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Thailand's junta could benefit from former PM's escape

Although an apparent embarrassment, Yingluck's flight eases pressure on generals

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks during a news conference after his meeting with National Security Council as Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan looks on at Government House in Bangkok on August 15, 2016.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- "You can easily walk across [the Thai border]," said a Thai political exile who is living in a European capital. Thailand's porous border with Cambodia became a popular escape route for opponents of the military junta after the 2014 coup. It appears that former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose elected government was ousted in that putsch, has now become the most prominent Thai politician to have taken that route.

It was a stunning exit from the political stage for the country's first female leader. She failed to show up on Aug. 25 at the Supreme Court in Bangkok to hear the verdict in a politically charged case where she was on trial for administrative negligence. But in skipping her judgment day, she has left some unanswered questions -- for example, what exactly were the circumstances of her departure from Thailand?

Three possibilities have emerged following her disappearance, which appears to have placed the ruling junta in an awkward spot. Some Thai media quoting military sources said that Yingluck went to Trat, a coastal province southeast of Bangkok and fled by sea to neighboring Cambodia. From there, she reportedly flew to Singapore. Meanwhile, international news agency AFP reported military sources as claiming she had flown directly from Thailand to Singapore.

But three well-placed military and intelligence sources told a different story to the Nikkei Asian Review. Yingluck left her home in a Bangkok suburb on the night of Aug. 23 in a van that crossed into Cambodia at Sa Kaeo, an eastern Thai province that borders Cambodia. She crossed a small creek at the border and was met on the Cambodian side by a military unit and close confidants of the Cambodian government, one of them said. She then went to Phnom Penh, from where she flew to Singapore.

Yingluck's vanishing act represents a double-edged sword for the junta. Analysts said her use of the Sa Kaeo route would embarrass senior junta figures -- Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda -- since they all come from the politically powerful Second Infantry Division which is responsible for security along most of the 817km Thai-Cambodian border.

Prawit offered a nonchalant response when asked about Yingluck's escape, which is seen as a major security breach when the junta had increased surveillance against her supporters ahead of the court ruling. "It is not clear [what happened], but she was a former premier. Officials may have helped her out," he told journalists in Bangkok.

Prime Minister Prayuth offered a more brusque response. "What is the meaning of Ms. Yingluck's absence? Whether she intends to escape or not? Go and ask Ms. Yingluck yourself," he told reporters.

Mutual benefits

The junta's conservative supporters may need a more convincing explanation. The regime threw a heavy security net over Bangkok and the provinces in the north, northeast and east of the country to prevent Yingluck's supporters from heading to the Supreme Court for last Friday's ruling. Prior to that, the military hounded Yingluck for months with round-the-clock surveillance, prompting her to complain on Facebook about their tailing her. That has prompted some in the ultra-conservative royalist camp to question whether a deal had been struck to allow Yingluck's escape.

But seasoned observers are not surprised. The dramatic turn of events fits into a familiar narrative of Thai elite politics -- a "way out for both sides" in the wake of mounting public rage and a possible backlash from Yingluck's supporters if the court found her guilty and jailed her for 10 years.

The normal practice of the elite has been to "take a harsh approach and make threatening choices for the adversary to abide by," said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a think tank. "Then, they tend to open the door for the adversary to get off the stage -- the least damaging option for the whole elite circle."

Yingluck's exit has also rattled her political party, Phue Thai, that she led to electoral victory in 2011. Analysts said her escape threatened to tarnish the political image of the Shinawatras, the country's most influential political clan since it came to power in 2001. Party insiders were surprised by her absence on Friday, leaving them struggling to offer an explanation. "We cannot discuss much until we first hear from her," a senior party official told the Nikkei Asian Review. "For now, we can only credit her for agreeing to go through the trial which had many flaws and with the military regime interfering all along."

Broken promises

The junta stands to benefit, at least in the short term, since Yingluck's flight has undermined her political capital, analysts said. She had earlier promised to play by the rules during her 18-month trial. She told her supporters that she would attend the court proceedings and not flee. This had set her apart from her elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup and fled to Dubai after the Supreme Court ruled against him in a conflict-of-interest case in 2008.

Yingluck drew large crowds when she attended court sessions, where she was being tried for having mismanaged a lavish rice subsidy policy she implemented soon after her government came to power. She had campaigned on the "rice-pledging" program, offering a new twist to state-supported subsidies for rice farmers dating from the early 1980s. She promised farmers that her government would pay 50% above the market price for all rice produced during the annual harvest. The farmers enjoyed a rare windfall, selling plain white rice for 15,000 baht ($452 at current exchange rates) per ton and 20,000 baht per ton for fragrant jasmine rice. The domestic rice support accounted for 1% of gross domestic product, said the World Bank.

The program ran into trouble after the government, saddled with a growing rice mountain, was unable to sell the grain on the world market at a profit. Critics said the program represented a form of corruption, an argument that the junta pounced on after the coup. A pro-junta panel said Yingluck's two-year rice subsidy had cost the Thai state 500 billion baht. The military regime claimed that Yingluck was personally liable for the rice subsidy and it billed her 35.7 billion baht to compensate the state for losses.

Yingluck's hand appeared to have been forced on Aug. 23, according to diplomatic sources, when she was tipped off about the fate that awaited her: a 7-2 ruling against her by the nine-member bench, a 10-year jail term and an appeal for bail declined.

Two days later, the judges delivered a harsh verdict against Yingluck's allies in a parallel case that involved the rice subsidy scheme. Boonsong Teriyapirom, former commerce minister, was slapped with a 42-year prison sentence and Poom Sarapol, former deputy commerce minister, received a 36-year prison sentence. The junta defended the judgement. "The verdict against Boonsong and Poom is hardly surprising and not unique to Thailand since they faced different charges and long sentences are even common in the U.S.," Panitan Wattanayagorn, adviser to Prawit, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Someone must be held accountable for implementing policies that went wrong."

Potential martyrdom

But a likely 10-year jail term for Yingluck, a photogenic and popular figure who drew huge crowds when she traveled across the country, troubled the military regime, said political insiders. One senior minister feared the sentence would transform her into a political martyr and she would become the Thai equivalent of Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ahead of the verdict, the junta appeared to show signs of panic over a likely backlash from Yingluck's supporters in the rural, rice-growing heartland. Gen. Chalermchai Sitthisart, the army chief, reviewed a national security plan and troops were dispatched to man road blocks, inspect train passengers and warn grassroots leaders in the Pheu Thai stronghold in the country's north and northeast against sending supporters to Bangkok.

But with Yingluck out of the picture and a weakened Pheu Thai, the junta faces a political order more to its liking. The generals are now said to be preparing to increase the tempo of reconciliation efforts in a deeply polarized country that a court verdict on Yingluck had threatened to derail.

A committee packed with military officials is drafting a unity "contract", a three-page document of principles that is aimed to win support from across the political spectrum. It is part of the military's post-coup political order to bridge the fault lines that have pitted the populist Shinawatra political machine against the ultra-conservative and entrenched royalist elite who maintain Thailand's semi-feudal social order. Some political analysts consider the junta's push for political conformity as a way to neuter the political appeal of the Shinawatras -- a bete noire of the royalist clique -- in Thai politics.

The junta will face a trial of strength when it moves beyond military propaganda to court public support. The military is hoping that Yingluck's exit will precipitate a political realignment among the voters, although there is skepticism about a major shift in sentiment. As one Pheu Thai official said: "The military is misreading a polarized Thailand."

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