BANGKOK (AFP) -A Thai anti-graft official said ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra must face a “political punishment” for a costly rice subsidy scheme, as calls for her impeachment gathered steam Friday.
Yingluck, the kingdom’s first female premier and the sister of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled from office by a controversial court ruling shortly before the army staged a coup in May.
She faces impeachment by the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly over her administration’s loss-making rice programme, which funnelled cash to her rural base, but cost billions of dollars and was a driving force behind protests that felled her government.
The former businesswoman did not appear at her second hearing on Friday – sparking indignation among anti-Shinawatra assembly members who refused to hear from former ministers sent to represent her.
Experts say the impeachment move is the latest attempt by Thailand’s royalist elite, and its army backers, to nullify the political influence of the Shinawatras, whose parties have won every election since 2001.
A guilty verdict next Friday (January 23) would bring an automatic five-year ban from politics, but also risks enraging her family’s ‘Red Shirt’ supporters who have laid low since the coup.
“Although she is no longer in her position she still has to face a political punishment,” said Vicha Mahakhun, NACC commissioner.
His body led the probe into the rice scheme which paid farmers up to twice the market rate for their grain but left Thailand with a mountain of unsold rice.
A successful impeachment needs three-fifths of the 250-strong assembly to vote in favour when they meet next Friday.
“We warned the government twice (over the rice scheme) but the government ignored us,” Vicha said, adding he hoped the Attorney-General would “agree” to also pursue a criminal charge against her over the scheme.
Last week Yingluck defended the scheme as a well-intentioned attempt to support Thailand’s rural poor, who historically receive a disproportionately small slice of government cash.
“I ran the government with honesty and in accordance with all laws,” she told the assembly.
But her failure to attend on Friday sparked sharp criticism from members known for their loathing of the Shinawatra clan, who bitterly divide opinion in Thailand.
“All of our questions are clearly and directly put to Yingluck… she should come to answer,” said assembly member and renowned anti-Thaksin figure Somchai Saweangkarn.
The assembly ruled that Yingluck would have to answer their questions next week ahead of the vote.
Since Thaksin swept to power in 2001, Shina-watra governments have been floored by two coups and bloodied by the removal of three other premiers by the kingdom’s interventionist courts.
The Shinawatras’ rise has coincided with the declining health of Thailand’s revered 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.a