- - Monday, August 28, 2017

BANGKOK — Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s “Great Escape” from Thailand last week allows her to dodge a possible 10-year prison sentence and enjoy a billionaire’s international lifestyle, but she also may have handed the military government, which toppled her in a 2014 coup, a much-needed propaganda victory.

Her sudden, secret flight overseas means the junta will not risk creating a political rallying point, with Ms. Yingluck’s fervent supporters portraying her as a politically victimized, jailed martyr for democracy. Her absence also may demoralize her shocked Pheu Thai (“For Thais”) opposition party, which attracted millions of supporters known as “Red Shirts.”

On Monday, questions still surrounded the ousted prime minister’s failure to appear for her Friday court date, facing a verdict that had many Thais on edge for months. It was not clear who facilitated Ms. Yingluck’s flight from the country and whether she make seek political asylum in Britain or another foreign country.

Thai media have aired accusations and official denials of conspiracies, corruption, double-standards and legal duplicity in trying to tease out the confusing sequence of events, including suggestions that the junta may even have been in on the defendant’s decision to flee.

“What is puzzling about this high drama is that none of the junta members, including Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who are in charge of security affairs, caught wind of Ms. Yingluck’s escape,” columnist Veera Prateepchaikul wrote on Monday. “I, for one, don’t believe it.”

But government spokesman Winthai Suvari warned against unfounded speculation about the politically charged case, even if government security officials routinely trailed Ms. Yingluck in recent months.

“No one should attempt to give his or her opinions that may confuse society, because that can lead to misunderstanding about a person or an organization,” Mr. Winthai said.

After the U.S.-trained military under Gen. Prayuth toppled Ms. Yingluck’s government in 2014, she was charged with negligence while prime minister for orchestrating a multibillion-dollar subsidy program for rice farmers that collapsed amid accusations of rampant corruption. She faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted. When she failed to appear for the verdict on Friday, the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions immediately issued an arrest warrant and postponed its verdict until Sept. 27.

“We do not know where Yingluck fled and if she has asked for asylum anywhere,” Mr. Prawit, who is also defense minister, told reporters.

Ms. Yingluck purportedly joined her multibillionaire elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled into self-exile in Dubai in 2008. He is dodging a two-year prison sentence of his own for a questionable real estate deal he negotiated when he was prime minister, before the military ousted him in a 2006 coup.

With Ms. Yingluck and Mr. Thaksin out of the country, it’s a matter of open debate whether the government in Bangkok sincerely wants to bring either sibling back to face justice. Many people on all sides are simply relieved and thankful that the confrontation between Ms. Yingluck and the junta has — so far — been defused without violence.

Thailand’s often-violent political and financial rivalries between the Shinawatra family and the elite that support the royalist military have crippled this once-thriving Buddhist majority country.

After Ms. Yingluck fled, the Bangkok Post’s front-page announced: “The Great Escape, End of Shinawatra Era.”

But the charismatic siblings remain hugely popular and probably would win a nationwide election if they could participate, so their influence is difficult to predict. Some of Ms. Yingluck’s supporters are angry because several of her top political colleagues were sentenced to decades of imprisonment by the same court while she was fleeing.

Some of Ms. Yingluck’s harshest enemies angrily blamed the junta for enabling her escape or failing to prevent it.

“Unless the [junta] can find and punish the wrongdoers, the deputy prime minister [Mr. Prawit] must resign,” said Parnthep Pourpongpan, a former spokesman of the defunct People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the royalist “Yellow Shirts” who clashed frequently with the Red Shirts. The PAD helped overthrow Ms. Yingluck.

“If she could escape, that was either a conspiracy or an unforgivable failure,” Mr. Parnthep said.

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