Thai Military Shows Yingluck the Door

The decision on July 17 by Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission to find former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra guilty of negligence in connection with the country’s ill-starred rice subsidy scheme looks like a choreographed plan to drive her out of the country.

At almost the same time, the junta granted permission for the 46-year-old former Pheu Thai leader to travel overseas for the first time since the May 22 coup led by Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha. Ostensibly she was given permission to observe her brother Thaksin Shinawatra's 65th birthday in Europe.

She will reportedly leave the country next week. She has said she will return, according to press reports.

Thaksin himself was deposed as prime minister in a royalist coup in 2006 and later fled the country ahead of a prison sentence for abuse of power in helping his then-wife buy government property at a reduced rate. He has continued to in effect lead the country from his perch in Dubai through a series of elected surrogate governments, the last one the Pheu Thai Party which came to power in 2011 with Yingluck at the head.

If indeed Yingluck decides to stay abroad, it would fulfill a game plan outlined by a Thai businessman last November, shortly after the Thaksin forces misplayed their hand by introducing an ill-advised amnesty bill that would have exonerated all sides for their part in a bloody crackdown in 2010 that took more than 90 lives, most of them Red Shirt backers of the Thaksin forces. The crackdown was so unpopular that when democracy was restored in 2011, the Pheu Thai forces led by Yingluck won in a comparative landslide.

The amnesty bill served as the fulcrum for anti-Thaksin opposition to mount months of rallies and protests. Nonetheless, after Yingluck dissolved the parliament, Pheu Thai handily won a subsequent snap election in February that was nullified by the courts because the anti-Thaksin opposition boycotted the election. Months of violence ensued, inspired by the elites and led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a thuggish warlord whose power base is in the south of the country.

While the anti-corruption commission insisted the ruling granting her leave to go overseas had nothing to do with the decision to charge her, as Asia Sentinel reported on June 30, it has been the aim of an amalgam of interests to drive the Shinawatra clan out of the country and eliminate all traces of their power. Thaksin still has substantial assets in the country that reportedly well exceed US$1 billion. He would also like to regain another US$1 billion in assets frozen after his conviction.

The problem for the elites since the 2006 coup is that Thaksin is like the Okiagari-kobōshi, the Japanese doll that, repeatedly knocked over, always pops back upright. Despite the coup and court actions designed to stop him, his populist policies gave him an unassailable working class base. They included a comprehensive social welfare scheme for the long-ignored rural poor that featured scholarships, welfare housing, health plans, insurance, company incubators, a Bt1 million investment fund for individual villages and many others, something no politician in Bangkok had ever done.

The programs guaranteed him and his proxies overwhelming success at the ballot box despite charges of massive corruption, cronyism, threats against the press and pay-for-play bribe demands from corporations.

Although Yingluck now faces prosecution for her role in the botched rice scheme, which guaranteed rice farmers prices as much as 50 percent over world prices, it is questionable what the sentence might be. Prayuth consulted with her frequently during her stewardship of the country and he is said to like her personally and would not like to see her jailed. Whether he advised her to leave the country is unknown, but it seems logical.

Army spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree told reporters Thursday that Yingluck had cooperated with the junta and had complied with an order to cease any political activities. However, the junta has set the condition that Yingluck must return to Thailand by August 10. If she doesn’t, her enemies will have made a major step forward in driving the Shinawatras away.

But that leaves unresolved the aspirations of the millions of Red Shirt followers in the north and northeast of the country who benefited from the Thaksin regime’s social programs. In Bangkok they are regarded as uneducated rabble despite the fact that over the intervening 13 years since Thaksin started his social programs, they have grown increasingly savvy and uncontrollable by Bangkok.

The country has remained largely quiet since the coup, which has been called the best-prepared and best-executed of the 19 coups the country has endured since 1932, 13 of them successful.

“The junta's restrictions on free speech affect very few so far,” a western observer told Asia Sentinel in an email. “As always, my feeling of how this will pan out is just that, a feeling based on my understanding of how Thais tend to think. Unless the west imposes serious sanctions that start to hurt ordinary Thais' ability to snap up the latest smart phones, they will obey the generals and keep their political opinions to themselves.

"I've never believed there was strong support for democracy here in principle, and always believed Thaksin's success was based only on the abject failure of previous regimes to pay any attention to the lower classes. I think people in the North and Isaan [the northeast] have accepted the fact that no government they elect will be allowed to stay in place, so there's no point in fighting.”