I am victim of a political game, says former Thai PM Yingluck

Ousted former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra greets supporters as she leaves the Supreme Court in Bangkok.
Ousted former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra greets supporters as she leaves the Supreme Court in Bangkok.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Calling herself the "victim of a subtle political game", ousted Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra on Tuesday (Aug 1) urged a court to dismiss a criminal negligence charge against her over her government's agricultural subsidy scheme.

"I have done nothing wrong," she told the court, her voice breaking near the end of her hour-long closing statement.

"There is proof that during the implementation of the (rice pledging scheme), the rice farmers had better quality of life and their children have opportunities to further their studies."

Yingluck's government ran up a multi-billion-dollar bill under the rice pledging programme, which allowed farmers to sell paddy to the state at some 50 per cent above market prices. Farmers, in response, ramped up production, filling state warehouses with about 18 million tonnes of rice by the time her government was ousted through a coup in 2014.

The scheme left Thailand with huge stockpiles of unsold rice.

Critics charge that the scheme was tainted by corruption. But Yingluck argues that punishing her for this scheme could deter future leaders from attempting other public policies.

The verdict will be delivered on Aug 25. She could be jailed for up to 10 years if convicted.

 

Yingluck's bank accounts and other accounts have been frozen pending the conclusion of a separate bid by the military government to fine her some 35 billion baht (S$1.42 billion) for losses incurred in the rice scheme. She declared 610 million baht in assets in 2015.

She told the nine Supreme Court judges on Tuesday: "I trust that never before has anyone implementing public policy for the benefit of the country been unfairly treated and his own assets been seized before the criminal case is decided. This is against international justice principles."

The Cabinet had collective responsibilities, Yingluck said in a courtroom packed with former parliamentarians from her Puea Thai party as well as diplomats.

"I could not exercise my power arbitrarily to interfere, make order, or influence operations for anyone's interest," she added.

Outside the courtroom, hundreds of supporters kept vigil, watched closely by columns of policemen. Many of her followers, like 72-year-old Cholakan Onprathum, had travelled overnight from distant provinces like Nong Khai.

"I came here to encourage our former prime minister," she told The Straits Times. "I feel great sympathy for her."

While Yingluck has been banned from politics following a retroactive impeachment in 2015, she remains popular. Critics, however, see her as a proxy for her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as Thailand's prime minister in 2006 and has lived in self-imposed exile for the most part of the past decade.

Yingluck's Puea Thai party won a landslide victory in 2011 on the back of support from the rural voters in the northeast as well as northern Thailand. Although her government also gave tax rebates for first-time buyers of cars and homes, it was the rice-pledging scheme that drew the most opposition from Bangkok's middle-class voters.

They accused her government of financial irresponsibility and corruption, and played a key role in street protests from 2013 onwards aimed at pressuring her to resign.

Puea Thai's previous iterations had similarly dominated national polls, only to have its leaders thrown out through coups or judicial decisions.

Thailand's ruling junta has controlled political activities despite the enactment of a new Constitution in April that paved the way for fresh elections.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha warned the public last week against mobilising supporters to attend Yingluck's Aug 25 verdict reading.

"If they come on their own, it's okay. But if it is mobilised and arranged, and transport is provided, that's wrong and not allowed," he told reporters.

"Do not create any unrest in the court area," he said. "The law is very strict on this."