BANGKOK - Ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrived at Thailand's military-stacked legislature Friday for the start of impeachment proceedings that could see her banned from politics for five years and reignite the country's bitter divisions.
Yingluck, Thailand's first female premier and the sister of self-exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, was dumped from office by a controversial court ruling shortly before the army seized power in a coup on May 22.
She faces impeachment over her administration's loss-making rice subsidy programme which - while popular among her rural power base - cost billions of dollars and was a driving force behind protests that toppled her government.
Analysts say the impeachment hearing is the latest attempt by Thailand's royalist elite to neuter the political influence of the Shinawatras, whose parties have won every election since 2001.
A guilty verdict from the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly carries an automatic five-year ban from politics, but could also galvanise her family's 'Red Shirt' supporters to protest after months of silence under martial law.
A smiling Yingluck, dressed in a black suit and pink shirt, arrived at the hearing flanked by security and a handful of her party members.
Asked if she felt confident of being vindicated she replied: "Let's wait and see." At the start of the hearing, National Anti-Corruption Commission commissioner Vicha Mahakhun said Yingluck stood accused of dereliction of duty "causing gross damage to the country".
A successful impeachment needs three-fifths of the 250-strong assembly to vote in favour. The a verdict is expected by the end of January.
Impeachment proceedings have already begun against the former parliament speaker - a member of Yingluck's toppled government - and the former senate speaker.
Prosecutors are also in the process of deciding whether Yingluck should face a separate criminal case over the rice subsidy scheme.
Dilemma for junta
Yingluck's supporters say the proceedings and the criminal charges are part of a wider campaign to cripple the Shinawatra clan and disempower their voters, who are drawn mainly from the poor but populous northern part of the country.
But the move is not without risks. A vote to impeach Yingluck could stir the Red Shirts to protest, ending months of relative calm since the army grabbed power and imposed martial law.
Thai politics expert Thitinan Pongsudhirak said the impeachment proceedings pose "a dilemma" for the junta and their supporters.
"On the one hand they want to see her disqualified from Thai politics," said Thitinan, who is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"But if they go all out against Yingluck - by pushing for a ban or criminal charges - they risk aggravating Thailand's political conflict by stirring up the pro-Thaksin camp." Yingluck's billionaire brother Thaksin, who was deposed as premier in a 2006 coup, sits at the heart of Thailand's deep schism, despite living overseas to avoid jail for a graft conviction.
He is loathed by the Bangkok-centred establishment, its supporters in the south and among the judiciary and army, but still draws deep loyalty in the north and among the urban middle and working classes.
Since Thaksin swept to power in 2001, Shinawatra governments have been floored by two coups and bloodied by the removal of three other premiers by the kingdom's interventionist courts.
The Shinawatras' electoral dominance comes as concerns mount over Thailand's future once the reign of revered 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej ends.
The junta says Thailand needs a new constitution to end years of political turmoil and rid the kingdom of endemic corruption.
But critics say those crafting the charter are mainly anti-Thaksin figures seeking to erase his legacy and protect the interests of the elite, rather than create a robust political system to move the country forward.