The fallout from the historic court verdict to be handed down in the case against former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra today will be visible in a spectrum far beyond Thailand’s current two-tone divide.
As Ms Yingluck is the first former premier to face criminal charges over the implementation of a government policy, the media and pundits have been quick to offer their analyses on the political implications following the verdict.
But they seem to have misdirected their attention, with their predictions focusing on the different political fortunes facing Ms Yingluck, the Pheu Thai Party, their political rivals and opponents in the aftermath of the ruling. And as the regime has pledged to end Thailand’s political divide, there has been much debate over how the verdict will affect those efforts. The implications of the verdict, in fact, will be felt beyond the typical realm of Thailand’s colour-coded political conflicts. The ruling will set a precedent for future governments and their policies. It will also set a new standard for law enforcement against government officials.
Touted by her opponents and critics as loss-ridden and corruption-plagued, the rice-pledging scheme initiated by Ms Yingluck’s government was not the first of its kind. Many other previous governments, including the current regime, also adopted similar rice subsidy or farm support programmes.
But this is the first case of criminal prosecution against a former prime minister over an allegedly flawed policy. While the scheme was tainted with allegations of graft and irregularities, Ms Yingluck is not being tried for corruption. Rather, she has been charged with dereliction of duty regarding her oversight of the policy’s implementation.
It is more likely that the court will base its verdict on how much she was aware of the alleged irregularities and graft, and whether it was her intention to let it happen. No one is talking about corruption on her part, as no evidence was presented that she benefited financially from the scheme.
Inevitably, the verdict will set a legal precedent as to the the extent that government heads should be held responsible for the outcomes of their policies.
If Ms Yingluck is found guilty, it may affect the stability of future governments, whose members could be vulnerable to criminal prosecution if their policies are found lacking or tainted with irregularities. Such an atmosphere may have a chilling affect, keeping future government’s from initiating bold policies.
The case against Ms Yingluck, prosecuted under the ruling regime which ousted her, is highly political. In the past, no heads of government faced criminal charges for populist policies that cost the state big.
While the Yingluck trial once again exposes the need for government to be more transparent, accountable and efficient in running megaprojects, it also reveals how our justice system is prone to being dragged into political turmoil. The National Anti-Corruption Commission and public prosecutors have not investigated or brought charges against other governments which initiated similar populist policies that involved massive spending.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, which should be based on the rule of law, must be separated from political conflicts and ongoing reconciliation efforts. A not-guilty verdict should also not be used as a ticket for the Pheu Thai Party to proceed with running similar policies without proper oversight and transparency should it win the next election. If Ms Yingluck is found guilty, the regime and public prosecutors must not use it as a pretext to indiscriminately pursue more politically motivated cases against her administration, while letting other former governments off the hook.
No party should seek to benefit from the verdict. Ultimately, the road to reconciliation starts by upholding the rule of law.