BANGKOK - Embattled former Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra faces up to ten years in prison after prosecutors Friday said they will indict her on corruption charges over a controversial rice subsidy scheme - a move that risks reigniting the country's bitter divisions.
Yingluck, the kingdom's first female premier and the sister of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, is already facing an impeachment vote later Friday over the populist programme, which funnelled cash to her rural base but cost billions of dollars and inspired protests that felled her government.
She was toppled from office by a controversial court ruling shortly before the army staged a coup in May. If found guilty by the junta-stacked parliament hearing her impeachment case, she faces a five-year ban from politics.
Experts say the impeachment and criminal charges are the latest attempt by the country's royalist elite, and its army backers, to nullify the political influence of the Shinawatras, whose parties have won every election since 2001.
But the junta's pursuit of the Shinawatras could also disturb the uneasy calm that has descended on Thailand since the military took over.
Prosecutors had spent months deciding whether Yingluck should face separate criminal corruption charges over her subsidy scheme, which purchased rice from farmers at around twice the market rate - a policy that has led to huge unsold stockpiles as regional competitors undercut Thailand's exports.
"We agree that the case substantiates a criminal indictment charge against Yingluck," Surasak Threerattrakul, Director-General of the Office of the Attorney General, said Friday, adding that an indictment is expected in early March.
Loathed by the elite
Both Thaksin and Yingluck are loathed by many Thais in the upper and middle classes, but still command huge loyalty from much of the rural poor - particularly in the Shinawatras' northern strongholds, where rice farming is a mainstay of the local economy, in what is one of the world's largest rice exporters.
During the impeachment hearings Yingluck defended the rice scheme as a necessary subsidy to help poor farmers who historically receive a disproportionately small slice of government cash.
She also attacked the legality of impeaching someone from a position that she had already been removed from.
A successful impeachment needs three-fifths of the 220-strong assembly to vote in favour.
Analysts say it is unlikely that the NLA - which is stacked with junta appointees - will save Yingluck's political career.
A yes vote also risks enraging her family's 'Red Shirt' supporters, who have laid low since the coup.
Prominent protest leaders from the movement have warned against supporters hitting the streets given that public gatherings are currently banned under martial law.
"But in the medium to longer term, the grievances within the Yingluck/Thaksin side will accumulate and become more virulent when they eventually surface," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, told AFP.
Equally, a refusal by the NLA to impeach Yingluck could mobilise the same upper and middle class Thais who led the protests that eventually toppled her government.
Junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha has warned against any faction hitting the streets.
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.