* PM showed up to defend herself against rice charges, asks
for more time
* Protracted political crisis hits confidence, consumption
* Weekend Senate vote key test for government
* Economy expected to contract in the first quarter
By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK, March 31 Thai Prime Minister Yingluck
Shinawatra on Monday defended herself against negligence charges
linked to a ruinous government rice pledging scheme that could
lead to her removal from office, the latest development in a
political crisis that has gripped the country for months.
As the country stumbles along, the central bank said
Southeast Asia's second-largest economy, heavily reliant on
tourism, was expected to contract in the first quarter after
consumption and investment fell.
Yingluck has been charged with dereliction of duty for
overseeing the rice-buying scheme, a policy that brought her to
power in the 2011 election with the help of the rural poor but
that has since run up huge losses and left hundreds of thousands
of farmers unpaid.
The charges were brought against her by the National
Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) which, should it forward the
case to the Senate for possible impeachment, would mean Yingluck
being suspended from official duties.
It was unclear when such a decision would be made, but it
could take weeks.
Yingluck spent 30 minutes at the commission's headquarters.
Her legal team carried three cardboard boxes filled with
documents to present to anti-graft officials. Her main defence
document was 150-pages long.
Yingluck asked for more time to call on 10 witnesses and to
submit further documents to support her defence, NACC member
Prasart Pongsivapai told reporters following the meeting.
The commission will decide on Tuesday whether to extend the
"The prime minister submitted documents in her defence and
gave a short statement," said Prasart. "We have to consider
whether (those) witnesses and documents relate to this scheme.
The commission will act with justice toward the prime minister
and in a straight-forward manner."
Yingluck has come under pressure over the past five months
from protesters who have occupied state offices and parts of
Bangkok in a bid to remove her and rid the country of the
influence of her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin
Protesters disrupted a Feb. 2 general election, halting
voting in parts of Bangkok and the south. The Constitutional
Court nullified the election this month, throwing Thailand into
deeper turmoil and leaving Yingluck in charge of a caretaker
government with severely restricted powers.
TOLL ON TOURISM
The protests have also taken a heavy toll on the tourism
industry with visitors staying away from the normally bustling
capital. Mathee Supapongs, senior director with the central
bank, said he expected tourism to pick up if there was no
further violence from street protests.
Twenty-three people have been killed and hundreds wounded in
sporadic violence since the protests kicked off in November.
The Bank of Thailand's private consumption index dropped 1.2
percent in February from January and 2.5 percent from a year
earlier. Its private investment index was 1.9 percent lower on
the month and was down 7.7 percent on the year.
Mathee told a news conference that growth could contract in
the first quarter from the fourth but might rebound in the
"Overall economic activities in February 2014 softened
further from the previous month owing to prolonged political
protests. Households and businesses continued to hold back
spending, while imports and manufacturing production
contracted," the Bank of Thailand said in a statement.
Kasikorn Research cut its full-year growth forecast to 1.8
percent on Monday, down from 3 percent in January. It also
predicted an economic contraction of about 2 percent in the
first quarter of 2014 from the previous three months.
Thailand has really been in crisis since Thaksin was ousted
in a 2006 coup. The conflict broadly pits the Bangkok-based
middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly
poorer, rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin.
Yingluck criticised the NACC last week for not giving her
enough time to gather evidence and for fast-tracking the
Government supporters accuse the courts and independent
agencies, including the NACC, of bias and say several judges are
aligned with the conservative establishment.
Her allegations prompted the anti-graft commission to issue
a statement defending the way it has handled Yingluck's case.
"As there were suspicions that Yingluck abused her
position... the NACC has had to investigate the suspicions to
get to the truth," the NACC said in statement.
"Yingluck has received just and fair treatment (by the NACC)
under the framework of the constitution."
Thais voted on Sunday for half of the country's 150-seat
Senate in a key test of Yingluck's government. A Senate
dominated by anti-government politicians could hasten her exit
but any decision to remove Yingluck would require the votes of
three-fifths of the senators.
The results are expected in a week.
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Pracha
Hariraksapitak and Kitiphong Thaichareon; Editing by Nick