BANGKOK (Reuters) - Ousted Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has fled the country ahead of a verdict against her in a negligence trial brought by the junta that overthrew her, sources close to the Shinawatra family said on Friday.
Yingluck, 50, whose family has dominated Thai politics for more than 15 years, failed to show up at court for judgment in a case centered on the multi-billion dollar losses incurred by a rice subsidy scheme for farmers.
Overthrown in 2014, Yingluck had faced up to 10 years in prison if found guilty. Her former commerce minister was jailed in a related case for 42 years on Friday.
“She has definitely left Thailand,” said one source, who is also a member of her Puea Thai Party. The sources did not say where she had gone.
Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who heads the political clan, was overthrown in a 2006 coup and fled into exile to escape a corruption conviction that he said was aimed at demolishing the populist movement he founded.
The struggle between that movement and a Bangkok-centered royalist and pro-military elite has been at the heart of years of turmoil in Thailand. The verdict against Yingluck could have reignited tension, though the army has largely snuffed out open opposition.
After Yingluck failed to show up, the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant against her and rescheduled the verdict to Sept. 27. It said it did not believe her excuse that she could not attend the court hearing because of an ear problem.
“It is possible that she has fled already,” Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters. He later said police were investigating reports that she had left via Koh Chang, an island close to the Cambodian border.
Cambodian immigration police said she had not entered their country.
Yingluck last commented on social media on Thursday, saying on her Facebook page that she would not be able to meet supporters at court because of tight security.
She had been banned from traveling abroad at the beginning of the trial in 2015 and has attended previous hearings. The court confiscated the 30 million baht ($900,000) that Yingluck had posted as bail.
Hundreds of her supporters had gathered outside the court on Friday where about 4,000 police had been deployed. Some held roses while others wore white gloves with the word “love” on them.
Although Yingluck had already been banned from politics by the junta in 2015, she could have been a party figurehead for elections that junta leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has promised for next year.
If Yingluck has fled it would disappoint her supporters and make her opponents feel vindicated, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
“It does not help with Thailand’s division and polarization,” he said.
Under the rice subsidy program, Yingluck’s administration paid rice farmers up to 50 percent more than market prices. It left Thailand with huge rice stockpiles and caused $8 billion in losses.
Yingluck has said she was only in charge of coming up with the policy but not the day-to-day management of it.
“If she has fled people would not trust her, but the masses would still support her because they benefited from her policies,” 38-year-old delivery man Sakunchai Muenlamai.
The Supreme Court sentenced Yingluck’s former commerce minister, Boonsong Teriyapirom, to 42 years in jail after finding him guilty of falsifying government-to-government rice deals between Thailand and China in 2013.
He said he would appeal, but was told it was too late in the day to apply for bail so will spend the weekend behind bars.
Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Donna Airoldi, Jorge Silva, Juarawee Kittisilpa, Panarat Thepgumpant, Panu Wongcha-um, Pracha Hariraksapitak and Suphanida Thakral; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Matthew Tostevin, Simon Cameron-Moore