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Thailand's Yingluck Shinawatra corruption case politically motivated, analysts

Yingluck Shinawatra arriving at the Supreme court in Bangkok, 19 May 2015.
Yingluck Shinawatra arriving at the Supreme court in Bangkok, 19 May 2015. Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra pleaded not guilty Monday at a brief hearing at the start of a trial in which she stands accused of negligence. Analysts say it is difficult not to see the charges as politically motivated. A Thai activist living in exile in France praised Shinawatra’s willingness to show up in court to claim her innocence.

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“I admire that she entered the court,” Jaran Ditapichai told RFI, adding that in his view, Shinawatra is “fighting for her government, for her policies and for Thai people who love democracy”.

Ditapichai is a veteran political activist, who asked for asylum from France last year when he was facing jail time in Thailand, accused by the military government of lèse majesté, or defaming the king, for a play he directed.

He calls the case “100 per cent political”.

Shinawatra was forced out of office last year and was retroactively impeached this January, over opposition to a policy she put in place as prime minister in which rice farmers received twice the market rate for their crops. Rice farmers are concentrated in the rural north of Thailand, where Shinawatra and her party have most of its support.

She is charged with negligence in the management of the scheme, which cost the government several billion euros.

There are also questions of whether “people in the government were taking kickbacks, or skimming some of this money", says Sam Zarifi, Asia director of the International Commission of Jurists.

“The idea is not that she herself is corrupt but rather that she initiated this policy, there were problems, and she was negligent in overseeing this policy,” he told RFI.

"I am confident that I am innocent," Shinawatra told reporters outside the courthouse on Monday.

Zarifi says it’s difficult not to see the trial as politically motivated, even if corruption is a problem in Thailand.

“It’s odd to have a trial and criminal charges and potential imprisonment over a political policy that was established by a duly elected and legitimate government,” he said.

“There does seem some ground to thinking that this is a political case, in large part because we’ve seen a lack of prosecution against other political parties and figures who have had allegations of corruption and even more serious human rights violations directed at them.”

Shinawatra is not the first of her party, or her family, to be pushed from power and pursued for corruption. Her brother, Thaksin, was removed from power in a coup in 2006 and now lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.

“The great difficulty for the people holding power now is that if they organised elections tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow, they would be almost sure that the Shinawatra camp would win the majority again,” said Jean-Louis Margolin, professor of Asian history at the University of Marseille.

The Shinawatras, or allied populist parties, have won every election in Thailand since 2001, which has angered the elite in Bangkok, who backed last year’s protests against Yingluck Shinawatra’s policies and the subsequent military takeover of the country in May.

Margolin says the trial should be seen within an electoral context

“Of course they are trying everything they can to discredit and push out of politics the whole Shinawatra camp. And I think that trial should be seen in that light,” he said.

Shinawatra is already barred from politics for five years, and if found guilty, she faces 10 years in prison, which effectively kills her political career.

The government, meanwhile, said Monday that it was pushing back general elections due early next year to August 2016 at the earliest.

Margolin says Thais, who are usually tolerant of their leaders, might get antsy, after over a year of military rule.

“I fear that high degree of tolerance of most Thai people for their rulers could get thinner and thinner, as apparently the only policy of those in power is to try to impeach and try to silence all the Shinawatras and the whole opposition in general,” he said.

The Red Shirts, the grassroots movement that backs the Shinawatras, have been relatively inactive since the military took over.

“I am disappointed with Thai people,” said Dithapichai, who would like to see his fellow Thais be less complacent.

“They do not dare to fight against the military dictatorship. Even the Red Shirt leaders mope,” he said. “But I understand that they are under the military regime, which tries to control not only political activities but all social activities.”

Despite an injunction against political gatherings of more than five people, a few dozen people showed up at the courthouse on Monday to support Yingluck Shinawatra.

She is out on a 30 million baht (800,000 euro) bail. The next court date is 21 July.

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