BANGKOK (AFP) -Embattled former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra decried the “death of democracy” in Thailand Friday after the junta-stacked parliament impeached her and prosecutors announced corruption charges that could see her jailed.
The successful impeachment of Yingluck, the kingdom’s first female premier and the sister of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, carries an automatic five-year ban from politics, while the criminal charges could see her sentenced to a decade in prison.
She swiftly denounced the decisions as an assault on democracy and vowed to fight the new corruption charges.
“Democracy has died in Thailand today, along with the rule of law. That move to destroy me is still ongoing and I face it now,” she said in a statement published on Facebook after plans to hold a press conference were called off on the advice of junta officials.
Experts say the impeachment and criminal charges are the latest attempt by the country’s royalist elite, and its army backers, to nullify the political influence of the Shinawatras, whose parties have won every election since 2001.
But the junta’s pursuit of the family could also disturb the uneasy calm that has descended on Thailand since the military took over.
The Shinawatras’ ‘Red Shirt’ supporters, who have lain low since the coup, were enraged by the twin decisions – but leaders warned against widespread street protests in a country where political gatherings are banned under martial law.
“Today’s impeachment is the highest provocation, aimed at encouraging the Red Shirts to come out so they (the government) can shift the blame for all their failures onto the Red Shirts,” Jatuporn Prompan, the movement’s leader, told viewers on his Peace TV programme.
Both the impeachment and corruption charges revolve around her administration’s controversial rice subsidy programme, which funnelled cash to her rural base but cost billions of dollars, and inspired protests that felled her government and led to a military takeover in May.
“The primary aim is to prevent her and the Shinawatras returning to politics should the military be forced to step down and call an election. They simply cannot compete when it comes to electoral politics,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic at Kyoto University, told AFP.
Both Thaksin and Yingluck are loathed by many Thais in the upper and middle classes but still command huge loyalty from much of the rural poor, particularly in the Shinawatras’ northern strongholds, where rice farming is a mainstay of the local economy.
The rice subsidy scheme, which purchased the crop from farmers at around twice the market rate, was hugely popular among the Shinawatras’ vote base but economically disastrous.
Prosecutors had spent months deciding whether Yingluck should face separate criminal corruption charges over the scheme with the Office of the Attorney General finally confirming Friday that an indictment for negligence would be handed down in early March.
During the impeachment hearings Yingluck defended the rice scheme as a necessary subsidy to help poor farmers who historically receive a disproportionately small slice of government cash.
She also attacked the legality of impeaching her from a position from which she had already been removed.
Analysts said it was always unlikely that the parliament – which is stacked with junta appointees – would save Yingluck’s political career. And while imminent street protests are unlikely, observers say the moves against Yingluck will do little to foster the kind of political reconciliation the military claims it is seeking.