edible rice at a loss.
“The rice-pledging [subsidy] scheme was a beneficial public policy,” a tearful Ms. Yingluck said on August 1 during her closing statement. “I never neglected corruption in rice sales,” she said, claiming she had ordered officials to investigate.
A 57-word malfeasance law indicates officials who wrongfully, dishonestly or neglectfully cause damage could be imprisoned for 10 years, fined, or both.
If found guilty by the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions, Yingluck will be able to appeal to a different group of Supreme Court judges, but she could be jailed in the interim or denied bail while lodging an appeal.
More than a dozen other cases lodged by the NACC are pending against Yingluck for political, financial and other alleged violations.
All the alleged crimes occurred under her coalition government, which won a 2011 election but suffered when a Constitutional Court ousted her in 2014. Two weeks later, in May 2014, the military staged a bloodless coup against her remaining administration.
Analysts are divided on the likely implications and upshots of the highly anticipated verdict.
“If Yingluck is ruled completely innocent, the 2014 coup would lose any presumed legitimacy and in fact delegitimize the military’s continuing hold over Thailand because the military’s rationale for seizing power would weaken and fall,” Paul Chambers, a lecturer in Southeast Asian studies at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said in an interview.
“If the court rules against Yingluck and she goes to prison, Thailand will likely become more staunchly divided with Yingluck’s sympathizers seeing her as a true martyr, and her opponents rejoicing. Such civilian divisions will assist a more united military to persist in power,” Chambers said.
“There is corruption during the implementation of the rice-pledging [subsidy] policy, but it is not entirely her fault,” Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of Ubon Ratchathani University’s political science department, said in an interview.
“I think the case is too politicized…the corruption against the rice-pledging [subsidy] policy should be charged against those who are corrupt, not against policy makers,” he said
“An acquittal would be a big embarrassment for Prayuth,” said Michael Nelson, who teaches in Ubon Ratchathani University’s political science department.
If Yingluck does walk free, her problems are not over, however.
“An acquittal would remove one of the major rhetorical points against Yingluck, but in the immediate term it would have little impact on the military government’s control over the country or rationale for it,” Sam Zarifi, Geneva-based secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), said in an interview.
“The most significant point about an acquittal — if followed by winning the civil liability [compensation] suit also filed against her — would be to unfreeze her considerable assets, which could then potentially be brought to bear in future political campaigns,” Zarifi said.
Prayuth and his junta appear determined to stifle any political comeback for Yingluck and her influential older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was premier from 2001 to 2006 before being toppled in a September 2006 military coup. Thaksin lives in self-exile dodging a two-year prison sentence for corruption committed during his administration.
While Prayuth enjoys widespread support in Bangkok, the country’s south and among royalists, the military, and many wealthy and middle-class Thais, many analysts believe the Shinawatra-backed Peua Thai party would win any free and fair election. Prayuth has committed to hold new polls in 2018.
The Shinawatra siblings are backed by competing elites, but also rural constituencies in the country’s populous north and northeast that benefited from their governments’ easy loans, inexpensive health care and other populist handouts.
On both sides, “these are very powerful elites fighting for tremendous power and wealth, with the rights of the vast majority of Thais invoked only when politically expedient,” Zarifi said.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist reporting news from Asia since 1978