As Yingluck flees, political uncertainty lingers

By Song Qingrun Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/5 20:13:39

Illustration: Peter C.Espina/GT

The flight of Thailand's former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra from a court case over a controversial rice subsidy policy has become the focus of international attention. What effect her departure will have on the future of Thai politics is the subject of widespread speculation.

Yingluck is a legendary figure in Thailand's political arena. Despite becoming the country's first female leader and one of the youngest prime ministers in the nation's history, her political career ended in failure.

According to the new constitution, the court may impose a heavy sentence on Yingluck over the rice subsidy policy and for fleeing the country. If so, Yingluck would become the first prime minister in Thailand's history to be prosecuted for policy-related decisions. It still remains to be seen whether Yingluck will actually face jail time, especially given the unlikelihood of her returning to Thailand voluntarily. 

Some speculate that Yingluck may hold a foreign passport and it will not be easy for Thai authorities to bring her back. Others are concerned that it would spark social unrest if Yingluck was handed down a jail term. In any case, there is little likelihood that Yingluck will ever take up the post of prime minister again.

The Shinawatra family's political future is another issue of concern. Shinawatra supporters are grassroots citizens that make up the majority of Thailand's population and far outnumber those who oppose the Shinawatras - mainly political bigwigs, military tycoons, elites and the middle-classes.

With the majority of supporters, the Shinawatra family defeated every opposition party in the general elections between 2001 and 2011. The competition for power and the allocation of political resources has been the major theme of Thailand's political arena in the first decade of the 21st century, which resulted in several rounds of political upheaval and two military coups.

At present, the Shinawatra family lacks core leadership and sufficient financial support to return to politics. Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck are living in exile overseas, and are unlikely to participate in the Thai political arena for the next few years. Whether other Shinawatra family members are capable of grabbing power from the incumbent regime is still in question.

Furthermore, organizations backed by the Shinawatra family may not have enough financial support for future campaigns, as Thaksin had about $1.4 billion in frozen assets confiscated by the Thai Supreme Court in 2010, while Yingluck's domestic bank accounts will no doubt suffer the same fate. Pro-Shinawatra forces will therefore have much fewer funds available for future campaigns or to mount anti-government demonstrations.

Yet it is still too early to say for sure that the Shinawatra family has dropped out of Thai politics for good, as the family seems to have a large amount of money abroad, and still enjoys the firm support by the majority of the Thai public.

Thailand may see some minor demonstrations in the future, but large-scale clashes are unlikely. The Prayuth Chan-o-cha government has strong military backing, and is allowed by the constitution to suppress any behavior that jeopardizes national security. There have been no major clashes during Prayuth's three years in office. Red Shirts and other pro-Shinawatra forces may be capable of launching small-scale protests, but it is clear that any large-scale demonstrations are likely to be forcibly dispersed and perhaps result in bloodshed.

In addition, after the detention of some of its key figures, Red Shirt groups are being closely monitored by the government. Elections remain the best way forward for pro-Shinawatra forces to obtain political clout.

The Prayuth government has been perplexed by a number of problems as well. Many speculate that the government, worried that the sentencing of the former prime minister could trigger protests, clinched a secret deal with Yingluck and set her free before the trial.

But Prayuth strongly denied any deal with Yingluck. Others accuse the Prayuth government of oversight.

The government responded that it was difficult to monitor Yingluck's movements all the time ahead of the court's ruling, and it may yet take a while to track Yingluck after her carefully planned flight.

The government is currently investigating the 14 officials that Yingluck met before leaving the country. If these officials are eventually found to have been negligent in their duties, it would undoubtedly strike a heavy blow to the prestige of the Prayuth government, and cripple public support for the military in future elections.

The author is an associate professor at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.


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