- - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

BANGKOK — A milestone in Thailand’s shaky political evolution looms as the nation’s Supreme Court is due to render a verdict next week that could imprison former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for 10 years for “negligence” after the military toppled her government in a 2014 coup.

Weeping, wealthy and worried, Ms. Yingluck, 50, said as her trial wound down she was innocent of charges that she mismanaged a major rice subsidy program, costing the Thai treasury billions of dollars. It could mark a stunning fall from grace for Ms. Yingluck, who with her brother, exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, headed a populist movement that challenged the Bangkok-based political establishment and dominated democratic politics for more than a decade before she was ousted in a May 2014 coup and banned from politics.

Ms. Yingluck’s case has gripped this Southeast Asian country because a ruling either way could determine Thailand’s stability under a junta trying to justify its hold on power and control her mostly lower-class supporters.

“I never omitted to perform my duty,” a tearful Ms. Yingluck told the court at the close of her trial Aug. 1. “I know that I am the victim of a deep political game.”

Underscoring the political sensitivity of the trial, supporters at the Supreme Court waved banners reading “We love Yingluck” and “We’re by your side,” the Agence France-Presse news service reported. Ms. Yingluck’s popularity in her heartland base has surged as her legal troubles have deepened.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission accused Ms. Yingluck of failing to stop massive financial losses after her government paid farmers — her key constituents — much more than the international price for 20 million tons of rice in a program to boost their living standards.

During her 2011-2014 administration, Ms. Yingluck hoped to sell that rice at a profit after predicting that the international price would zoom higher. But prices dropped and Thailand had to sell the subsidized rice at a loss of $5 billion, the court was told.

The junta recently froze about $1 billion of Ms. Yingluck’s assets as possible “compensation” toward the loss. That compensation case will be judged later.

Other accusations involve a failure to stop thieves pilfering the government’s rice, the use of inefficient insecticides and falsification of documents.

Trial testimony described the subsidies as benefiting mostly wealthy farmers, rice millers and dealers, and not many poor farmers.

Many charges, however, were never fully investigated or proved, legal observers said.

Today, after two years of storage, the military government is peddling 4 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 during her closing statement.

“I never neglected corruption in rice sales,” she said, adding that she ordered officials to investigate.

A 57-word malfeasance law indicates that 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, Ms. Yingluck may be able to appeal to a different group of Supreme Court judges, but she could be jailed during that convoluted process.

More than a dozen other NACC cases pending accuse Ms. Yingluck of political, financial and other violations.

All the suspected crimes occurred under Ms. Yingluck’s coalition government, which won a 2011 election but suffered when the Constitutional Court ousted her in 2014.

Two weeks later, in May 2014, the U.S.-trained military, under army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, staged a bloodless coup against Ms. Yingluck’s remaining administration. Gen. Prayuth is now the prime minister, and critics say he has pushed through a new constitution to cement his hold on power.

Big consequences

The verdict could have momentous consequences for Gen. Prayuth’s political future.

“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 Naresuan University in Phitsanulok, 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,” Mr. Chambers said.

“An acquittal would be a big embarrassment for Prayuth,” said Michael H. Nelson, who teaches in Ubon Ratchathani University’s political science department.

In one sign that the Thai leader may have more room to maneuver, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson last week became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Bangkok since the 2014 coup, and Gen. Prayuth has accepted an offer from President Trump to visit the White House, possibly in October.

Human rights and civil liberties did not come up in Mr. Tillerson’s public remarks while in Bangkok, although U.S. officials said the issues were raised in private talks during the visit. Thai officials said the bilateral talks focused on trade and the North Korea crisis.

The complexity of the rice program also could have an impact on the political fallout.

“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. “As a prime minister, she had to oversee the implementation of the policy, but it is not quite reasonable to prosecute her.”

Mr. Titipol said the case already had become too politicized.

“The corruption against the rice-pledging [subsidy] policy should be charged against those who are corrupt, not against policymakers,” Mr. Titipol said.

If Ms. Yingluck does walk free, her problems are not over.

“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, as the alleged corruption in the rice subsidies was simply one of many charges leveled against Yingluck,” Sam Zarifi, the Geneva-based secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists, 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 be brought to bear in future political campaigns,” Mr. Zarifi said.

Thailand is a non-NATO treaty ally of the U.S., and Mr. Trump appears to have softened U.S. concerns about the state of civil liberties under the military regime.

“The U.S. has been observing some trials of human rights defenders, which is welcome. Beyond that, U.S. involvement in politics in Thailand is complicated at this moment by the very confusing and alarming signals sent by the [Trump] administration regarding respect for human rights and international law, inside and outside the U.S.,” Mr. Zarifi said.

Gen. Prayuth appears determined to destroy any political future for Ms. Yingluck and her much more influential elder brother. Thaksin Shinawatra was premier from 2001 to 2005 before he was toppled in a 2006 military coup.

Mr. Thaksin lives in self-exile dodging a two-year prison sentence for corruption committed during his administration.

If Mr. Thaksin or Ms. Yingluck were to compete in a popularity contest against Gen. Prayuth — impossible under the current situation — many analysts predict Gen. Prayuth would lose.

Gen. Prayuth enjoys widespread support in Bangkok and the south and among royalists, the military, and many wealthy and middle-class Thais.

The Shinawatra siblings, by contrast, have a base in the lower classes who benefited from government subsidies, inexpensive health care and other services, especially in the north and northeast.

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,” Mr. Zarifi said.

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