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News Analysis: Much at stake in Yingluck verdict

BANGKOK - Thai history is littered with examples of political leaders who went into exile after dramatic putsches.

But Ms Yingluck Shinawatra - with her brother and ousted premier Thaksin living in self-imposed exile - chose to stay on after the 2014 military coup. Thailand's first female prime minister now faces possible incarceration and financial ruin, but analysts say the court - and ruling junta - are also feeling the heat.

On Aug 25, a Thai court will declare whether Ms Yingluck is guilty of negligence over her administration's multi-billion dollar rice subsidy scheme. An acquittal or light sentence will enrage the thousands who paved the way for the military coup by occupying Bangkok's streets four years ago, say analysts. But a stiff sentence will generate public sympathy, and unwittingly give Ms Yingluck political capital.

"It could help her to gain moral support as a leader," says Dr Titipol Phakdeewanich, the dean of Ubon Ratchathani University's political science faculty. "It could help her in her political career, if she wants to pursue it."

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The 50-year-old former business executive is banned from politics until 2020, because she was impeached by a military-appointed assembly one year after she was ousted from premiership. But she kept in touch with supporters while deftly skirting the ban, praying at temples around the country, planting trees, as well as running competitions for her six million followers on Facebook. She remains, alongside her brother, the most visible symbol of the Puea Thai party, which together with its previous iterations have won every single election in Thailand since 2001.

Thailand's military government has yet to lift its ban on political gatherings nor announce a date for fresh elections.

 

The polarised kingdom is still mourning the loss of King Bhumibol Adulyadej until his cremation in October, a factor which analysts expect to tame impulses for political agitation. On top of that, a string of court verdicts as well as military surveillance and control over the past three years have strained Puea Thai and its supporters'

 

network, making it unlikely that the decision in Ms Yingluck's case will generate large unrest on the ground.

Jatuporn Prompan, a key leader in the pro-Puea Thai United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, is now in jail for defaming former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, while another three key activists of this "red shirt" network are being accused by police of masterminding the disruption of an Asean summit in 2009.

"It's hard for them generate mass protests now, or even show their feelings," Chulalongkorn University political scientist Pandit Chanrochanakit tells The Straits Times.

The decade before the 2014 coup, in contrast, was marked by tit-for-tat protests as political factions on either side of Thailand's political divide took to the streets to oust the governments they opposed.

In 2008, "yellow shirt" protesters banding together under the People's Alliance for Democracy massed around Bangkok's parliament to prevent then prime minister Somchai Wongsawat - Ms Yingluck's brother-in-law - from delivering a speech. Two people died as police cracked down, and then deputy prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh resigned to take responsibility.

In 2010, the military moved into the heart of Bangkok's commercial district to disperse thousands of "red shirt" protesters demanding that then prime minister and Democrat leader Mr Abhisit hold fresh elections. More than 90 people died in the mayhem.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) dismissed malfeasance charges against Mr Abhisit in 2015, but brought the same charges against Mr Somchai and Mr Chavalit.

On Wednesday (Aug 2), a court will deliver its verdict on this case. The two men, like Ms Yingluck, face up to 10 years in jail. Observers will be watching this outcome closely for clues on which way the wind will blow for her.