The 50-year-old former Prime-Minister of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, has fled the country ahead of the reading of the verdict of her trial for the crime of abuse of power. According to the New York Times, the news was divulged this Friday by a member of her own party, the Pheu Thai Party.
Earlier this morning, Ms. Yingluck’s lawyer, Norawit Larlaeng, had declared that she was too ill to attend to the court. He insisted that she has Meniere’s disease, suffering from headaches and dizziness, although no doctor’s certificate was shown to testify for that.
However, she is known to have moved to Singapore last Wednesday, accompanied by her son.
Ms. Yingluck became the prime minister of Thailand on August 5, 2011, leaving the post on May 7, 2014. She was accused of using her position to mismanage funds related with a rice subsidy, which may have cost her country up to $8 billion.
This crime may result in a sentence of 10 years in prison, along with a lifetime ban from political activities.
Moreover, her Commerce Minister, Boonsong Teriyapirom, was sentenced to 42 years in prison for tampering with the same subsidy.
Although Ms. Yingluck had previously told her supporters to avoid demonstrations, hundreds of them appeared near the courthouse where she was supposed to have appeared today, being kept at bay by police barricades.
This is not the first time an important political figure fled Thailand. Back in 2006, Ms. Yingluck’s own older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, fled after being overthrown by the military. He was accused and eventually convicted of corruption. At the time, Ms. Yingluck remained in Thailand, in spite of being the target of some charges herself.
In spite of these events, and although lacking much political experience, she went on to become Thailand’s first female prime minister. She was also the younger PM in over 60 years and enjoyed a great amount of popularity at the time.
During an interview with CNN last year, Ms. Yingluck stated that she had never thought about fleeing the country, and there is indeed no proof about her leaving Thailand since she was removed from office. Some of her supporters still stand by that feeling and told the media there is a chance she will come back to fight for her position.
However, her current whereabouts are indeed unknown. The Thai media keeps speculating about the issue, with some thinking she may still be within the Asia-Pacific region, in places like Singapore, Cambodia, or Hong Kong. Alternatively, she could have gone to more distant locations like Dubai or the United Arab Emirates.
Thailand is a relevant player in Southeast Asia. The country has been showing quick economic growth, which in the region is second only to Indonesia. Around 68 million people live in the country.
Although officially a constitutional monarchy, the fact remains that in Thailand the military has considerable political power. The armed forces of Thailand are quite well equipped, with the Air Force flying Swedish JAS-39 fighters and with the national Navy boasting one aircraft carrier. Successive Thai governments have conceded to provide the military what they want in order to please the generals.
The strong military junta is supported by the richest elements of Thai society, and according to the Telegraph, there is a strong divide between the military-aligned elites and the poor rural populations. Because they publicly aligned with the latter, the Shinawatra family has found a great amount of public support among the rural areas.
The mismanagement of the rice subsidy which led to the trial of Ms. Yingluck was described by her detractors as a way to pander to her voting base at the expense of the public funds. The family’s supporters, nicknamed “Red Shirts,” have in the past gathered in the streets to defend the Shinawatras in times of need.
With Ms. Yingluck now fleeing the country and with the military junta having used the last three years to reinforce its position, it is highly unlikely that populists like the former prime minister will have much success in Thailand during the next few years. The social divide remains nevertheless.
[Featured Image by Sakchai Lalit/AP Images]