Thousands of police stood guard outside Thailand’s Supreme Court ahead of a verdict expected Friday in the contentious trial of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was overthrown three years ago by a military junta that still rules this Southeast Asian country.
Yingluck is facing a possible 10-year prison term on charges of negligence linked to an ill-fated rice subsidy program that cost the state billions of dollars. If convicted, she has the right to appeal. The case is the latest chapter in a decade-long struggle by the nation’s elite minority to crush the powerful political machine founded by Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in another coup in 2006. Thaksin’s ouster triggered years of upheaval and division that has pitted a poor, rural majority in the north that supports the Shinawatras against royalists, the military and their urban backers.
The rice subsidies, promised to farmers during the 2011 election, helped Yingluck’s party sweep the vote. Critics say they were effectively a means of vote buying, while Yingluck supporters welcomed them and argue the case against her is politically motivated. Thailand’s junta has clamped down hard on opponents since the 2014 coup, suppressing all dissent and banning political gatherings of more than five people. The long-awaited decision on Yingluck’s fate has rekindled tensions in the divided nation, but the military remains firmly in charge.
Fearing potential unrest, authorities tried to deter people from turning out Friday by threatening legal action against anyone planning to help transport Yingluck supporters. Yingluck also posted a message on her Facebook page urging followers to stay away, saying she worried about their safety. Thousands of people turned up outside the Bangkok court house anyway, though, along with thousands of police who erected barricades around the court.
Prawit Pongkunnut, a 55-year-old rice farmer from the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima, said he came with 10 other farmers to show solidarity with Yingluck. “We’re here to give her moral support because she truly cared and helped us out,” Prawit said. The populist promise of massive rice subsidies helped propel Yingluck’s party to power in the country’s 2011 general election. The plan paid farmers about 50 percent more that they would have made on the world market.
The hope was to drive up prices by stockpiling the grain, but other Asian producers filled the void instead, knocking Thailand from its perch as the world’s leading rice exporter. The current government, which is still trying to sell off the rice stockpiles, says Yingluck’s administration lost as much as $17 billion because it couldn’t export at a price commensurate with what it had paid farmers.
Yinguck has pleaded innocent in the case before the Supreme Court, saying she was the victim of a “political game” aimed at crushing the Shinawatra clan. In a separate administrative ruling that froze her bank accounts, Yingluck was held responsible for about $1 billion of those losses _ an astounding personal penalty that prosecutors argued Yingluck deserved because she ignored warnings of corruption but continued the program anyway.