Thailand's National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) yesterday found grounds to press charges against caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for alleged negligence and dereliction of duty over the controversial rice-pledging scheme, according to commission spokesman Vicha Mahakun.
The move is seen as a step to initiate impeachment proceedings against Yingluck, and to press charges for her criminal prosecution amid the political stalemate she has faced since last November.
However, Yingluck can continue her duties as caretaker PM until the NACC decides to indict her, Vicha said.
The anti-graft body summoned Yingluck to officially acknowledge the charges on February 27, Vicha said in a press statement.
He said the decision was made after the agency's investigation found evidence - both from witnesses and documents - that the premier, who is chairwoman of the National Rice Policy Committee, had been warned by many organisations of possible massive damage and corruption in the scheme.
Even the NACC warned in a written document that the scheme could cause widespread corruption in every stage of the process.
Moreover, Yingluck was informed of the apparent corruption that was occurring in the project during a censure debate. The chairman of a subcommittee on the rice-pledging audit said the scheme had caused losses of about Bt200 billion (S$7.8 billion).
A large number of rice farmers who entered the programme have not yet received payment and are now in serious financial difficulties, the NACC statement said.
The Auditor General's Office had issued an earlier warning, asking her to review and halt the programme, which it said had many irregularities and was plagued with corruption.
Rather than halting the project, Yingluck pushed ahead with the programme. This clearly demonstrated her negligence resulting in severe damage to the country, Vicha said.
Earlier, the agency charged two former ministers together with 13 other people over their alleged involvement in fraudulent rice deals. Former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom and former deputy commerce minister Poom Sarapol are scheduled to give their accounts to the NACC tomorrow.
Prior to the NACC's announcement of its decision, Yingluck made a televised public address yesterday morning she ruled out corruption at the policy level in rice subsidies. She said stricter scrutiny by the NACC was needed at operational levels.
"I want the NACC to investigate the rice-pledging scheme without any prejudice or hidden agenda, otherwise good projects could be eliminated," she said.
In responding to Yingluck, Vicha said the anti-graft body had conducted the investigation against the caretaker PM and her government without bias.
The agency was also concerned about rice farmers, as they are now suffering due to delayed payments, he said.
The NACC has been heavily criticised for handling many cases concerning rice with double standards. Its critics claim allegations against former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Democrat-led government were conducted at a slow pace compared to Yingluck's case. Vicha replied that the agency would announce the investigation result into Abhisit's case this month.
I'm very upset, Yingluck says
In her televised address, Yingluck blamed the delay of the rice payments on anti-government demonstrations. "I'm very upset and apologise to all the farmers who are suffering from the delays. The farmers are now in the middle of a political game being played by the protest leaders, who are refusing to follow the democratic and legal path.
The rice farmers' rallies demanding overdue payments under the rice-pledging scheme have been a huge blow to the caretaker government. The government owes around Bt110 billion to farmers.
The Government Savings Bank (GSB) yesterday cancelled 20 billion baht in interbank loans to the state-owned Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives and recalled a 5 billion baht loan.
The move came after savers flocked to withdraw deposits from the GSB across the country, especially in the South, which is a stronghold of the opposition Democrat Party.
Woravit Chalimpamontri, president of the GSB, tendered his resignation to take full responsibility following massive withdrawals, as well as to restore confidence among clients and employees.