Who Benefits from Yingluck’s Exile from Thailand?

Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has apparently fled the country in advance of a court verdict on charges brought by the current military regime that could have seen her face a long prison term. She is assumed to have joined her brother, the billionaire populist Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been in exile, mostly in Dubai, since 2008 when he fled in the face of charges brought by a previous military regime which had overthrown his elected government in 2006 and outlawed his Thai Rak Thai party.

That was followed by a series of electoral victories for surrogate parties that were pushed out by various means until 2011, when Pheu Thai came into being with Yingluck at its head. The party won 265 of the 500 parliamentary seats, giving it an absolute majority. A tumultuous three years followed as royalists attempted to foment enough unrest to drive it from power. In 2014, Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha staged a coup and ousted the democratically-elected government.

The National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta called itself, rounded up dissidents, driving many out of the country, and began to use the courts to go after the remainder of Pheu Thai’s leadership. It trained its sights on the attractive, popular leader, now 50 years of age.

Yingluck’s sudden departure overseas came immediately before an almost-certain verdict on allegations of mismanagement of the rice price support scheme she initiated in 2011 at her brother’s behest following her election that year on the slogan “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts”. Although politically driven, poorly implemented and economically unwise, the rice policy debacle made a poor excuse for jailing a popular and elected prime minister on criminal charges.

Yingluck’s sudden departure, presumably with her brother’s blessing, left open the issue of who would benefit most in the longer term from her self-imposed exile: the National Council for Peace and Order, which seized power in 2014, or the Shinawatras, who remain popular in the impoverished northeastern region of the country.

Her departure was immediately followed by reports in the semi-controlled Thai media that the NCPO had given her the green light to go. Surely, it was argued, the military kept sufficiently close tables on the lady to prevent her sneaking away, most likely via Cambodia – though strongman Cambodian leader Hun Sen denied this – where the Shinawatras had high level connections. The theory was that Yingluck would, like her brother, be less a liability enjoying a comfortable life out of the country rather than being a focus of opposition by being locked up in Thailand.

The NCPO has denied this but it remains a plausible theory – and also one which may not reflect well on Yingluck.

But even if the junta had no part in this escape from the supposed “justice” due to be meted out by a politically motivated court, it is questionable whether it was wise for Yingluck to leave. For sure, Thaksin has managed to keep the Shinawatra name in the forefront of Thai politics from exile. But to some extent that needed the presence of his sister. That leaves the question of who can now carry the banner of their powerful name within the country.

Accepting imprisonment as the price to be paid for standing by political principles, the examples of Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi or Anwar Ibrahim might be considered a more effective way of focusing domestic attention on injustice. A Yingluck in jail could be potent focus of opposition in the lead up to elections supposed to be held under the new junta-created constitution.

This provides for a very restricted form of democracy which would anyway preclude the Shinawatras’ return to power. But the electoral process itself might provide an opportunity for Pheu Thai party to show up the unpopularity of the junta – which explains the constant delays to the promised election. For now however it is impossible to tell how far Yingluck’s departure will impact Pheu Thai’s fortunes.