Outsed premier Yingluck Shinawatra stoutly defended herself against negligence of duty charges at an impeachment hearing yesterday that poses fresh challenges to the post-coup administration.
"I have run the country with transparency and fairness, and never violated any laws," she told the 220-member legislative assembly appointed by the military after its coup last May.
Ms Yingluck became prime minister after a landslide election win in 2011 but was thrown out by the Constitutional Court, over a contested transfer of a senior official, two weeks before the coup.
While the military government's strict surveillance and continued imposition of martial law have muffled protests, the 47-year-old remains popular, something hardliners trying to banish her powerful clan from Thai politics remain wary of.
If she is impeached, she faces a five-year ban from politics.
The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) has accused her of negligence over the management of a now-defunct government rice subsidy scheme which bought padi from farmers at some 50 per cent over market prices.
This agricultural aid was a key campaign pledge of her Puea Thai party, which derives the bulk of its support from the country's rural masses. But the scheme left state warehouses holding mountains of unsold rice and about 500 billion baht (S$20 billion) in losses.
"Even though there was no evidence that she was involved in the corruption… as the head of the Cabinet she should take responsibility," NACC member Vicha Mahakhun told the assembly shortly before Ms Yingluck spoke.
The former premier, in a confident address afterwards supplemented by a slide presentation, countered that this "loss" was actually "an investment for the better life of farmers".
"Those who don't like it see it as a loss," she said.
She pointed out that she had no more position to be stripped of, having held caretaker status after she dissolved Parliament in late 2013, and then losing that remnant power after the Constitutional Court ruling. "How can we impeach anybody who doesn't have a post?" she asked.
The second hearing is scheduled for next Friday, while voting is expected late this month. Three-fifths of the 220-member assembly need to vote for impeachment for it to go through.
Separately, state prosecutors are mulling over whether to bring charges against Ms Yingluck over the rice scheme. She is a sister of controversial former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 coup and lives abroad to evade a corruption-related jail sentence.
Throughout her time in office, she was accused of being his proxy and faced opposition from the very same royalists, elites and urban middle class that rallied against her brother. That resistance grew into a seven-month-long street protest that culminated in last year's coup.
Both Ms Yingluck and her brother have kept a low profile after the coup, with the latter reportedly asking their numerous "red shirt" supporters to cooperate with the junta. But passions remain high beneath the military-imposed calm.
Analysts say the impeachment poses a dilemma for Thailand's military powers.
Political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak said: "If they want to pursue some kind of bargain with the Thaksin side for the sake of reconciliation down the road, they could bite the bullet by going easy on Yingluck."
The compromise, however, would risk disenchanting the very same groups that supported the military intervention.
This article was first published on Jan 10, 2015.
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