BANGKOK – Anti-corruption protesters around the world have wielded YouTube as a weapon to oust governments but in Thailand, it is toppled ministers who are taking to the medium to rebut negligence charges levelled against their former boss.
Senior officials in the administration felled by last year’s military coup have posted a video defending Yingluck Shinawatra, former prime minister (above), days before the junta’s puppet parliament rules on whether she should be impeached over a troubled multibillion-dollar rice subsidy scheme.
The ministers launched their online defence after MPs refused to allow them to speak in Ms Yingluck’s place when she failed to turn up for a hearing on Friday, in a case that could result in criminal charges and disqualification from politics for five years. The YouTube advocacy is the latest twist in an increasingly surreal affair that has heightened fears about how “reforms” launched by the generals and their allies risk deepening the political divide in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.
“It is a circus on one hand and a power play on the other,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political-science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said of the Yingluck trial. “It’s part of an effort to stifle fair criticism and create an atmosphere of ‘whoever is not with us is against us’.”
Four senior ex-ministers from the Yingluck government, including Kittiratt Na-Ranong, finance minister, and Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, commerce minister, took to YouTube at the weekend to defend a rice subsidy scheme that the new military-dominated government claims cost the state more than $15bn. The former ministers said the programme was not corrupt and had helped boost economic growth and farmers’ incomes in rural Thailand, the heartland of a political revolution that has for the past 14 years swept to power parties led or directed by Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications plutocrat and Ms Yingluck’s older brother.
Ms Yingluck is due to make a final appearance in the trial on Thursday before the legislature, packed with military officers and their backers from the traditional ruling establishment, announces its decision the next day. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader who has since shed his fatigues for a prime ministerial suit, insisted on Monday that he was not orchestrating a guilty verdict against his predecessor.
“I have never sent any signal. Never,” he told reporters. “There has never been an order.”
But as he and his fellow generals back away from a pledge to hold national elections this year, critics charge that there is a growing gap between the military’s self-image as benevolent guarantor of stability and its pursuit of opponents amid escalating political repression.
Outside a hearing in her case this month, Ms Yingluck said it was “weird” how someone already kicked out of office by a coup could be impeached. Others have pointed to the apparently contradictory logic that allows the ex-premier and others to be tried under the authority of a military that ripped up the political system the accused are said to have violated.
Two other former legislators from Ms Yingluck’s Puea Thai party also face impeachment because of their support for a bill to make Thailand’s half-appointed upper house of parliament fully elected.
As Piriyathep K, a social media commentator, put it: “Those who successfully obliterated the previous constitution will be impeaching those who unsuccessfully tried to amend that constitution.”
The cases brought by the National Anti-Corruption Commission against Ms Yingluck and the other MPs have further raised eyebrows among sceptics because of the lack of evidence publicised so far that the accused were doing more than exercising political power — however contentiously or irresponsibly. While the country’s courts and regulatory institutions insist they are independent warriors on graft, critics say they have shown a strong pro-establishment bias in decisions to oust three Thaksin-allied prime ministers, including Ms Yingluck, in the past seven years.
Many commentators see the rice scheme as ill-conceived — both in the size of the subsidy and the way it left warehouses full of government-owned rice with no buyers — but some are questioning the legal leap to allegations of top-level complicity in wrongdoing.
“Agricultural subsidy programmes may be considered bad policy (a decision left to voters to decide),” said an internet commenter, known as Watchdog, in response to a Bangkok Post newspaper piece on Monday that criticised Ms Yingluck. “But what makes them criminal?”
The military junta declined to comment on the impeachment cases and parliament’s standing to try them. Gen Prayuth has repeatedly insisted that he seized power only with great reluctance in May, to prevent six months of sometimes violent street protests from tipping the country into deeper civil conflict.
By Michael Peel a British journalist. He has written for various publications including Granta, New Republic, New Statesman and London Review of Books. He is currently middle east correspondent of the Financial Times.