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Thaksin’s Shadow Looms Over Sister’s Impeachment in Thailand

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Thailand’s former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra finds out Friday if she will be banned from politics for five years by a junta-appointed legislature stacked with officers from a military that has twice toppled governments her family headed in coups.

The impeachment case against Yingluck, 47, who was removed from office before a May putsch, is ostensibly about her handling of an allegedly graft-riddled rice purchasing program, for which she also faces criminal charges. Yet, it has more to do with a decade-long vendetta aimed at erasing her family’s influence after victories in every national election since 2001.

“Junta leader and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha appears to have green-lighted the impeachment as pressure from hard-liners among his supporters mounts,” Ambika Ahuja, a London-based analyst at Eurasia Group, said in a note. “The move is part of a broader bid to limit the political influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, in future elections.”

Prayuth has so far refused to commit to when Thailand’s voters will be able to choose their next government, saying elections must be preceded by the drafting of a new constitution, the implementation of reforms across politics and society, and the “return of happiness” to the country. The impeachment decision in fact risks upsetting a fragile calm, enforced by ongoing martial law, that emerged after the coup.

Love or Loathe

Whichever way the junta’s legislature decides in its secret vote due on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 23, there is the likelihood that either those who love the Shinawatras or those who loathe them will feel aggrieved. Shinawatra family supporters may see impeachment as further proof that the system is biased against them, while opponents would conclude that the junta is repeating the mistakes of its predecessor, which ousted Thaksin in a 2006 coup yet failed to derail his political machine.

A former telecommunications tycoon who became the first Thai prime minister to serve a full term in office, Thaksin has proven resilient. After the 2006 coup, the military rewrote the constitution to reduce the power of politicians, and a junta-appointed court disbanded his political party and banned him and more than 100 party executives from politics for five years.

Thaksin’s next political party won the post-coup election in a landslide, wooing rural voters with the populist policies that have become the trademark of his governments. A court then disbanded that party for alleged voter fraud and banned more politicians, setting the stage for the opposition to take control of the government in a parliamentary vote. His new party, with Yingluck at the helm, won the next election in 2011.

Amnesty Bill

Yingluck’s first years in office were for the most part free of the color-coded street protests -- red for Shinawatra supporters and yellow for their opponents -- that had plagued previous governments. Then in late 2013 her party passed a bill that would pardon most of those accused of political offenses in previous years, including Thaksin, who had been convicted of corruption and abuse of power and moved abroad to avoid a jail sentence.

That unleashed seven months of protests by the anti-Shinawatra camp. Even though Yingluck’s party dropped the bill and she called fresh elections, the protesters refused to allow the poll to take place and urged the army to intervene in their efforts to “reset” Thai politics and rid it for good of the Shinawatras, who they accuse of corruption, rights abuses, vote buying and disrespect for the nation’s monarchy.

Color-Coded Politics

With both red and yellow groups protesting on the streets, Prayuth stepped in on May 22, staging the country’s 12th coup since the end of direct rule by kings in 1932 and tearing up the constitution written by the previous junta.

Prayuth has said he wants to end color-coded politics and see the country reconcile, yet also punish those guilty of past offenses. So far laws and constitutional changes proposed by the junta have largely echoed the demands of the anti-Shinawatra camp. There have been proposals for a fully appointed senate that would limit the power of political parties, a ban on policies considered populist, more authority for courts and other unelected institutions, and the imposition of lifetime bans for politicians convicted of offenses.

“We have to see the drafting process as an exercise in creating a political order in which not only Thaksinite parties but large political parties more​generally are blocked from playing an effective role,” said Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand Studies Program at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. While losing Yingluck to a political ban would be a blow to the Thaksin camp, “the broad goals of this exercise mean that the ’trial’ of Yingluck is in many ways a side-show.”

Rice Losses

Yingluck’s party swept to office in 2011, in part by appealing to Thailand’s millions of rice farmers with a plan to buy their crops at above-market rates. Yingluck said the program was a way to boost rural incomes, while her opponents considered it ill-conceived, open to corruption and a form of vote-buying.

The program was criticized by exporters for distorting the market and dethroning Thailand from being the largest rice exporter. International rating companies including Moody’s Investors Service voiced concern that the program strained public finances.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission ruled in July that Yingluck was negligent for failing to halt the program after being warned of losses that grew to an estimated 500 billion baht ($15.4 billion). The commission alleged corruption took place and recommended she be impeached, even though she was no longer in office and her government had been toppled.

The Attorney General’s office announced Friday it will file criminal charges against Yingluck in the case. If found guilty, she could be imprisoned for up to 10 years.

’Hidden Agenda’

“The policy has a hidden agenda, causing corruption in the whole process,” Vicha Mahakun, a corruption commissioner, told the legislature Thursday, Jan. 22. “The accused person, who had the authority to terminate the program, didn’t terminate it, causing the damages to become even worse.”

Yingluck, in her closing remarks Thursday, questioned how she could be impeached when she was no longer a political office holder and she appealed to the legislature for justice.

“These proceedings are unfair and have a hidden political agenda,” Yingluck said. “I never thought about cheating, never ignored the need to tackle corruption, nor did anything that could be seen as corruption.”

The anti-corruption agency on Jan. 20 asked for criminal charges to be filed against 21 people, including former Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom, for alleged fraud in a rice deal with China. Boonsong has denied any wrongdoing.

’Looks Achievable’

The move against Boonsong and the others is another sign that momentum is building toward Yingluck being impeached, Ambika said.

“With the military government’s tacit support, a successful impeachment that requires 132 out of 220 votes now looks achievable,” she said. “At least 100 parliamentarians have direct ties with the current military government.”

A failure to impeach Yingluck would risk “even greater alienation between the dictatorship and yellow elites for whom visceral hatred of Thaksin and those connected to him is a cause in its own right,” Montesano said.

For Yingluck’s supporters, “a politicized, legally questionable” impeachment would likely strengthen opposition to the junta but would be unlikely trigger mass protests, said Dane Chamorro, managing director for Asean at Control Risks in Singapore.

“That point is more likely to come when the junta’s regressive reform plan is revealed, if there is no referendum on that plan, and if elections are allowed to drift further into the indefinite future,” he said.

(Updates with criminal charge in second paragraph.)
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