On September 27, a Thai court sentenced former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to 5 years in prison. Prime Minister Shinawatra was charged with corruption in the Rice Subsidy Scheme, which led to her becoming Thailand’s first female prime minister in 2011.
According to Reuters, the Supreme Court issued a statement on the Yingluck case, stating that “the accused knew that the government-to-government rice contract was unlawful but did not prevent it … which is a manner of seeking unlawful gains. Therefore, the action of the accused is considered negligence of duty.” The court made the decision in the absence of Yingluck, who fled abroad last month. Though there is no clear evidence as to how she has fled without detection, Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai politics, told The New Indian Express, “by getting Yingluck out of Thailand, the military gets rid of a potential thorn in their side who could become a martyr if jailed, or a powerful politician again if she is not.”
Though Yingluck was dismissed from her position as Prime Minister before the investigation of the rice subsidy scheme in 2014, she received significant support from the people of Thailand, especially from peasants in rural areas. According to Nikkei Asian Review, one 67-year-old woman who supports Yingluck said, “I’m glad that Yingluck fled. People wouldn’t be able to take it if she were thrown in the jail. It’s better for her safety.” The pro-Shinawatra protests still occur in Thailand presently, which indicates both the population’s trust in Yingluck Shinawatra’s innocence, as well as the disgust of junta’s rules and opposition to the organization.
Since the country’s revolution in 1932, Thailand has been a consistently unstable country. The country has suffered from conflicts of the upper class and has issued 17 different constitutions and charters. Influenced by changes of Indian and Vietnam rice export policies, the rice subsidy scheme by the Yingluck government negatively impacted the national economy and led to an over-hoarding of rice. Thailand was then taken over by a junta organization, or military dictatorship, called “National Council for Peace and Order.” Yingluck consequently had to confront a long-term investigation by this organization, which is suspected of being highly unfair and non-transparent.
Though Yingluck won the general election in 2011, her success partially stemmed from the support of her older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006. The issue of rice subsidy scheme essentially revealed that Yingluck lacked political experience and real “fortune or destiny,” which also became an excuse for the Thai junta to gain the power unlawfully.
Within such an intricate and unstable political context, Yingluck was unable to defend herself in this situation, and became the loser in this political battle. To avoid such conflicts in the future, the building of a stable and lasting regime in Thailand is imperative. However, if the country’s political history since the early 20th century is any indication, it will be an incredibly difficult and time-consuming task to reform Thai politics.
The case of Yingluck Shinawatra offers an insightful glance at the conflicts between Thai elites, and the complex and chaotic political issues that plague Thailand. In the background of Southeast Asia, we can see that democracy and human rights norms are still not fully localized or established, which is an issue that will need exploration and attention both now and in the future.