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Thailand’s Ex-Leader Leaves Supporters in Limbo After Disappearing During Trial

“It is now difficult for us to analyze what to do next,” said Chaturon Chaisang, who served as education minister in her cabinet. “We want to hear from her and what her role will be now.”

Ms. Yingluck appears to be following the path of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, into self-imposed exile. He was ousted as prime minister in a military coup in 2006 after five years in office and left Thailand rather than face corruption charges.

A wealthy businessman who once owned the English soccer club Manchester City, Mr. Thaksin has a private jet and homes in several countries, including in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Some speculate that Ms. Yingluck has joined him in the emirate.

For Thailand, Ms. Yingluck’s departure is the end of an era, when the populist siblings ran the country with the backing of the rural poor, who repeatedly voted them into office only to see the military take power twice.

Since Mr. Thaksin’s election in 2001, the country has been split between the rural poor and the urban elite. Under Ms. Yingluck, who was elected prime minister in 2011, street protests by both groups paralyzed Bangkok for months.

A court forced her from office in May 2014, and the military seized power 15 days later. The military leadership brought calm to the country, but many of its actions have favored the elite over the poor.

The leadership won passage of a new constitution last year that would give the military more power and minimize the chance that another populist could win. New elections have yet to be called.

“Thailand has been stuck for two decades now,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political-science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “The country remains divided and polarized.”

Mr. Thitinan said that Ms. Yingluck’s disappearance benefited the authorities by validating the charges against her and the takeover. He said he would not be surprised if some of the people in power had helped her leave the country.

“Yingluck’s flight was a victory of sorts for the generals,” he said. “Her running away reinforces their rationale for the coup that the rice-management scheme was corrupt and that she knew about it,” he added, referring to a central issue in her trial.

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Supporters of Ms. Shinawatra outside the Supreme Court in Bangkok on Friday. Credit Jorge Silva/Reuters

As prime minister, Ms. Yingluck lifted the minimum wage by up to 40 percent. She also adopted a rice-management plan, which was supposed to help poor farmers by paying them above market value for their rice.

The government stockpiled the rice in the hope of making a profit, but world prices fell instead. Millions of tons ended up rotting in warehouses, and the government lost billions of dollars.

Last year, a government committee ordered her to pay $ 1 billion in compensation. She protested last month that the country’s leaders had seized money in her bank accounts before her trial had concluded.

In the criminal case, she is charged with negligence, accused of allowing corrupt officials and businessmen to benefit from the rice subsidy.

Mr. Thitinan, the political-science professor, said that Thailand’s future would depend on whether the military reached out to her supporters and tried to boost their living standards. If not, the political stalemate is likely to continue, he said.

“The key will be what the military regime takes away from all of this,” he added.

Ms. Yingluck, 50, is 18 years younger than her brother, who is widely believed to have helped run her government from Dubai.

She is barred from participating in politics until 2020 after her impeachment by the military-appointed Parliament in 2015.

On the day she was scheduled to hear the verdict, the same court found 20 others guilty of illegally profiting from the rice deal. Five of them were officials in Ms. Yingluck’s administration, and they received sentences of 24 to 42 years in prison.

Ms. Yingluck notified the court that she was suffering from dizziness and headaches shortly before her hearing. But without a medical certificate, the court rejected that claim, issued a warrant for her arrest and ordered the forfeiture of her bail, 30 million Thai baht.

Ms. Yingluck’s niece and spokeswoman, Chayika Wongnapachant, said she knew nothing about her aunt’s whereabouts. An assistant to Mr. Thaksin in Dubai said she, too, had no information. Party leaders in Thailand said they were not looking for Ms. Yingluck because they were afraid of putting her in jeopardy.

“We believe she left on Wednesday, but we don’t know how,” said Mr. Chaturon, who also held top posts in Mr. Thaksin’s government. “We haven’t tried to find out what happened. It is better to let her inform the public.”

A spokesman for the government, Weerachon Sukondhapatipak, said that the authorities were investigating Ms. Yingluck’s disappearance but that they had not established whether she had left Thailand. Allegations that the government had helped her flee were only speculation, he said.

“We haven’t heard from a government official or from Khun Yingluck herself,” he said, using a Thai honorific term. “We have to wait a little bit longer to be sure that she is actually leaving the country.”

Given Ms. Yingluck’s repeated promise to fight the criminal case to the end, many of her supporters said they had initially been shocked and dismayed when they learned that she had skipped the hearing.

One supporter, Kamol Suksawat, expressed his disappointment on Ms. Yingluck’s Facebook page an hour after she failed to appear in court.

“Madam, you should have fought to the end,” he wrote. “They issued an arrest warrant against you. They announced they took your bail money of 30 million Thai baht. This is like stepping on my heart.”

But a day later, he had changed his mind.

“I am happy,” he posted on her page Saturday. “You decided it right.”

Source: NYT > World

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