Yingluck rice ruling to open old wounds

Yingluck rice ruling to open old wounds

Will former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra go to jail for alleged malfeasance in administering the rice-pledging scheme?

If she does, what ramifications will this on have on the now-dormant Thai politics? Would the conviction of yet another member of the Shinawatras incapacitate the so-called anti-establishment group? Or just spur it back into action?

A similar set of questions would apply to a scenario in which the country's first female PM was allowed to walk free. Would her supposed triumph in court be considered a step towards national reconciliation, or a debilitating defeat of the junta?

Atiya Achakulwisut is Contributing Editor, Bangkok Post.

The decision by the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions in the rice-pledging case against former PM Yingluck scheduled for Aug 25 will surely be a much-watched one.

Considering how political it is in nature and how controversial it has been, the case is likely to end up being yet another trial of the country's justice system, and the result a harbinger of future politics and the prospects of stability.

The stakes are high. If found guilty, Ms Yingluck could face a jail term of up to 10 years. Such a decision could also set her back in other civil lawsuits in which the state seeks to seize her assets to compensate for financial losses incurred by her government's rice-pledging programme.

The same is possibly true for the junta which has justified its usurping of state power by pointing towards the alleged corruption and incompetence of the Yingluck government as illustrated by the loss-ridden rice-pledging scheme.

However, if Ms Yingluck is found to be innocent, it's the junta that will look as if it has lost its reason for existing.

Considering the situation at the moment, the military regime would probably prefer Ms Yingluck to run away from the ruling and live overseas just like her brother, former PM Thaksin.

In that way, the junta could claim the moral high ground while the "previous regime" would lose yet another charming leader who might rally the base and unify its many factions, as well as any claim that it respects the law.

While Ms Yingluck has so far stood her ground and insisted she will not flee, it's difficult to imagine how she or her supporters will react if she is found guilty.

Would Ms Yingluck be willing to go to jail and use her plight to serve as a game-changer? Would standing up to a possible guilty verdict be enough to upend the dominance of the military?

The Aug 25 ruling will have ramifications beyond politics and possibly set a precedent for the limits of executive power and how far a government can go when it comes to public policies.

Aside from its political overtone, the crux of the rice-pledging case revolves around the question of whether Ms Yingluck neglected her duties in overseeing the scheme which caused huge financial losses to the state.

There should be no question that the Yingluck government's rice pledging programme which sought to mortgage "every single grain of rice" at prices about 50% above market ones was flawed.

The government's assumption that the programme would allow it to become the biggest rice cartel and enjoy a monopoly was simply mistaken. It could be said the scheme was always likely to run at a loss and was cost-ineffective by design.

It's certainly true that then PM Yingluck and her government ignored warnings from academics, rice experts and state officials that the scheme was inherently flawed.

But do these policy weaknesses constitute an act of malfeasance on Ms Yingluck's part?

Academically, this question has to do with the somewhat grey area of where executive jurisdiction and accountability begin and end.

Must a government be responsible for a rubber price shore-up programme which has persistently run at a loss? How about the high-speed train project? Should the military regime have to go on trial if it happens to run at a loss after opening? How about the billion-baht bike lane along the Chao Phraya River? Who will benefit from the project and should the government be held responsible if it's found not to be cost-effective?

The next milestone for the landmark rice case will fall in a week's time on Aug 1 when Ms Yingluck is scheduled to deliver her closing statement.

The case will not only reopen the country's unhealed political wounds, but its ruling, no matter which way it goes, will carry heavy implications far into the future.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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