Trial begins for former Thai PM accused of mismanagement

BANGKOK: Testimony began Friday in the trial of former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who faces up to 10 years in prison on charges of mismanaging a rice subsidy program.

Her prosecution under the military government is widely seen as an attempt to cripple the political machine created by her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006 and Yingluck's government was overthrown in 2014. The family's political movement has won every national election since 2001.

Last year, Yingluck was banned from politics for five years after a military-appointed legislature judged her guilty of mismanaging the rice program.

The charges against Yingluck in the Supreme Court chamber for political office-holders include dereliction of duty and failure to stop corruption linked to the subsidy scheme, which is estimated to have cost the government billions of dollars.

The courts are seen by supporters of the Shinawatras as a key part of a vendetta against them. They point to a pattern of legal decisions against them while their opponents are treated with kid gloves.

The rice subsidy program was a flagship policy that helped Yingluck's Pheu Thai party win elections in 2011. Yingluck has argued it was aimed at helping poor farmers, who were paid about 50 percent above what they would have received on the world market. The government evidently hoped it could drive up the world price for rice by warehousing vast supplies, but other producers such as Vietnam took up the slack instead, bumping Thailand from its spot as the world's leading rice exporter.

The program ended up racking up huge losses. Prosecutors say Yingluck ignored multiple warnings from several state agencies about possible corruption.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission recommended last year that the Finance Ministry sue Yingluck personally for at least 600 billion baht ($18.4 billion).

Thaksin was ousted after demonstrations accused him of corruption, abuse of power and insulting the monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His ouster set off sometimes-violent battling for power between his supporters and his opponents, including the military. He has been in self-imposed exile since 2008 to escape serving a prison sentence on a corruption charge.

Thaksin's supporters say the country's political establishment opposes him because his electoral popularity threatens their entrenched privileges.

While there have been some half-hearted efforts in the past at mediating a solution with Thaksin, the military junta that took power in 2014 has attempted to cripple him politically before elections promised for 2017 are held. It is also seeking to put in place a new constitution that would limit the power of elected politicians.