Nearly a year after being ousted in a coup, ex-Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra is to stand trial over a rice scheme scandal. Experts say a conviction is very likely, but the key question is how harsh the punishment will be.
The trial against ousted Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is set to begin on Tuesday, May 19, with a first hearing before the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions.
It is the latest blow to the dominance of the Shinawatra family in Thai politics, after military-appointed lawmakers in the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) voted in January to impeach the 47-year-old politician for her role in overseeing a money-losing rice subsidy scheme - a decision which has banned her from politics for five years.
Thailand is currently under the rule of a military junta following a May 22 coup which brought down the Yingluck-led government. The man behind the coup - General Prayuth Chan-ocha, currently Prime Minister - argued that the military takeover was necessary to avoid further bloodshed following months of political turmoil in a country which has been plagued by political upheaval over the past decade.
The rice scheme
Yingluck stands accused of dereliction of duty and criminal negligence for her role in a rice subsidy scheme that she trumpeted and that her government oversaw.
Military-appointed lawmakers in the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) voted in January to impeach Yingluck
Under the controversial program, the government paid rice farmers up to twice the market price for grain. Much of this rice, however, was not sold.
In one of the world's top rice-exporting nations, the subsidy scheme not only fueled anti-government protests, but also cost the country some four billion USD, according to Thailand's National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), which led the probe into the scandal.
The scheme was also alleged to have been a victim of graft, with anti-corruption investigators claiming it was exploited by associates of her government and used to buy votes from farmers in the country's northeast, which is known to be a stronghold of Yingluck's Pheu Thai party.
Other former Pheu Thai lawmakers and private sector businessmen have been also indicted on corruption charges for their role in the subsidy program and government-to-government sales, but will not stand trial with the former PM.
Yingluck herself has argued that the program was simply designed to assist farmers who would otherwise deal with extreme price volatility.
The former PM has questioned the legitimacy of the proceedings, arguing she was no longer in office and repeatedly stated she intends to fight until the end to prove her innocence.
The Thai leader could face up to 10 years in jail if found guilty. While she did not appear in person at the announcement of the case by the court in March, she must appear in person on May 19 for the first hearing, and the court will decide on whether she can be granted bail. If she fails to appear, the court could issue an arrest warrant for her.
However, political analysts argue that what really lies at the heart of this case is the royalist-military establishment's desire to wipe out the influence of Yingluck's older brother and former PM Thaksin Shinawatra from Thai politics.
Yingluck, the kingdom's first female PM, and her billionaire self-exiled brother Thaksin, who was also ousted in a 2006 coup, still have many supporters in the country, especially among the mostly rural poor in the north, northeast and central plains.
"The military and royalists have had to stage two coups, draft two constitutions, disbanded two political parties, banned hundreds of Thaksin allies from politics for years on end, and abused the judiciary to try to purge Thai politics of the influence of the Thaksin political machine," Zachary Abuza, an independent Southeast Asia analyst, told DW.
"This trial compounded with the unworkable draft constitution must be seen as the last ditch efforts of the military and ultra-monarchists to achieve that goal," he added.
A fair trial?
This is why experts such as Phuong Nguyen of the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), believe there is little chance of this being a fair trial. "Yingluck's retroactive impeachment and banning from politics for five years shows that the military government and their supporters are more interested in settling scores with the Shinawatra family than being seen as impartial."
Another reason for this is that presiding over the trial - which is expected to go on for months - is a nine-member panel handpicked by the Supreme Court which some view as not entirely independent.
"Of any political institution in Thailand, the judiciary is by far the most royalist body. The court will do the bidding of the ultra-monarchists and the military who are determined to finally exorcise the Shinawatra family from Thai politics," Abuza said.
Paul Chambers, Director of Research at the Thailand-based Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, also pointed out that this is the same legal entity which found Thaksin, Yingluck's brother, guilty of conflict of interest back in 2008.
All of the justices on this court previously delivered verdicts against Thaksin in previous cases, the expert noted. "While this does not prove bias, it comes dangerously close to the appearance of partisanship. And as Thaksin's sister, Yingluck will find it exceptionally difficult to get a fair trial due to the partisan character of the justices on the court," Chambers told DW, adding that as a result "we can pretty much expect an open-and-shut case against Yingluck."
Fear of unrest
Despite restricting freedom of expression and assembly, and pursuing lèse majesté charges on an unprecedented scale, Thailand's military rulers have tried to present themselves in a positive light by launching a "national happiness" campaign, and reassuring foreign investors, tourists and fellow Thais that calm has been restored to Southeast Asia's second largest economy.
But this uneasy calm might be disturbed depending on the sentence passed against the former PM. "If the military is seen as overplaying its hand, there is a chance it could cause the support base of Yingluck and Thaksin Shinawatra in the rural northeast to react, although current level of support for Thaksin is harder to gauge than some years ago." said Nguyen.
Moreover, her imprisonment would add tension to Thailand's already troubled relations with its ally the United States, especially as a senior US diplomat has publicly labeled her impeachment as being politically motivated.
Forced into exile?
On the other hand, if Yingluck is released and stays in Thailand, she can potentially spearhead a resurrection of pro-Thaksin forces in anticipation of the next general election, something the Thai arch-royalists and the military would not like, said Chambers.
This is why most experts believe that Yingluck is likely to receive a suspended sentence, which would further clip her wings, and possibly be compelled into exile along with her brother Thaksin, which would be less politically volatile than imprisoning her.
"What the arch-royalists want is that Yingluck leave Thailand permanently and join her brother in exile. Also, by finding her guilty, the military can blame the Shinawatras for the economic downturn and thus gain greater legitimacy. That is what this trial against Yingluck is all about," said Chambers.