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September 24, 2017

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Thailand's political conflicts to deepen following Yingluck's escape

Former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra's mysterious escape last week ahead of a Supreme Court verdict due in a criminal negligence case against her has shocked the country, including, reportedly, some of her family and party members.

In Thailand's biggest political court case in a decade, the verdict that could land the country's first and only female prime minister in prison for up to 10 years is in itself a milestone in Thai politics.

Soon after her ouster in 2014, Yingluck was charged with criminal negligence over her administration's rice subsidy scheme, which allegedly led to 8 billion dollars in losses - a charge she has said is politically motivated.

Under Yingluck's rice subsidy programme, the government bought rice directly from farmers at a fixed rate that often was up to 50 per cent higher than global market prices.

Sources close to Yingluck told dpa she has fled to Dubai, where her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, another former Thai prime minister, has lived in exile since being ousted in a 2006 coup.

Many of Yingluck's supporters, most of whom are from the working class and rural populations in the country's north and north-east, did not blame her for leaving them behind. Rather, they were relieved and happy for her.

"Now you can relax in peace, away from all the troubles in Thailand. The future will be filled with even more conflicts," one of her supporters wrote on her Facebook page.

"There is no point showing courage by fighting for justice when the justice system itself has been used blatantly as a political tool to eliminate enemies," another supporter said.

Much of Yingluck's popularity extended from her brother Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon who became the only prime minister in Thailand's history to finish his term and be re-elected.

Military coups and political conflicts have kept all other administrations from completing their terms since Thailand transitioned to a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Despite Yingluck's absence, analysts predict the popularity of the Shinawatra family and of Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party will endure.

"I don't think her departure will affect [Pheu Thai Party] much. Yingluck has never been an official leader of the party anyway," said Pitch Pongsawat, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

"I believe the family's popularity and influence will remain the same if not more powerful," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a lecturer at Kyoto University's Center for South-East Asian Studies.

Pavin pointed to the possibility that Yingluck may continue to wield political power from abroad like her brother.

The military claimed the two military coups used to oust the Shinawatra siblings were necessary to put an end to alleged corruption.

But the electorate has shown massive support for the family over the past 16 years since Thaksin first took office. Yingluck, a political novice when she ran for prime minister in 2011, led Pheu Thai that year to a landslide victory.

"It is obvious that they [the junta] have failed. This could explain why the junta may have let her flee," said Pavin, referring to widespread speculation that the junta may have cut a deal with Yingluck to let her escape.

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