Fates of 2 Former PMs Hinge on August Verdicts

Yingluck Shinawatra and Somchai Wongsawat, at right, attend a court hearing in Bangkok on June 1, 2016.

BANGKOK — Two former leaders allied to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra face up to 10 years in prison if the court rules against them next month in two historic cases.

Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is standing trial for a rice subsidy program that reportedly cost the state billions of baht, while his brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, was also tried for ordering a crackdown on anti-government protests nearly a decade ago.

Both were tried separately on charges of malfeasance, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail. Historian Charnvit Kasetsiri said no past government leader has ever faced this charge in a court. He also warned that the consequences of such trial could be far-reaching.

“It’s unprecedented,” Charnvit, who writes extensively about Thailand’s political history, said by phone.

The verdicts for Somchai and Yingluck are expected on Aug. 2 and Aug. 25, respectively.

The anti-graft agency first brought its charge against Somchai in 2009, a year after he ordered police to clear out anti-government protesters who were blocking the entrance to the parliament. Two people died in the October 2008 crackdown.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission said Somchai must be held responsible for the fatalities. It named three other senior officials as co-defendants.

The same agency also charged Yingluck with malfeasance in May 2014 for allegedly ignoring massive corruption under the rice pledging policy run by her administration. Anti-graft officials said the subsidy ended up causing about 35 billion baht in damages.

Both Yingluck and Somchai denied the allegations. Their supporters accuse the junta and the anti-corruption agency of using the malfeasance charge.

The two verdicts are closely watched because no Thai prime minister was ever jailed on a charge of abuse of power – not even Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn – who ordered the military to open fire on pro-democracy students in 1973, killing more than 70 people.

Charnvit said the closest analogy for Yingluck’s case is when the authorities seized Thanom’s assets after he lost power in the 1973 revolt and fled the country. The difference, he noted, was the government at the time used executive order to prosecute Thanom, while the current one appeared to rely on the court.

“In the case of Yingluck, they used the court procedure. Instead of using executive power, they use the judicial one,” said Charnvit, a former rector of Thammasat University. “They are avoiding political means.”

He added that such “judicialization” could risk putting the court under polarized opinion from the public.

“I think this is a case of pushing politics into the justice system,” the professor said. “It’s going to cause trouble for the court, and it will also affect credibility of the institution that the three branches claim to represent, which is the monarchy”

The two accused politicians are hugely popular among their supporters, who mostly hail from the rural north and northeast.

This is especially true for Yingluck, the younger sister of the billionaire who commands the Shinawatra dynasty. Large crowds showed up every time she makes a public appearance or attends a court hearing.

Citing the need to keep public order, junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha on Monday urged Yingluck’s supporters not to travel to Bangkok and stage large gathering on the day of her verdict, Aug. 25.