Former ministers defend ousted Thai PM's rice scheme on YouTube

BANGKOK - Four senior members of the former government of ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra have defended her on social media over a controversial rice buying scheme after she failed to appear at her second impeachment hearing on Friday.

Yingluck faces a third and final hearing on Jan 22 before Thailand's National Legislative Assembly (NLA), which will vote the following day on whether it finds her guilty of dereliction of duty over the rice subsidy scheme.

Yingluck, Thailand's first female prime minister, was removed from office for abuse of power in May, days before the army seized power in a coup saying it needed to restore order after months of unrest.

The hearings against Yingluck concern her role in the costly rice subsidy scheme. She is accused of not doing enough to prevent rising losses from the scheme, nor to reduce corruption associated with it.

The scheme aimed to boost the incomes of poor farmers and contributed to her landslide win in a 2011 election. For her opponents, it was symbolic of populist policies aimed at buying the rural vote.

Yingluck sent ministers to speak on her behalf on Friday to the NLA, a body whose members were hand-picked by Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Prayuth led the coup to oust the remnants of Yingluck's government in May.

The NLA refused to let the ministers speak on her behalf, reading out unanswered questions for Yingluck.

The ministers uploaded clips to YouTube and sent out a statement on Saturday, answering some of the questions asked by the NLA on Friday, and insisting the rice scheme was good for farmers and the economy.

Among them, Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan, former deputy premier and commerce minister, said that schemes to support Thailand's rice farmers had been in place for 33 years under the administration of various political parties, and were not new or specific to Yingluck's administration. "We wanted to solve poverty and farmers' debt problems," he said.

The scheme paid farmers well above market rates for their crops and caused losses of more than $15 billion to the state, according to the latest Finance Ministry estimate.

Yingluck's former finance minister, Kittirat Na Ranong, said the scheme had boosted the country's economy. "The programme helped boost GDP growth by 2.7 percentage points a year," he said.

However, NLA member Jate Siratharanont told Reuters on Sunday that the statements by the former ministers would not influence the vote on Yingluck's case.

The impeachment is the latest chapter in 10 years of turbulent politics that has pitted Yingluck and her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, against the royalist-military establishment which sees Thaksin, a populist former telecommunications tycoon, as a threat.