Thailand's Yingluck Impeached

Yingluck Shinawatra, the former Thai Prime Minister who was ousted in a coup last year, has been impeached from an office she no longer holds by a legislature that didn't exist during her tenure, made up largely of political enemies and military men who fought to end her political career.She is banned from politics for the next five years.

The removal of the 47-year-old Yingluck effectively ends a political reign that began in 2001 when her brother, the telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, won office and kicked off a political revolution, challenging the primacy of the ruling elite in Bangkok. He himself was ousted in a 2006 coup but continued to rule politics from outside the country via surrogate governments.

The former premier, in essence a political ventriloquist’s doll for her exiled brother, was charged with corruption for a disastrous subsidy scheme to aid rice farmers that cost the treasury an estimated US$4.4 billion. She argued that the scheme had benefited the farmers. She also faces indictment by the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which could produce a jail term and heavy fines.

“I am not sure what is to be gained by impeaching Yingluck,” said a western businessman. “It is a weak basis in law – how does the National Legislative Assembly impeach a prime minister who has been forced out of office under the provisions of a constitution that has been abrogated? Can a prime minister be impeached for a failed policy? What precedents does this set?”

The main precedent that is being set is to stamp out the last vestiges of a political movement begun by Yingluck’s brother in 2001, and which dominated Thai electoral politics until last year’s coup, creating a new political force among the poor, rural and disenfranchised to the outrage of the royalty and the Bangkok elites – at the same time indulging in substantial corruption. Being impeached with Yingluck are Thaksin allies, the former speakers of the House of Representatives and the Senate on what appear to be equally flimsy charges.

The National Legislative Assembly that put Yingluck on trial was put in place without benefit of an election by Prayuth, the former army general who staged the May 22 coup, and is composed of a majority of current or former military officers and a smattering of pro-coup businessmen who voted the way he wanted. Although some 500 police and 300 soldiers were on hand to make sure no protest got out of hand, the deployment appears so far to have been an anticlimax. Thoroughly cowed or disillusioned supporters have stayed away.

The Army and the Democrat Party, which represents the Bangkok elite power base but which has never won an outright parliamentary majority, are determined to retire the Shinawatra name from politics for good although the two institutions are reluctant bedfellows. The Democrats, having seen the Thaksin forces ousted, would like the army to go back to the barracks to allow them the spoils. The army has no plans to do that.

Yingluck, the observer said, may have been a bit vacuous but she was an excellent stand-in, very popular with the red shirt base and someone who, like her brother, could win election after election. Despite her amicable personal relationship with Prayuth during her reign, the Army and the Democrat Party fear her and want to get rid of her for good.

The trial has been closely watched to see if any of the millions of Thaksin followers from the impoverished Northeast of the country who were empowered through social programs and economic aid would show up in Bangkok to protest the former premier’s treatment. But it appears that there is a resignation that the benefits democracy delivered for them have been smothered by the coup. With the military regime in place for nine months and expected to remain there indefinitely and with any opposition thoroughly cowed, there appears no impetus for an uprising.

The Red Shirts are not at all happy about these developments but without a hue and cry from the exiled supremo, Thaksin, or from their own UDD leaders still in Thailand, there appears no outlet for action. Given the massed army and police units ready to pounce, it would have been a one-way ticket to trouble and trials for those who acted.

Thaksin himself has gone silent. He has lost the backing of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who in November wth the backing of the army kicked out his consort, former Princess Srirasmi, along with some 40 top policemen and businessmen, having them arrested for various crimes. That has cost Thaksin his allies in the intensely political palace and the police, replaced by army loyalists.

Vajiralongkorn, who is detested among many of the palace guard, appears to have recognized he would be unable to become king without the army, and switched his allegiance.

“Without the backing of the Crown Prince or anyone in the palace, all Thaksin can do is bide his time and hope events allow his prospects to improve,” the western analyst said. When he was forced into exile by a 2008 trial for improper use of his power, the government sequestered a major part of the fortune he had earned from his telecommunications empire. He has at least US$1 billion and an extended family at stake in Thailand and may be looking for a deal—without much leverage – to trade permanent exile for the return of his fortune.

There is also the realization that Prayuth and the army, unlike leaders of the previous 13 successful coups [out of 19 attempts] since 1932, have engineered a shutdown of all protest that simply does not allow for any dissent. Journalists and academics have been called in and intimidated, Thaksin’s chief lieutenants have either been driven out of the country or otherwise neutralized. Martial law remains in place, nine months after the coup. The draconian lese majesté law and an equally tough computer crimes act have stilled all criticism of the government.

In the meantime, Prayuth seeks nothing more than to reorder society for good, and not just through the homilies he delivers in weekly public broadcasts. While he has promised democratic elections for 2016, he also promised them for 2015 and he may well end up promising them for 2017. The new constitution being written now is being worded to make sure neither Thaksin nor any of his followers will be allowed to run. Given the delicate situation over the looming succession as the 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej weakens, the country appears suspended in time.

The dynamic, investment-led economy that characterized the country for decades, making it an assembly hub for multinationals, has largely stalled, with growth averaging just 2.3 percent annually. The military is in charge of the finance ministry, and few generals show any aptitude in managing the country’s finances. The political uncertainty has dried up new foreign direct investment.

While Prayuth immediately sacked all chiefs of state-owned enterprises and technocrats known to be involved with the Thaksin regime – which was admittedly steeped in corruption itself –public spending has slowed as projects have failed to be approved and funds have not been disbursed despite the announcement of ambitious infrastructure spending plans. Less than 10 percent of the Bt450 billion earmarked for infrastructure in the current fiscal year has been spent.

With no one really sure who will be in charge, or if an election could actually be gotten away in 2016, decisions on private investment are stalled.

“No one has any new ideas to offer, no one can suggest an alternative to the junta, and no one is particularly unhappy with the present situation,” the western businessman said. ”A state of resigned depression, in which lots of people have simply tuned out of politics, seems to be the rule.”