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In final court appearance, Yingluck appeals to Thai farmers

Former PM defies junta during trial over failed rice subsidy program

Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra speaks to reporters in front of the Supreme Court in Bangkok on Aug. 1. (Photo by Hiroshi Kotani)

BANGKOK In her darkest hour, former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has turned to the country's rice farmers, the voter base she tapped for her maiden electoral triumph, for support.

"I am most proud [because] ... I had the opportunity to push [a subsidy] program on behalf of rice farmers," Yingluck said on Aug. 1 as she read out a 20-page statement in a Bangkok courtroom. It was her final plea of innocence before the Supreme Court, which is trying Thailand's first female prime minister for negligence in relation to the multibillion-dollar rice subsidy program.

The program was meant to "benefit the economy at the grassroots," Yingluck said as she continued her statement. Toward the end, her voice began to crack and she fought back tears as she described her personal bond with the "spine of the nation," as she called the farmers.

The court is due to hand down a verdict on Aug. 25 after 18 months of hearings. If found guilty, Yingluck could face a 10-year jail term.

"MULTIPLE MESSAGES" Her statement has set the political tone for August in military-ruled Thailand. It was aimed not only at the audience in the courtroom but also -- if not more so -- at the country's 3.7 million rice-growing families. Many hail from the rural north and northeast, strongholds of the Shinawatras, Thailand's most politically influential family, headed by Yingluck's elder brother and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is living in exile to avoid a jail term on conflict of interest charges brought after his elected administration was ousted by the military in a 2006 coup.

"Yingluck's statement was political communication with multiple messages," said Buapun Promphakping, a social scientist at Khon Kaen University in northeast Thailand. "It was an appeal for sympathy from farmers and the public who benefited from her government's programs."

In a sign of her growing defiance, Yingluck also used her court appearance to take a swipe at her chief political adversary, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the ruling junta and the former army chief who staged the May 2014 coup that toppled Yingluck's elected administration.

Yingluck reminded Prayuth that she did not have sole authority as prime minister to implement the rice subsidy program. According to a Western diplomat, this was a politically calculated dig at Prayuth's use of Section 44 of Thailand's post-coup constitution, dubbed the "dictator's law" because it gives him the power to implement a range of government policies entirely at his own discretion.

Tensions between Yingluck and Prayuth rose further after the military regime targeted her rice subsidy program as part of a post-coup anti-corruption drive. A pro-junta panel accused Yingluck of failing to prevent corruption in the administration of lavish rice subsidies from 2011 through 2013, costing the Thai state 500 billion baht ($15.0 billion).

Under the so-called rice-pledging program, the Yingluck administration bought all the rice harvested in the country from farmers at prices 50% higher than the market price -- 15,000 baht per ton for plain white rice and 20,000 baht per ton for fragrant jasmine rice. Cash-rich farmers boosted spending in the rural economy, which accounted for 1% of gross domestic product, the World Bank said at the time.

SOWING CORRUPTION However, the attempt by Yingluck's Pheu Thai government to monopolize the rice market backfired because it was unable to sell the rice at a profit in the global market. Critics said the program became a breeding ground for corruption. After the coup, the junta ordered Yingluck to accept personal liability for the flawed policy, billing her 35.7 billion baht to compensate the state for some of its losses. Last month, the regime used its executive powers to freeze 12 of Yingluck's bank accounts without a court order. According to some estimates, Yingluck's net worth is $17 million.

Yingluck's trial has raised eyebrows in some academic circles. Scholars are concerned about the dangerous precedent the case has set of criminalizing an elected government official for a policy failure.

"This case is unprecedented, because what Yingluck is being tried for -- negligence -- happens all the time in government," said Thanet Aphornsuvan, a historian at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "Not everybody is scrupulous. There are loopholes along the line."

The trial also marks another dramatic development -- it is the first time a former elected Thai prime minister has been publicly tried on charges carrying a jail term. Thaksin was found guilty in absentia by the Supreme Court in 2008, having left Thailand before the trial. Consequently, the courts are also on trial, Thai law experts say, because a politically tainted verdict could widen the country's already deep political divides.

"The courts need to rule only on the legal issues of the case, if a law was broken or corruption proved," said Ekachai Chainuvati, deputy dean of the faculty of law at Bangkok's Siam University. "But if Yingluck is found guilty for political reasons, then the public will lose faith in the legal system."

A political verdict would add to a growing record of Thai courts contributing to the country's political divide, which pits the populist pro-Thaksin camp, with its rural voter base, against ultraconservative elites, drawn from affluent urbanites, entrenched monarchists, the military and the bureaucracy. Allies of the Shinawatra camp have faced court actions in a slew of cases since the 2006 coup.

In addition to the charges brought against Thaksin and Yingluck, two pro-Thaksin political parties have been disbanded, and more than 200 pro-Thaksin parliamentarians have been banned from party politics. During Yingluck's administration, a court also stopped her party from passing a law aimed at expanding democracy by holding elections for all members of the Senate, the upper house of parliament.

Yet the Shinawatras' political base remains strong. Yingluck has 6 million followers on her Facebook page, the highest for a Thai politician. Recent national surveys of voter sentiment conducted by the regime's intelligence arms suggest that Pheu Thai will secure at least 46% of parliamentary seats and possibly a majority when elections are held -- deeply upsetting the regime, according to a diplomatic source.

Senior government members have admitted to political insiders that a guilty verdict against Yingluck could see her support base expand and even trigger an emotional outburst by Thais on the streets. But Prayuth has made clear that the military is in no mood for outbreaks of popular discontent. "We will monitor the movement of Yingluck's supporters in August," a military official told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Organized convoys will be stopped."

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