BANGKOK >> Thailand’s military ruler said Friday that authorities are searching for Yingluck Shinawatra — the prime minister he ousted three years ago — after she failed to appear for the verdict in a criminal case that could send her to prison for up to 10 years.
Yingluck is accused of negligence in overseeing an ill-fated rice subsidy program that cost the state billions of dollars. She pleaded innocent and decried the charges as politically motivated.
A decision had been expected Friday, as thousands of Yingluck supporters gathered outside the court and thousands of police stood guard. But Yingluck never appeared, and a judge read out a statement saying her lawyers had informed the court she could not attend because of an earache.
The judge said the court did not believe the excuse, however, because no official medical verification was provided. He said a warrant would be issued for her arrest, and announced the trial would be postponed until Sept. 27.
It was not known where Yingluck was, and her absence fueled immediate speculation — so far unproved — that she might have left the country. Her lawyer could not be reached for comment.
Speaking at a nearby event on Friday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military chief who toppled Yingluck’s government in a 2014 coup, said he did not know where she was, but the government was checking.
“Police are informed, (but) there’s nothing yet,” he said. “We’re still looking for her.”
The trial is the latest chapter in a decade-long struggle by the nation’s elite minority to crush the powerful political machine founded by Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 coup. Thaksin, who has lived in Dubai since fleeing a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated, has studiously avoided commenting on his sister’s case, apparently to avoid imperiling it.
Thaksin is a highly polarizing figure here, and his overthrow triggered years of upheaval and division that has pitted a poor, rural majority in the north that supports the Shinawatras against royalists, the military and their urban backers.
When Yingluck’s government proposed an amnesty in 2013 that could have absolved her brother and allowed him to return without being arrested, street protests erupted that eventually led to her government’s demise in the 2014 coup.
The junta that seized control of Thailand has since suppressed dissent and banned political gatherings of more than five people. The long-awaited decision on Yingluck’s fate has rekindled tensions in the divided nation, but the military remains firmly in charge.
Fearing potential unrest, authorities tried to deter people from turning out Friday by threatening legal action against anyone planning to help transport Yingluck supporters. Yingluck posted a message on her Facebook page urging followers to stay away, saying she worried about their safety.
Thousands of people turned up outside the Bangkok courthouse anyway, along with thousands of police who erected barricades around the court.
Prawit Pongkunnut, a 55-year-old rice farmer from the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima, said he came with 10 other farmers to show solidarity with Yingluck.
“We’re here to give her moral support because she truly cared and helped us out,” Prawit said.
The rice subsidies, promised to farmers during the 2011 election, helped Yingluck’s party ascend to power. Critics say they were effectively a means of vote-buying, while Yingluck supporters welcomed them.
The rice subsidy plan Yingluck oversaw paid farmers about 50 percent more that they would have made on the world market. The hope was to drive up prices by stockpiling the grain, but other Asian producers filled the void instead, knocking Thailand from its perch as the world’s leading rice exporter.
The current government, which is still trying to sell off the rice stockpiles, says Yingluck’s administration lost as much as $17 billion because it couldn’t export at a price commensurate with what it had paid farmers. If convicted, Yingluck has the right to appeal.
In a separate administrative ruling that froze her bank accounts, Yingluck was held responsible for about $1 billion of those losses — an astounding personal penalty that prosecutors argued Yingluck deserved because she ignored warnings of corruption but continued the program anyway.