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Analysis: Flight of ex-Thai prime minister boosts junta rule

Posted August 26

— As a prominent opponent of Thailand's ruling junta, ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra would have been a thorn in the government's side no matter how the country's top court ruled this week in a criminal trial her supporters say is politically motivated.

A 10-year prison sentence, for allegedly mismanaging an ill-fated rice subsidy project that cost the government billions of dollars, would have made her a martyr and might have set the stage for a new era of upheaval and mass protests. An acquittal would have left her emboldened and free to challenge the junta at home.

In an unexpected move, Yingluck chose a third option: skipping out on the court's verdict Friday and, according to a member of her political party, fleeing into exile abroad. Her whereabouts could not be confirmed Saturday, but local media have cited anonymous officials as saying she traveled overland to Cambodia and then flew to Dubai to join her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra — another exiled former prime minister whose administration, like hers, was dismantled in a coup.

The outcome is a clear victory for Thailand's military government — Yingluck poses much less of a threat from exile. But it doesn't mean Thailand's political problems are over.

"Those who are opposed to what Thaksin stood for will be pleased to see the back of her for the time being," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

But Thailand remains divided, he said, and it remains to be seen whether the junta and its allies "will take away the right lesson, which is that Thaksin's legacy of awakening neglected segments of Thai society must be incorporated and internalized."

If the military fails to appease its opponents, "the winners today can still lose in the longer term as grievances accumulate and burst to the fore down the road."

The trial is the latest chapter in a decadelong struggle by the nation's elite minority to crush the powerful political machine created by Thaksin, a billionaire populist who won over rural voters who had long felt ignored with promises to improve their lives. Thaksin's ouster, in a 2006 coup, laid bare a societal struggle that pits an impoverished northern majority that supports the Shinawatras against royalists, the military and their backers in Bangkok and the south.

Despite living in exile in Dubai since fleeing a 2008 corruption charge that he says was fabricated, Thaksin has remained hugely influential at home for years. His popularity was credited as the driving force in helping Yingluck become Thailand's first female prime minister in 2011 elections.

But he remained a divisive figure, and his influence waned after Yingluck's government proposed an amnesty in 2013 that would have allowed his return. The proposal triggered street protests that culminated in another coup in 2014. Since then, Thaksin has remained largely silent, apparently to protect his sister and avoid inflaming tensions.

Under Thailand's military government, though, prosecutors have doggedly pursued Yingluck in court. In one ruling, she was held personally responsible for about $1 billion of the state's losses in the rice subsidy program, which saw authorities stockpile rice in a failed effort to drive up global prices. Other Asian producers filled the void, knocking Thailand from its perch as the world's leading rice exporter.

On Friday, the Supreme Court had been expected to decide whether Yingluck was criminally negligent for overseeing the disastrous program, but she never appeared and the court ordered a warrant issued for her arrest.

The trial is now due to resume Sept. 27, and if Yingluck fails to appear, she is likely to be convicted in absentia.

Puangthong Pawakapan, an assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University, said "this probably spells the end of the Shinawatras'" ability to lead a political party in Thailand.

"There probably will not be a third person from this family who would be brave enough to risk their well-being by getting into politics," Puangthong said. To survive in the future, political parties will have to work with the military, he said.

Gothom Arya, a retired Thai academic and social commentator, disagreed. "The political legacy of the Shinawatras ... It is not as if you can use an eraser to expunge them from society," he said.

For now at least, the military's hold on power remains strong, and the opposition has few options to organize. The junta prohibits political gatherings of more than five people, and regularly detains dissidents who speak out.

Worawut Wichaidit, a spokesman for the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, a movement known as the Red Shirts that backed the Shinawatras for years, said Yingluck's departure would not end their struggle.

"What we are asking is not for any one specific person, but for democracy," he said.

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Todd Pitman has covered Thailand for The Associated Press since 2011.

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AP writer Kaweewit Kaewjinda contributed to this report.

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