Ousted Thai PM to make final impeachment defence

BANGKOK - Ousted premier Yingluck Shinawatra arrived at Thailand's junta-picked legislature Thursday to make a last ditch defence ahead of an impeachment vote that could see her banned from politics for five years.

Yingluck, the kingdom's first female premier and the sister of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled from office by a controversial court ruling shortly before the army staged a coup in May.

She faces impeachment Friday by the military-stacked National Legislative Assembly over her administration's rice subsidy scheme, which funnelled cash to her rural base but cost billions of dollars and was a driving force behind protests that felled her government.

Yingluck arrived at heavily-policed Parliament House in central Bangkok accompanied by a handful of her party members.

"I will do my best to clarify the details so I hope that listeners will consider and decide with justice," she told reporters before the final hearing.

A successful impeachment needs three-fifths of the 220-strong assembly to vote in favour when they meet on Friday.

A guilty verdict would bring an automatic five-year ban from politics and risks enraging her family's 'Red Shirt' supporters, who have laid low since the coup.

Experts say the impeachment move is the latest attempt by Thailand's royalist elite, and its army backers, to nullify the political influence of the Shinawatras, whose parties have won every election since 2001.

Thailand's National Anti-Corruption Commission has led the probe into the rice programme, which paid farmers up to twice the market rate for their grain but left Thailand with a mountain of unsold rice.

At an earlier hearing Yingluck defended the scheme as a well-intentioned attempt to support Thailand's rural poor, who historically receive a disproportionately small slice of government cash.

Since Thaksin swept to power in 2001, Shinawatra governments have been floored by two coups and the removal of three other premiers by the kingdom's interventionist courts.

The Shinawatras' rise has coincided with the declining health of Thailand's revered 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Observers say the febrile politics of recent years, characterised by bouts of street protest and violence, is fired by the concerns of competing elites over the future of the kingdom once the king's reign ends.

Thaksin, who was deposed as premier in a 2006 coup, is reviled by the Bangkok-based establishment, its supporters in the south and among the judiciary and army, but still pulls on the loyalty of the north and among sections of the urban middle and working classes.