BANGKOK – Thailand’s Military backed Government is worried that impeachment proceedings against former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra could spark a backlash that threatens to unravel the country’s fragile peace.
The military-appointed legislature will rule Friday on whether to ban former Ms. Yingluck from politics for bungling a multibillion-dollar rice subsidy before last year’s coup d’état. But some junta officials question the wisdom of targeting a politician who has already been ousted from office and remains deeply popular among her supporters.
“Our mission is to bring the country together,” said one official on condition of anonymity. “But this impeachment is just creating another mess for us to clean up.”
Ms. Yingluck, elected in a landslide in 2011, described the timing of the impeachment case as “weird” given that the military seized power last May and she holds no political title. The case relates to losses incurred by the state after it paid up to double the market rate to farmers for their rice in a bid to steer global prices higher.
The subsidy plan failed, in large part because rival exporters such as India and Vietnam filled the gap in the global market. The subsequent controversy that erupted over the plan helped fuel anger among antigovernment protesters. Ms. Yingluck was suspended from office weeks before the military seized power when Thailand’s independent anticorruption agency ruled she had mishandled the subsidy.
Impeachment hearings can be heard retroactively in Thailand, however, and the verdict on Ms. Yingluck’s case due to be heard at the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly, threatens to upset the relative calm that has held sway in Thailand since last May’s coup.
Along with prohibiting Ms. Yingluck from participating in any elections in the next five years, a guilty finding could also lead to criminal charges.
Security officials say they are especially concerned about the reaction in vote-rich northeast Thailand, a core base of support for Ms. Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra , who was ousted in an earlier coup in 2006 and now lives overseas.
Political analysts such as Pavin Chachavalpongpun at Kyoto University in Japan suggest Prayuth Chan-ocha, junta chief and prime minister, and other top junta officials had initially intended to protect Ms. Yingluck. But they found themselves outflanked by hard-line royalists who want to prevent Mr. Thaksin and Ms. Yingluck having any kind of political voice.
Now, the junta is going along with Ms. Yingluck’s impeachment, or at least not doing much to stop it, analysts say, in part to placate the country’s influential bureaucratic and royalist elites.
“The military wants to stay in power as long as possible to oversee any succession,” Mr. Pavin, a Thai citizen, said.
Tensions, though, are escalating as a result. Ms. Yingluck denies doing anything wrong, while her supporters continue to vigorously defend her.
Some of her former ministers took to YouTube to justify the rice subsidy plan after they were refused permission to talk to the legislature. Former Finance Minister Kittiratt Na Ranong described the policy as an investment in future, designed to boost rural incomes and diversify Thailand’s volatile export-driven economy.
Moreover, other supporters noted, Ms. Yingluck’s landslide election win in 2011 showed that millions of Thais had backed the rice program, which was a major campaign pledge for her. Analysts say little evidence has been presented to support the notion that Ms. Yingluck or other politicians were doing anything more than pursuing a misguided political policy.
Gen. Prayuth, who led May’s coup, warned Ms. Yingluck’s supporters on Monday not to take to the streets in protest, reminding people that martial law is still in effect.
Besides Ms. Yingluck, two prominent legislators, former house speaker Somsak Kiatsuranon and former senate president Nikhom Wairatpanich, are also facing impeachment proceedings, this time for supporting parliamentary moves to amend Thailand’s constitution to allow for a fully-elected senate.
They also deny any wrongdoing. But if the lawmakers are convicted, analysts say it would pave the way for hundreds of pro-Thaksin politicians who supported the motion to be impeached, too.