When Thai ex-premier Yingluck Shinawatra spirited into presumed self-exile late last month ahead of a highly anticipated criminal negligence verdict on her loss-making rice price subsidy scheme, coup-installed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha merely shrugged upon hearing the news.
Thailand’s media has since been consumed guessing how Yingluck, who has not made any public statement on her whereabouts or motivations, managed to skip heavy state surveillance and military fortified border crossings.
Most analysts suspect she is now either in Dubai or London, where her brother, self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is known to maintain luxury residences. But while the guessing game continues and with the long-awaited final verdict still pending until later this month, certain political upshots of her flight are now clear.
Prayuth’s regime has leveraged Yingluck’s flight from justice as proof positive that she is indeed guilty as charged, providing further ballast to the junta’s narrative that her camp’s politicians are corrupt and driven more by personal than national motivations.
Prayuth’s proponents view Yingluck’s impromptu departure as a third big recent win for the authoritarian leader, following last August’s resounding passage by referendum of a military-drafted constitution that solidified a future political role for the armed forces and his perceived as smooth management of the royal succession after highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death last October.
Whether Yingluck’s flight has put the country more firmly on a path to new elections, long promised by Prayuth’s junta, is less certain. While junta representatives tell foreign envoys and business representatives the country is on a track back to democracy, Prayuth continues to question the wisdom of holding polls that return to power the same corrupt elected politicians he overthrew in a coup.
The military’s own internal polls show Peua Thai’s popularity has endured under junta rule, according to a source familiar with the surveys.
An eventual guilty verdict against Yingluck is a foregone conclusion. According to one well-placed diplomat with access to the Shinawatra family, senior junta members were in contact with Thaksin as early as May advising that the court would rule against Yingluck – a verdict that carries a possible ten-year prison sentence – and that his clan should begin to make arrangements for her departure into exile.
Yingluck had told diplomats and journalists ahead of her flight that she was willing to go to prison on principle and would not post bail even if given the opportunity. Peua Thai stalwarts had ventured such a scenario would put Yingluck in the same martyred league as former Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, once viewed as a pro-democracy icon for her house arrest stand against Myanmar’s military rule, and could elicit a popular mass anti-military response.
Junta leaders rang alarm bells that Thaksin’s and Yingluck’s “Red Shirt” pressure group could tilt the country back towards street-level instability before the verdict’s announcement, despite the relative small number of supporters who attended Yingluck’s final teary-eyed hearing on August 1 and tight military surveillance of known protest organizers in Peua Thai’s north and northeastern region strongholds.
It now seems clear the military overplayed that risk to raise royalist concerns that a heated Red Shirt response to Yingluck’s jailing could threaten the serenity and spectacle of former King Bhumibol’s October 26 cremation ceremony and new King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun’s formal coronation, expected but not confirmed for December or January while Thai temperatures are cool.
Some analysts and diplomats believe the royal palace may have signaled for the junta to allow for Yingluck’s unmolested passage into exile to avoid instability, a tacit nod from above that would help to explain how both the military and police were supposedly caught unawares as the country’s most surveilled criminal suspect slipped away undetected.
Thaksin and Yingluck’s political camp had earlier hoped for more sympathetic royal treatment upon the father-to-son transition. Some interpreted a move in that direction in a military-led reconciliation drive earlier this year that bore certain symbolic royal hallmarks, but appeared to quickly fizzle out upon the initiative’s first meetings with skeptical political party members and a lack of military follow through.
The harsh verdicts handed to former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom, now serving 42 years in prison for falsifying overseas rice deals, his deputy Poom Sarapol, now doing 36 years on similar charges, and Apichart Chanasakulporn, head of rice trading firm Siam Indica who is facing 48 years behind bars and 16 billion baht (US$485 million) in fines for his role in the scheme’s irregularities, all pointedly aim at Thaksin.
The three are now known by observers to be under pressure in prison to reveal who ultimately benefitted from the scheme’s leakages and whether Thaksin was in any way involved. The former premier’s critics believe the rice scheme may have served as conduit for recouping lost riches, including the US$1.4 billion worth seized in a February 2010 court verdict. No explicit evidence of Thaksin’s involvement, however, was revealed in the court proceedings.
The seizure of Thaksin’s personal assets famously sparked the 2010 Red Shirt protests that eventuated in mass killings and destruction, including the shooting of protestors by soldiers under Prayuth’s command. While Thaksin has remained mostly quiescent on the sidelines since the 2014 coup and during the year-long period of mourning marking Bhumibol’s passing, some wonder if he may try to mount new resistance after the royal ceremonies are complete.
There are several reasons the 68-year-old ex-premier, now nearly a decade in exile, could go for broke. Even if the military holds new elections, a still distant prospect, the new constitution will tightly circumscribe the policies and activities of all elected politicians through overarching powers given to the military-appointed Senate.
New election rules, meanwhile, will make it nearly impossible for any party to win an outright majority, meaning the appointed Senate’s unified bloc will likely determine the next premier, widely tipped to be Prayuth or perhaps current army commander General Chalermchai Sitthisart, who by law will retire his position next October 1 and is close to the new king. Nor can an elected government easily amend the charter.
Chaturon Chaisang, a former Peua Thai minister, told Asia Times that his party is bracing for more military moves, including still pending organic laws, to disqualify its top members from running for office. While some members may choose to leave the party after Boonsong’s harsh conviction and Yingluck’s unannounced flight, he says it has so far remained mostly unified against junta rule, though a faction believes sustained military engagement will eventually reap political rewards.
Many felt Thaksin would opt to play by the military’s rules if the junta continued to tread lightly on his personal and family interests. But Yingluck’s flight from junta justice and a pending civil suit which could seize as much as US$1 billion worth of her assets is viewed by some as the front edge of a new military offensive to permanently purge the Shinawatra clan’s still considerable political and economic clout.
Some analysts believe state prosecutors could move on the Shinawatra family-controlled SC Asset Corporation property development company, where Yingluck formerly served as chief executive, to recoup the state losses they claim she owes for negligence. The confiscation risk, market analysts say, has already impacted on the company’s sales and finances.
A renewed money-laundering accusation against Thaksin’s son, media owner Panthongtae Shinawatra, from a decade-old bank loan scandal is a possible next step in what some junta supporters refer to as a “final solution” to the country’s political problems. Others say Thaksin’s sister, Yaowapha Wongsuwat, wife of former premier Somchai Wongsuwat and Peua Thai’s traditional financial controller, is likely next in the junta’s legal sights.
While Prayuth’s junta renews its bid to divide and rule Peua Thai, history shows Thaksin won’t likely go down without some sort of fight, particularly as it becomes clear that the junta has leveraged the late phases of the royal transition’s mourning period to make political moves and with the emerging new reign so far focused on stability, continuity and consolidation.
What form that resistance could take is altogether unclear considering the fast and efficient post-coup militarization of Thai society, including a formidable surveillance state led in part by Lieutenant General Thanakiat Chakkasem’s Armed Forces Security Center. Thanakiat is known to have open door and frequent access to Prayuth, while his agency has been empowered to make political arrests that have tread on other enforcement agencies’ turf, according to an envoy monitoring the situation.
While Thaksin and his allies are backed into a deep and darkening corner, few believe the ex-premier has the stomach or capacity to launch a rural hit-and-run style insurgency in his north or northeastern strongholds or a phantom urban bombing campaign. Either would give the junta pretext to tighten its grip and attenuate its election timeline, and possibly bar Thaksin access to the Western countries to which he now freely travels despite his legal status as a fugitive from Thai justice.
Thaksin and Yingluck’s best bet remains some sort of royal pardon under the new king, a legal possibility under the new charter’s provision on royal commands. But with the military’s strong role in consolidating the new reign and Thaksin’s Red Shirts’ past and recent dalliances with anti-monarchy messaging, a royal intervention in his family’s favor seems increasingly chimerical.