BANGKOK — Thousands of police deployed outside Thailand’s Supreme Court ahead of a verdict expected Friday in the contentious trial of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was overthrown three years ago by a military junta that still rules this Southeast Asian country. If convicted of negligence in implementing a national rice subsidy program, she faces 10 years in prison.
The case is the latest chapter in a decade-long struggle by the nation’s elite minority to crush the powerful political machine founded by Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in another coup in 2006. Thaksin’s ouster triggered years of upheaval and division that has pitted a poor, rural majority in the north that supports the Shinawatras against royalists, the military and their urban backers.
Yingluck oversaw an ill-fated rice subsidy program that prosecutors allege incurred staggering losses to the state. If convicted, she has the right to appeal.
The subsidies, promised to farmers during the 2011 election, helped Yingluck’s party sweep the vote. Critics say they were effectively a means of vote buying, while Yingluck supporters welcomed them and argue the case against her is politically motivated.
Thailand’s junta has clamped down hard on opponents since the 2014 coup, suppressing all dissent and banning political gatherings of more than five people. The long-awaited decision on Yingluck’s fate has rekindled tensions, but the military remains firmly in charge.
Fearing potential unrest, Thai authorities tried to deter people from turning out Friday by threatening legal action against anyone planning to help transport Yingluck supporters.
Yingluck posted a message on her Facebook page Thursday urging followers to stay away, saying she worried about their safety.
“I want those who wish to support me to listen to the news from home, to avoid risking any unexpected problems that could arise from those who have ill-intentions toward the country and all of us,” she said.
The populist promise of massive rice subsidies helped propel Yingluck’s party to power in the country’s 2011 general election. When her government followed through on the plan, it paid farmers about 50 per cent more that they would have made on the world market.
The hope was to drive up prices by stockpiling the grain, but instead other Asian producers priced their rice competitively and filled the void, knocking Thailand from its perch as the world’s leading rice exporter.
The current government says Yingluck’s administration lost as much as $17 billion in the disastrous deal because it couldn’t export at a price commensurate with what it had paid farmers.
Yinguck has pleaded innocent in the case before the Supreme Court, saying she was the victim of a “political game” aimed at crushing the Shinawatra clan.
In a separate administrative ruling that froze her bank accounts, Yingluck was held responsible for about $1 billion of those losses — an astounding personal penalty that prosecutors argued Yingluck deserved because she ignored warnings of corruption but continued the program anyway.
Associated Press reporter Grant Peck contributed to this report.