Impeached and facing trial: Final blow to Thailand's ousted premier?

Thailand's attorney general said Friday that criminal charges would be brought against former prime minister Yingluck Shinwatra over a failed rice subsidy program. A military-appointed assembly separately impeached her. 

Sakchai Lalit/AP
Thailand's former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, center, receives flower from her supporters as she leaves parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. Thailand's military-appointed assembly voted on impeaching Yingluck over a failed rice subsidy program on Friday.

After being removed in a coup last spring, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was impeached Friday by lawmakers handpicked by the same ruling military junta that overthrew her government.  

The impeachment is more than symbolic: By a 190-to-18 vote, lawmakers banned Ms. Yingluck from re-entering the political arena for five years, a move designed to smother the influence of her powerful family, headed by her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who lives in exile in Dubai. 

In a second blow to Yingluck, just hours before the impeachment vote, the Thai attorney general announced she faces indictment on criminal charges for corruption while she was in office; the charges carry a maximum 10-year sentence. Timing on the indictment is not seen as a coincidence but another way to eliminate the youngish leader from politics and government. For months, prosecutors have said they lacked evidence to proceed with a criminal case.

Yingluck yesterday defended herself in the assembly, implying the impeachment charges were bogus and likely unconstitutional. “I am no longer prime minister...thus, there is essentially no position to impeach me from," she said. 

“Dictatorships eliminate their enemies,” says Michael Montesano, a Thai analyst at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “This is a dictatorship eliminating one of its enemies.”

Yingluck today said on her Facebook page that, "Thai democracy has died, along with the rule of law" but said it could be rehabilitated. 

Regime leaders and the government’s anti-corruption agency deny that they are pursuing a political vendetta. They say Yingluck was impeached as punishment for a failed rice-subsidy program that guaranteed above-market prices for farmers and incurred losses of an estimated $15 billion.

Populist success story

The Shinawatra family for nearly 15 years has forged a powerful grassroots movement of rural and working class voters that has challenged the influential Army and an old guard centered around the Thai monarchy in Bangkok. Parties founded and sponsored by Mr. Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire, have won every election held since the turn of the century. 

The rice subsidy scheme is emblematic of the populist policies that first helped elect Thaksin in 2001. The military seized power from him in 2006, and he fled Thailand on charges of tax evasion, abuse of power, and of insulting Thailand’s king. He was later convicted of one charge of abusing power and hasn't been to Thailand since 2008. 

Yingluck, his younger sister, was elected in 2011. Last May the Army seized power after months of anti-government protests that turned increasingly violent, and appeared to mirror Thailand's deepening social divides.

Coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha tore up the constitution, declared martial law, and set up various committees stacked with his allies to draft a new charter. It is expected the new rules will try to limit any Thaksin-aligned party from gaining too much power. With its proposed mix of appointed and elected legislators, the new constitution may stifle party politics altogether.

Some analysts argue the impeachment of Yingluck will only embolden and empower the Shinawatra clan's base of so-called "red shirts" who opposed the coup. “All things being equal, if elections are called, whatever leadership Thaksin calls up is likely to win,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.

Since seizing power, the junta has so stifled open dissent that it’s often difficult to know what Thaksin supporters are thinking. Prominent red-shirt politicians and activists have fled abroad, many facing royal defamation charges. Others speak off the record – or not at all.

When two red shirts were quoted in the Thai press saying an impeachment could lead to a repeat of bloody street protests, deputy prime minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon replied, “They should learn to use their brains before speaking.” On Thursday he warned that the army was prepared to move against anyone who “crossed the line” on Friday.

Business as usual

Today on the streets, Bangkok was business as usual as the votes were tallied, with no reported demonstrations. Nonetheless, Verapat Pariyawong, who served as a legal adviser in the Yingluck government, said the impeachment would elevate Yingluck to the status of “undying political martyr.”

In an email he predicted elections would be held. “But I don't think it will produce any democratic environment, especially given the ongoing attempts to draft a new ‘constitution’ that aims to severely hamper the democratic process,” he said. 

The military government has promised to hold elections in early 2016. Whether it will stick to this deadline is unclear. Western allies, which initially urged a rapid return to democracy, have fallen quiet. But the country’s flagging economy may start to put pressure on the government to do something.

Montesano said that even middle- and upper-class Bangkok residents, who form the bulk of the anti-Shinawatra contingent, may grow restless if their finances are affected. “The impression will be that this government is incompetent,” he says. 

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