Yingluck 'confident' after 1st day of trial

Ms Yingluck Shinawatra (left) being greeted by about 100 supporters outside the court yesterday.
Ms Yingluck Shinawatra (left) being greeted by about 100 supporters outside the court yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Ex-premier's legal team subjects key prosecution witness to heavy questioning

Ousted Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra put up a stout defence yesterday on the first day of her criminal trial over her administration's controversial rice subsidy scheme, as a key prosecution witness was subject to heavy questioning by her legal team.

The academic in question, Dr Nipon Poapongsakorn from the think-tank Thailand Development Research Institute, had conducted research that was subsequently used as evidence of her wrongdoing by the national anti-graft body.

Under the Puea Thai party government's rice pledging scheme, which ran from 2011 to 2014, the government bought rice from farmers at about 50 per cent above market price. The programme bulged rice stockpiles and is estimated to have cost 500 billion baht (S$20 billion).  

A key contention between supporters and critics of the scheme is whether the sum is considered legitimate aid to farmers. Another is whether the scheme had wider stimulus effects on the Thai economy, a point that was raised during the questioning of Dr Nipon.

Ms Yingluck is accused of negligence and failing to stop corruption in the scheme, charges which she denies. If found guilty by the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Political Office Holders, she faces up to 10 years in jail.

About a hundred supporters turned up outside the court yesterday to greet her before the trial. "Fight! Fight," they cried, calling her the people's prime minister.

Ms Yingluck, who was not questioned yesterday, told reporters she was "confident" in her legal team's efforts.

Thailand's first female prime minister was ordered to step down by the Constitutional Court in May 2014, shortly before the remnants of her Puea Thai government were unseated by a military coup.

In January last year, she was retroactively impeached by a military-stacked legislature. As a result, she is banned from politics until 2020.

Yet she remains a high-profile figure in Puea Thai, which counts among its major supporters rice farmers in the north and north-eastern parts of Thailand.

The court has granted her bail of 30 million baht, but has rejected at least two of her attempts to travel abroad.

Her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted by a coup in 2006 and lives overseas to avoid a jail term. He is reviled by the royalist elites and urban middle-class, which have agitated for most of the past decade to curb his influence.

Since taking power, the military has clamped down on dissent and kept under strict surveillance leaders of the "red shirt" movement allied with Puea Thai.

It has been more circumspect about agricultural subsidies, although the recent plunge in rubber prices - as well as the threat of farmers' protests - have prompted it to promise to buy rubber from them at a premium.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2016, with the headline 'Yingluck 'confident' after 1st day of trial'. Print Edition | Subscribe