Upcoming Thai court verdict in Yingluck trial heightens tensions

Former Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra greeting supporters outside the Supreme Court in Bangkok on Aug 1, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - A Thai court's upcoming announcement on Friday (Aug 25) of its verdicts in two cases involving former ministers has heightened tensions in the politically divided country.

Yingluck Shinawatra and Boonsong Teriyapirom face possible imprisonment in separate trials related to the ousted government's multibillion-dollar subsidy for rice farmers.

Yingluck , who was ousted from her position as prime minister in 2014 shortly before the military staged a coup, is accused of criminal negligence for failing to rein in the policy, under which the state bought rice from farmers at inflated prices. If convicted, she could be jailed for 10 years.

Former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom is accused of corruption over a 2013 deal to sell stockpiled rice to the Chinese government which Thailand's national anti-graft body later declared bogus. If convicted on Friday, he could be jailed for life.

Guilty verdicts would appease the section of the polarised country which took to the streets three years ago to topple the Puea Thai party-led government. But emotions could run high in the other camp, which has been under tight security surveillance since the coup.

"If (Yingluck) is jailed, it would start a fire in Thai politics," Chiang Mai University historian Attachak Sattayanurak tells The Straits Times.

Police officers will swarm the courthouse just outside Bangkok on Friday in anticipation of the thousands of Yingluck supporters expected to turn up.

But Yingluck, who claims she is a "victim of a subtle political game", on Thursday asked supporters to stay home.

"Even though we know that every one of you will come without any bad intention, it may be perceived in other ways," she wrote on a Facebook post. "I don't want your participation to be used to cause violence or result in intervention by others."

Thailand's first female prime minister is already banned from politics until 2020, after being retroactively impeached by a military-appointed assembly in 2015.

Written off as a proxy of her brother Thaksin Shinawatra when she was first elected in 2011, the 50-year-old former business executive is still arguably the Puea Thai party's most recognisable personality alongside her brother. Thaksin, who was also premier when ousted by a coup in 2006, lives in self-imposed exile to evade a graft-related jail sentence.

The rice pledging scheme was a key plank in Puea Thai's 2011 election campaign. While it raised farmers' incomes, it also bloated government stockpiles, distorted prices and toppled the kingdom from its position as the world's top rice exporter.

Yingluck's case has stirred debate on whether politicians should be prosecuted for policy failures.

While playing down the possibility of major unrest, the authorities have taken no chances. In the weeks before the verdict, police and soldiers visited Puea Thai supporters regularly to dissuade them from turning up outside the courthouse on Friday.

"They came to my house and my office," Dr Pongsak Pusitsakul, a surgeon and political activist based in Ratchaburi province, tells The Straits Times. "They say, 'We are concerned about you going to Bangkok on Aug 25. Will you go? Will you go by yourself?'"

Police also took pictures of some supporters' homes and identification cards. Van drivers have also been warned off transporting Yingluck's supporters to Bangkok, said activists based outside the capital.

But this has not deterred people like Dr Pongsak.

"If she is sent to prison, we will move from outside the courthouse to the jail," he says.

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