BANGKOK -- An arrest warrant was issued on Friday for former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, after she failed to appear for a supreme court verdict that could have seen her sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
Yingluck, who was dismissed by court order as caretaker prime minister shortly before a military coup in May 2014, had been on trial for negligence in relation to a rice-subsidy scheme launched in 2011, which by some estimates incurred losses of up to 500 billion baht ($15 billion).
Her whereabouts are currently unknown, but there have been widespread rumors that she has left the country and there has been speculation that she is in Singapore.
Yingluck's no-show came after 4,000 riot police had been deployed around the Supreme Court early on Friday in case of unrest when the verdict was handed down.
Some analysts said that in the short term Yingluck's disappearance has reduced political risk. The Stock Exchange of Thailand index on Friday closed down 0.1%. "It was much better than Yingluck getting a harsh verdict," one economist said.
The latest twist in the military's efforts to impose political order on Thailand provides a respite rather than any sort of resolution. Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire, and his family continue to enjoy support in the north and northeast of the country, particularly among farmers and low-income earners.
"I am very sad to learn that she is not coming here today," said Pu Baitongsod, a 50-year-old office worker holding back tears. "I really wanted to see her, but I respect her decision." Pu was among thousands gathered outside the court in northern Bangkok, and said she would return on Sept. 27 to hear the postponed ruling.
Poonsak Udanon, a farmer from Nakhon Phanom in the northeast said he was "sad and worried" about the embattled former prime minister. The 75-year-old defended the Yingluck government's rice-subsidy scheme, and said that the former prime minister was "facing injustice" and being bullied.
Yingluck's Pheu Thai derived its popularity from the populist policies launched by Thaksin in 2001 with his previous political vehicle, the Thai Rak Thai party. Thaksin was removed by a military coup in 2006, and has been in self-imposed exile since 2008. He has been found guilty in absentia for offences he allegedly committed in office.
During her trial, Yingluck repeatedly said she would not take flight. Sources close to both the Shinawatras and the military have told the Nikkei Asian Review that she is now outside the country, possibly in Singapore. Thaksin has spent most of his years abroad based in Dubai.
"Even when Thaksin fled the country, his supporters stayed with him," said Yasuhito Asami, a professor at Hosei University in Japan, noting that Thaksin's parties have won every election since 2001.
Asami regarded Yingluck in office as a "symbolic figure" and substitute for Thaksin who was unable to run Pheu Thai directly. It remains to be seen who will replace her as party leader, and what will happen when the military's ban on political activities is lifted ahead of a general election -- which is not expected to be before the fourth quarter of 2018.
Jet Tonavanic, an associate professor at Kasetsart University, thinks Pheu Thai might now reduce its allegiance to the Shinawatra clan and build a party "that can truly earn the people's support through its fight for democracy."