The Supreme Court has issued an arrest warrant after ex-PM Yingluck Shinawatra failed to appear for the verdict in the case regarding her rice subsidy scheme. Thai media reports the politician fled to the Middle East.
Sources in former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's party said on Saturday that she had fled to Dubai, a day after she failed to show up at the Supreme Court for the ruling in her negligence trial.
The Reuters news agency cited sources in the Pheu Thai Party as saying Yingluck flew via Singapore to the United Arab Emirates, where her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now lives. Almost a decade ago, Thaksin himself fled Thailand to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.
Sources told the Bangkok Post newspaper that Yingluck likely obtained a Cambodian passport, traveled by land to Cambodia, then flew to Singapore and then on to Dubai.
Both Yingluck and her brother also hold Nicaraguan passports, the paper reported.
On Friday, the Supreme Court postponed the planned verdict on Yingluck's
ill-fated 2011 rice subsidy scheme, for which she faces up to 10 years in jail, and issued a warrant for her arrest. Yingluck's lawyer blamed an illness for the politician's no-show.
"At 8 a.m. Yingluck's team contacted me to say it had told the court she could not show up because of an ear fluid imbalance," Yingluck's lawyer, Norawit Lalaeng, told reporters.
The Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered increased controls at the country's border checkpoints.
"This morning I thought it was brave of her to show up in court, but it turned out she did not. Officials are looking for her," he told reporters.
Thai military-backed authorities had threatened legal action against Yingluck supporters Friday as the nation awaited the verdict on whether Yingluck was negligent in raising rice prices paid to farmers by the government after her party won the election in 2011.
Her plan back then had been to give a degree of financial security to poor rural farmers by at least providing them with the minimum wage. At the time, Yingluck defended the plan, saying "This is not a new policy. It has been around for 30 years."
According to Wolfram Schaffar, political scientist and Thailand expert from the University of Vienna, "It was absolutely a standard program. I think that the opposition has artificially overstated the situation."
Yingluck has pleaded not guilty, while prosecutors allege staggering losses of $17 billion (14.25 billion euros) to the state resulting from the scheme. She is being held liable for about $1 billion. If convicted, Yingluck has the right to appeal, but could end up in jail for a decade.
Yet according to Schaffar, "There is no such thing as a fair trial in Thailand. The justice system is not independent, and this manifests itself on all levels of the legal system."
Read more: Thais divided over their political future
Criticism of rice subsidy scheme used to grab power
The scheme left Thailand with inflated rice prices, just as rival growers like India and Vietnam were boosting production and lowering prices. India ultimately knocked Thailand from its top exporter perch. The current regime has also accused Shinawatra of trying to buy votes by subsidizing farmers in the rural areas where her party dominates. Yet, as Schaffar says, the case is an extension of the decade-long struggle between the movement founded by Yingluck's brother, Thaksin, which was embraced by Thailand's northern rural poor, and an elite comprising royalists, the military and their urban backers.
There have been no elections in Thailand since the 2014 coup that ousted Shinawatra. Thailand's junta has clamped down since the coup, suppressing dissent and banning political gatherings of more than five people. After multiple delays, it is currently promising a vote in 2018.
A 2016 referendum did bring a new constitution, which strengthened the constitutional court and anti-corruption authorities. But in reality, this has led to the constitutional court merely serving the interests of the elite. Schaffar says, "The goal has been to weaken the elements of direct democracy...Parliament is surrounded by institutions, whose members are recruited from the elite and who are able to overwrite governmental decisions."
Read more: Thailand's democratic future at a crossroads
Yingluck is already subject to a five-year ban from politics, imposed by the military junta's legislature in 2015 when she was charged with corruption over the rice program.