Left leaderless

Source:Reuters Published: 2017/8/27 19:38:40

Ousted Thai PM reportedly flees to Dubai ahead of negligence verdict


Thousands of supporters of Yingluck Shinawatra cheer at a Red Shirts rally in Bangkok in 2014. Photo: IC

Thailand's generals could hardly have planned it better.

Ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has reportedly fled to Dubai before being due to appear in court to hear a verdict for negligence, leaving the populist movement that has dominated Thai politics for a generation leaderless and in despair.

Her fleeing means she doesn't get to become a martyr, which she could have done if she had been jailed over the costly rice subsidy scheme, or had been let off lightly, which could have raised questions over why the military overthrew her in 2014.

What it doesn't do is to eliminate the Shinawatra family's voting base: largely poor and provincial Thais who have had the numbers to deliver them victory in every election since 2001, despite the best efforts of pro-army and deeply royalist conservatives.

Yingluck fled just before a court verdict on her criminal negligence trial for a multi-billion dollar scheme ran to help poor farmers, sources within her Puea Thai Party said.

They said she has gone to Dubai to join her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-made billionaire and family patriarch who was overthrown as Thailand's prime minister in 2006 and later fled to escape a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated.

Neither Thaksin or Yingluck could be reached for comment.

"The party has no true leader right now. Without Yingluck, the party is headless," said one senior Puea Thai Party member, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "It doesn't have a figurehead that the people love."



Figurehead


Yingluck, 50, was banned from politics for five years in 2015 by the junta. But she could have rallied support for her party during the election the army has promised will happen next year if she had stayed in the country.

But it would have been hard for her to get involved if she had been sentenced over the estimated $8 billion losses from the rice scheme. Nevertheless, jail would have made her a rallying point, as her status has given her glamorous star power at home and abroad.

Her departure means she will not become Thailand's version of neighboring Myanmar's once long-detained Aung San Suu Kyi.

"This will embolden the military government because they did not have to put her in jail," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

Government spokesman Weerachon Sukhontapatipak declined to comment on the case or the implications of Yingluck's absence.

There was no evidence the junta had been aware Yingluck might have intended to skip bail, but suspicions circulated among her supporters that her departure was very convenient for the military government.

"She was closely monitored by authorities. It isn't possible that she left the country without help," said Thanawut Wichaidit without offering any proof, a member of the Red Shirts United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, a political pressure group that supports the Shinawatras.

Crowds of supporters bearing roses and bunches of rice would gather at Yingluck's previous court appearances. Despite the crackdown on dissent since the coup, they would show her unconditional support throughout. 

In the Red-Shirts heartlands of Thailand's rural northeast, the mood was sombre. Yingluck supporters sympathized with her for fleeing, but didn't know who could replace her.

When her brother Thaksin fled into exile in 2006, Yingluck, then a political novice, took over and succeeded through personal charm and charisma - as well as through his distant backing. There are no obvious party leader candidates now.

"I don't have the skill," Yingluck's older sister, Monthathip Kovitcharoenkul, 58, a businesswoman who had been talked about as a potential candidate, told reporters.



Strong support base


The constituency the Shinawatras represented has not disappeared, however. That potentially complicates the military's plans for an election, even with a new constitution that entrenches the power of the generals for years to come.

Electoral numbers show the poorer, aspiring parts of Thai society have more votes than backers of the entrenched elite and its Yellow Shirts followers.

The majority Shinawatra-supporting northeastern and northern regions alone account for more than 45 percent of Thailand's population, according to the most recent official data. But they also account for less than 12 percent of the economy.

"If they field a dog as a candidate in the northeast, it would win a seat in the election," said Wassawan Ken-kla, 40, a local leader in northeastern Udon Thani.

In the aftermath of Yingluck fleeing, poor, rural voters who had benefited from Shinawatra policies may become even more sympathetic, said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University in northern Thailand.

"Other Puea Thai leaders will soon emerge," he said.

Even without the party, the Red Shirts movement said it would carry on. It has played a pivotal role in backing both the Puea Thai Party and Thaksin's former party, Thai Rak Thai, which dissolved in 2007.

"We will vote for any party that supports us and is on the side of democracy," Thanawut, the Red Shirts activist, said.



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