Thailand's deposed PM Yingluck to appear in court for start of negligence trial

Thailand's first female prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra (above) is expected to appear in court today for the start of a negligence trial which could see her jailed for a decade. -- PHOTO: AFP
Thailand's first female prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra (above) is expected to appear in court today for the start of a negligence trial which could see her jailed for a decade. -- PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's first female prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is expected to appear in court Tuesday for the start of a negligence trial which could see her jailed for a decade.

It is the latest legal move against Yingluck - sister of fugitive billionaire former premier Thaksin Shinawatra - whose administration was toppled in a military coup nearly a year ago.

A guilty conviction could deliver a hammer blow to the political dominance of her family, but it also risks stirring up the powerful grassroots "red shirt" movement that supports her family but has remained largely inactive since the the military took over.

Yingluck is accused of criminal negligence over a populist but economically disastrous rice subsidy scheme, which paid farmers in the rural Shinawatra heartland twice the market rate for their crops. She is not accused of corruption but of failing to prevent alleged graft within the programme, which cost billions of dollars and galvanised the protests that eventually felled her elected government leading to last May's coup.

Thailand's military-appointed Parliament impeached Yingluck in January over the scheme, a move which banned her from politics for five years.

"I believe a hawkish faction in the old powers... wants to punish the Shinawatras as much as they can," Ms Puangthong Pawakapan, a Thai politics expert at Chulalongkorn University, told AFP.

"But keeping her in prison will definitely anger the red shirts even more," she added.

Yingluck is expected to appear in person at the trial, which is being heard by the Supreme Court on the northern outskirts of Bangkok.

On Monday, Thailand's Attorney-General warned an arrest warrant would be issued if she failed to appear without good reason.

Yingluck herself has defended the controversial rice scheme as one which "lifted the quality of life for rice farmers" in the poor north-east of a country where subsidies to farmers have long been a cornerstone of Thai politics.

The army takeover last year was the latest twist in a decade of political turbulence that broadly pits a Bangkok-based elite, backed by parts of the military and judiciary, against poor urban and rural voters, particularly in the country's north, who are fiercely loyal to the Shinawatras.

Thaksin was himself toppled by a previous coup in 2006 and now lives in self-exile to avoid jail on a corruption charge.

The Shinawatras, or parties allied to them, have won every Thai election since 2001.

But their opponents accuse them of cronyism, corruption and financially ruinous populist policies.

As a result, the Shinawatra family have faced two coups and the removal of three of their premiers by the Thai courts, while several deadly rounds of protest have rocked Bangkok and dragged on the Thai economy.

Former prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, brother-in-law to Yingluck and Thaksin, is also facing criminal charges over a crackdown against anti-Shinawatra protesters in 2008.

Analysts say that the Yingluck trial is likely to drag on in order to keep her bogged down in ongoing legal challenges.