News analysis

Much at stake in verdict on Yingluck

Thailand's history is littered with examples of political leaders going into exile after dramatic putsches.

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

On Aug 25, a court will declare whether Yingluck is guilty of negligence over her government's multibillion-dollar rice subsidy scheme. Analysts say 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,. But a stiff sentence will generate public sympathy, and unwittingly give 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."

The 50-year-old former business executive is banned from politics until 2020, after being impeached by a military-appointed assembly in 2015. But she has kept in touch with supporters around the country, by praying at temples, planting trees and running competitions for her six million followers on Facebook. She remains, alongside her brother, the most visible symbol of the Puea Thai party which, with its previous iterations, has won every single election in Thailand since 2001.

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

The polarised kingdom is still mourning the loss of King Bhumibol Adulyadej , a factor which analysts expect to tame impulses for political agitation. On top of that, a string of court verdicts and military surveillance and control over the past three years have strained Puea Thai and its supporters' network, making it unlikely that the decision in Yingluck's case will generate large unrest on the ground.

"It's hard for them to 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 Parliament in Bangkok to prevent then Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat - Yingluck's brother-in-law - from delivering a speech. Two people died as police cracked down, and 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 Abhisit Vejjajiva hold fresh elections. More than 90 people died in the mayhem.

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

Today, a court will deliver its verdict on this case. The two men, like Yingluck, face up to 10 years in jail if found guilty. This outcome could hold clues as to which way the wind will blow for her.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2017, with the headline 'Much at stake in verdict on Yingluck '. Print Edition | Subscribe