BANGKOK • 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 prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
"We have to support her, like we support Suu Kyi," he said yesterday, 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 against Thailand's first woman 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 multibillion-dollar rice subsidy scheme.
Since being ousted in the 2014 military coup, she has been retroactively impeached and had her assets frozen. Had the verdict that was 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."
SUPPORTERS WILL REMAIN LOYAL
(The sentiments of) existing supporters won't be affected. They were not affected by Thaksin's similar decision to flee.
AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY FELLOW TYRELL HABERKORN
While there was no official confirmation that Yingluck had left Thailand, none of the Puea Thai politicians and their supporters contacted by The Straits Times was upset about the possibility that she had fled.
Ms Thida Thavornseth, a key leader in the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) network where many members support Puea Thai, 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 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, several Puea Thai supporters mused at how awkward it was that Yingluck skipped 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 yet to appear 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, said Ubon Ratchathani University political scientist Titipol Phakdeewanich. "The arrest warrant reinforces the idea that Yingluck and Puea Thai were victims of the system."
The Kamphaeng Phet farmer, who wanted to be known only as Mr Yong, said: "There will be a Yingluck No. 2, and I will still support the Puea Thai."
Tan Hui Yee