Former Thai Leader Impeached, Reawakening Tensions
BANGKOK — Dormant political tensions re-emerged in Thailand on Friday when the military junta’s handpicked assembly impeached the country’s former prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
Shortly before the vote, which imposed a five-year political ban on Ms. Yingluck, the government also announced that she would be charged with criminal negligence over a subsidy program for rice farmers.
Ms. Yingluck, the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the tycoon and founder of a political movement that has antagonized Thailand’s elites and plunged the country into nearly a decade of political turmoil, faces up to 10 years in prison.
After overthrowing Ms. Yingluck’s government in May, the military formed its own government, saying that it did not want to exacerbate tensions in Thailand’s deeply fissured society and would work to achieve reconciliation.
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Times Topic: Yingluck Shinawatra
Thai Military Detains Ousted Leaders as Coup Sets Off Small Acts of Protest MAY 23, 2014
But the vote on Friday and the decision to indict by prosecutors, who had maintained for months that there was not enough evidence for a case, may prolong what has already been a lost decade of street protests, two military coups and bloodshed.
Critics of the prosecution of Ms. Yingluck note that Thailand’s economy is one of the poorest performers in Asia, growing barely 1 percent last year. The prosecution of Ms. Yingluck dredges up divisive conflicts that the military had said it would bury.
The National Legislative Assembly, handpicked by the junta after the coup, voted 190 to 18 to impeach Ms. Yingluck on the grounds that the rice subsidies were a form of corruption.
The junta has not explained how people who no longer hold political office can be impeached.
Economists considered the rice program wasteful, and it angered members of the Bangkok establishment, who resented that their taxes were being used to pay farmers well above market prices for their rice. It was one of the key complaints of members of the Bangkok elite who led debilitating protests in Bangkok last year. They blocked voting in elections and pressured financial institutions to withhold payments to farmers.
Ms. Yingluck has defended the rice subsidy program as assistance for the poor.
“Many governments have public policies to help farmers,” she said in testimony at the impeachment hearings. “It’s the government’s duty to look after them.”
The point of the program, she said, was “reducing the gap between the rich and the poor, reducing social disparity.”
The rice subsidies, which caused the government to borrow heavily, benefited the rural constituencies that form the core support of Ms. Yingluck’s party, a populist political movement that upended Thai politics with sweeping electoral victories and the deep loyalty of rural voters newly awakened to their electoral clout. Her party has won every election since 2001.
Both the impeachment and the criminal charges against Ms. Yingluck have been spearheaded by Vicha Mahakhun, a commissioner of the National Anti-Corruption Commission and a longtime political foe of Ms. Yingluck’s political movement.
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Mr. Vicha replied during the impeachment hearings to critics who said there was no concrete evidence of Ms. Yingluck’s involvement in corruption.
“Your behavior signifies a strong suspicion of corruption,” he said.
The prime minister, Mr. Vicha said, refused to heed his warnings about the cost of the rice subsidy. “This has led to enormous damage to the country,” he said. “This has given rise to continual violence in the country.”
Mr. Vicha is notorious among supporters of Ms. Yingluck for helping rewrite the Thai Constitution after the 2006 coup, saying at the time that elections were “evil.”
The impeachment proceedings against Ms. Yingluck and her two allies have morphed into what the military had vowed to avoid: a proxy battle between the elected politicians overthrown in the coup and the military that overthrew them.
Nikom Wairatpanij, a former speaker of the Thai Senate, was charged in the impeachment hearings with violating a constitution that no longer exists. He was charged with procedural lapses while passing an amendment that would have made the Senate fully elected. He survived the impeachment vote, 95 for and 120 against.
“I would like to urge you,” Mr. Nikom said during the hearings earlier this month, “if you are democratic people, do not hate the people.”