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Ex-Thai PM Yingluck flees country before trial
Thailand's former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has fled the country today, avoiding a court appearance in a negligence trial that could have seen her jailed.
The ex-PM is accused of criminal negligence in her government's flagship rice subsidy scheme when she was prime minister between 2011 and 2014.
Amos Wittenberg - editor of financial crime journal KYC360, based in Jersey - explained that the scheme paid farmers the equivalent of “1500 bhat per ton of rice, compared to 1100 that was paid by the previous government. It was wildly popular, and Thailand was at the time the world’s biggest rice producer.
But the scheme gave India and Vietnam the chance to increase their rice exports at prices that Thailand couldn’t match unless it was willing to occur vast losses. So the scheme is estimated to have cost the country about 8 billion US dollars.
Yingluck isn’t accused of corruption, but of negligence, because as PM she was head of the national rice committee. And there was certainly corruption linked to the scheme. It was vulnerable to graft at all levels and a former minister in Yingluck’s government got a prison sentence of 40 years for corruption linked to the subsidy.”
Yingluck, her brother Thaksin - who was prime minister for five years until he was toppled by a military coup in 2016 - and their Pheu Thai party have a huge following in rural Thailand, despite being opposed by the current military government.
Their popularity owes a lot to “the populist welfare policies implemented by Thaksin Shinawatra, such as the 30 bhat hospital programme,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University in Phitsanulok, Thailand.
“Never before had the rural population been thought of in Thailand in terms of what a prime minister could do. Thaksin, Yingluck and the Pheu Thai party followed these policies and as such they earned a loyal following among the rural poor, which is a majority of Thai voters.”
The future of Pheu Thai
Thailand's authoritarian military government have been in power for three years now and they've written a new constitution that makes life hard for future Pheu Thai governments by changing the voting system to give more seats to its smaller rivals.
But Chambers says that “Yingluck is going to continue to combat this junta, and she likely feels that she can do more outside the country. However, there are many other Shinawatras and many other potential leaders for the Pheu Thai party. So this is not the end of Pheu Thai or the Shinawatras at all.
"In fact, (Yingluck’s trial and escape) could galvanise support. The sympathy for Yingluck could help the Pheu Thai party in the next election. I think the Pheu Thai will continue to be very competitive. And I don’t see this as a day marking the fading away of Shinawatra power in Thailand.”