The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former Thai prime minister disappears right before verdict in her trial

Supporters of Yingluck Shinawatra, a former prime minister of Thailand, display her images outside the Supreme Court after she failed to show up to hear a verdict in Bangkok. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)

When Yingluck Shinawatra was elected prime minister of Thailand in 2011, she was a political neophyte with big ideas. She would, she promised, make life better for rural farmers. To do that, Yingluck launched a massive rice subsidy program.

Critics say the poorly managed scheme eventually cost the country $8 billion. Now, they've taken Yingluck to court for mismanagement. If found guilty, she would face up to 10 years in jail.

A verdict was due this week. But Yingluck didn't show up to court.

Yingluck's lawyer says she was too ill to attend, but a senior member of her party has suggested that she's fled to Singapore.

It's only the latest political drama for Yingluck and her very political family.

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Yingluck was elected on a wave of popular support. Though she has two degrees in politics, she had never before run for public office. She did, however, have the backing of one of Thailand's most experienced politicians, her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who served as prime minister until 2006, when he was ousted and fled the country.

On the campaign trail, Yingluck promised to advocate for the rural poor. And soon after taking office, she enacted a controversial rice subsidy policy: The government would buy rice from farmers, paying above market rate to boost rural incomes.

Farmers did make more money, but critics say the subsidies led to billions of dollars in losses for Thailand, along with gigantic stockpiles of unsold rice. Opponents also claimed that the program was rife with corruption and that some farmers were never reimbursed.

Yingluck's political unraveling, however, did not come due to the rice program: It came at the hands of a bill that would have granted amnesty to those convicted of political violence after the coup that ousted her brother. Opposition leaders were furious, suggesting that the proposal was actually designed to help Yingluck's brother and his allies. Even some of her supporters rebelled, arguing that people who killed civilians would end up going free.

Street protests erupted, and then the country's constitutional court found Yingluck guilty of abusing power. She was forced to step down in 2014. A few weeks later, her government was ousted by a military junta that remains in place today.

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In 2015, the army-appointed legislature launched a legal case against her, accusing her of mishandling the rice subsidy program. Hearings were set for this week. But then, Yingluck didn't show up in court.

Nathathorn Prousoontorn, a police lieutenant general who heads the Immigration Bureau, told the New York Times that he'd checked all border crossing records and that there's no record of her leaving the country. “She might be really sick. We don’t know,” Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told the Times. “Maybe she is in some hospital. She is a former prime minister and some officials might have helped her if she is running away. I don’t know if she has left the country or not.”

Hours before she was to appear in court, more than a thousand supporters gathered outside. “She has fought so hard for this. She won’t give up easily,” supporter Vittawat Suwanpuk told the Times.

Outside the courthouse, Yingluck's lawyer said she was suffering from Ménière's disease and that severe headaches kept her from court. He said he learned of her illness only an hour before the hearing. When asked by reporters whether Yingluck was still in the country, he was circumspect.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “That’s all I can say.”