Yingluck no-show will have little long-term impact on Puea Thai party: Analysts

Former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra greets supporters as she arrives to deliver closing statements in her trial at the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Persons Holding Political Positions in Bangkok, Thailand on Aug 1, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

Sitting on a traffic island near Thailand's Supreme Court, a bronzed farmer from Kamphaeng Phet province stabbed his finger in the air as he described his admiration for former Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra.

"We have to support her, like we support Suu Kyi," he said on Friday (Aug 25), referring to Myanmar's de facto leader and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent more than a decade under house arrest.

That was the conundrum facing Thailand's military government as judges prepared to deliver the verdict in the criminal negligence case on Thailand's first female prime minister.

Unlike her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications magnate turned politician who was ousted as prime minister in 2006 and sentenced to jail in absentia in 2008 for conflict of interest, Yingluck had chosen to remain in the Kingdom to fight the charge that she mismanaged the country's multi-billion dollar rice subsidy scheme.

Since being ousted by the 2014 military coup, she has been retroactively impeached and had her assets frozen. Had the verdict that had been scheduled to be read yesterday gone against her, she could have been jailed.

The verdict could have inadvertently created a martyr figure in the biggest and most successful political party in Thailand.

Her no-show lowers that risk, but not for long.

"(The sentiments of) existing supporters won't be affected," said Australian National University fellow Tyrell Haberkorn. "They were not affected by Thaksin's similar decision to flee."

While there was no official confirmation that Yingluck has left Thailand, none of the Puea Thai politicians and their supporters contacted by The Straits Times were upset about the possibility that she has fled.

Ms Thida Thavornseth, a key United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) leader, told The Straits Times: "We understand. Maybe it is good for her. We cannot ask her to donate all her life to the fight (for democracy)."

But she also said that Yingluck's disappearance would make it harder for the UDD to advocate for the rule of law. "If everyone runs away and goes abroad, it means the fight for the rule of law would be a long one."

The court ruling, had it gone ahead, would have been seminal in another way, establishing a legal judgment on whether a politician should face criminal penalties for policy failure.

Privately, some Puea Thai supporters mused at how awkward it was that she skip court at the last moment after braving two years of legal processes that supporters claim were stacked against her. But they felt that the public sympathy would eventually outweigh that surprise.

With the country now past its third year under military rule and an election that has not appeared on the horizon, the farmers who turned up yesterday to support Yingluck said there was little they could have done to help her.

Her no-show would not affect Puea Thai very much, Ubon Ratchathani political scientist Titipol Phakdeewanich said. "The arrest warrant reinforces the idea that Yingluck and Puea Thai were victims of the system."

Mr Yong, the Kamphaeng Phet farmer, said: "There will be a Yingluck No. 2. And I will still support the Puea Thai."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.