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Yingluck's Secret "Great Escape" Benefits the Junta

Yingluck's Secret "Great Escape" Benefits the Junta

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's "Great Escape" from Thailand last week allows her to dodge a possible 10-year prison sentence and enjoy a billionaire's international lifestyle, but she gave the military government, which toppled her in a 2014 coup, a surprise victory.

Her sudden, secret flight overseas means the junta will not be troubled by her supporters' scenario of a Ms. Yingluck cast as a woeful, politically victimized, jailed martyr for democracy.

Her absence also decapitates her shocked Pheu Thai ("For Thais") opposition party which attracted millions of "Red Shirt" voters. Today, the two biggest questions in this Southeast Asian country were: Who enabled Ms. Yingluck to become a mysterious fugitive hours or days before the Supreme Court's verdict was to be announced on August 25?

And will Ms. Yingluck, 50, ask for political asylum in England if she goes there?

Thai media, investigating her escape, splashed accusations and official denials of conspiracies, corruption, double-standards and other sleaze.

"What is puzzling about this high drama is that none of the junta members, including Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon -- who are in charge of security affairs -- caught wind of Ms. Yingluck's escape," columnist Veera Prateepchaikul wrote on August 28.

"I, for one, don't believe it."

Such suspicions must not be expressed, the junta's spokesman Winthai Suvari warned.

"No one should attempt to give his or her opinions that may confuse society, because that can lead to misunderstanding about a person or an organization," Mr. Winthai said, responding to speculation about the regime's role in Ms. Yingluck's vanishing act.

After the U.S.-trained military toppled her government in 2014, she was charged with alleged "negligence" while prime minister for orchestrating multi-billion dollar subsidies to rice farmers which collapsed into accusations of corruption by officials under her. If found guilty, she faced up to 10 years imprisonment.

When she failed to appear for the verdict on August 25, the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions immediately issued an arrest warrant for Ms. Yingluck and postponed its verdict until September 27.

"We do not know where Yingluck fled and if she has asked for asylum anywhere," Mr. Prawit, who is also defense minister, told reporters. Ms. Yingluck purportedly joined her multi-billionaire Dubai-based elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra who fled into self-exile in 2008.

He is dodging a two-year prison sentence for a real estate crime committed when he was prime minister, before the military ousted him in a 2006 coup.

It is unclear, and widely debated, whether or not the junta wants to extradite Ms. Yingluck's return.

Many people on all sides are simply relieved and thankful that the confrontation between Ms. Yingluck and the junta has been defused. Thailand's often-violent political and financial rivalries between the Shinawatra family and the elite who support the royalist military have crippled this once-thriving Buddhist majority country.

After she fled, the Bangkok Post's front-page announced: "The Great Escape, End of Shinawatra Era."

But the manipulative, charismatic siblings remain hugely popular and would probably win a nationwide election if they could participate, so their future influence is difficult to predict.

Some of her supporters are angry because several of her top political colleagues were sentenced to decades of imprisonment by the same court while she was flying away.

The Supreme Court on August 25 sentenced her former Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom to 42 years imprisonment for corrupt invoices and deals involving the subsidized rice.

Mr. Boonsong expressed surprise upon hearing that Ms. Yingluck fled. The Supreme Court gave Ms. Yingluck's former Deputy Commerce Minister Poom Sarapol a 36-year prison sentence for the same crimes. More than a dozen other officials linked to the rice subsidies were also imprisoned on August 25 for lengthy terms, including a Foreign Trade Department official jailed for 40 years, his deputy who was sentenced to 32 years, and a Rice Trade Administration Bureau director jailed for 24 years.

The regime's "post-coup purge" is a plot to "entrench the power of the establishment, namely the military, the technocrats, the bureaucracy, the old power clique, and the well-connected business circles," said Kong Rithdee, a Bangkok Post editor.

"Even a general election won't be able to alter that," Mr. Kong wrote hours after Ms. Yingluck disappeared.

Some of Ms. Yingluck's harshest enemies angrily blamed the junta for enabling her escape or failing to prevent it.

"Unless the [junta] can find and punish the wrongdoers, the deputy prime minister [Mr. Prawit] must resign," said Parnthep Pourpongpan, former spokesman of the defunct People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), also known as royalist "Yellow Shirts," who helped overthrow Ms. Yingluck.

"If she could escape, that was either a conspiracy or an unforgivable failure," Mr. Parnthep said.

It was especially galling and unfair because several PAD leaders were jailed for their political activity against various Shinawatra-led governments, he said.

But some of the Shinawatras' economic policies remain viable.

"The most powerful person who controls the Thai economy, ironically, is the former salesman and former economic minister under Thaksin, Dr. Somkit Srisangkom, who together with this regime have forced the country's economy to come under control of a handful of oligarchs in a matter three years," Kraisak Choonhavan, an anti-Thaksin former Democrat Party deputy leader and former elected independent senator said in an interview.

Ms. Yingluck's government promised to pay rice farmers much more than the international market price for their rice crops.

Those subsidies cost Thailand billions of dollars for millions of tons of rice, prompting allegations of false invoicing, poor storage, smuggling and other crimes which the National Anti-Corruption Commission said she should have stopped.

Ms. Yingluck denied wrongdoing and swore she ordered underlings to probe those problems during her 2011-14 administration. To "compensate" for part of the losses, the junta recently froze about $1 billion of her assets.

She forfeited nearly $1 million in bail when she fled.

***

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter about "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest Virtual Reality novel titled, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo," is an immersive three-dimensional, one-hour experience with Oculus Rift technology.

His websites are

https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com


http://www.flickr.com/photos/animists

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