Rice and rights: Yingluck Shinawatra’s trial

From the beginning, the trial of Yingluck Shinawatra over her rice pledging scheme has lacked a clear legal basis. What will be the legacy of prosecuting a politician, not for breaking the law, but simply for bad policy? 
 
Rice has always been a key element in Thai politics, given that farmers make up many of the country’s voters. In order to win popularity, the Yingluck Shinawatra government (2011-2014) introduced its Rice Pledging Scheme (RPS) which allowed farmers to sell rice to the government at above market price.
 
The RPS helped to bring down the Yingluck government, feeding into accusations of populism. Criticism became even harsher during protests by the anti-election People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) between 2013 and 2014. Yingluck was pilloried for her failure to supervise the policy and the resulting huge losses and corruption. It is estimated that the RPS contributed to some 500 billion baht in national losses.
 
When the ruling junta staged the 2014 coup, it promised to eliminate corruption and populism. Trying Yingluck over the RPS appears to be one attempt to fulfil this promise.
 

Rule of law disappears from trial

 
The junta has made a series of efforts to make sure that there would be a prosecution. This began on 19 March 2015 when the court accepted the case. She is charged with being responsible for massive corruption, even though she did not commit it, and the huge deficits from the RPS. 
 
The corruption allegation came after the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) on 20 January 2015 ruled that Boonsong Teriyapirom, a former Minister of Commerce, and 28 other defendants were guilty of corruption in the RPS. 
 
Boonsong was appointed to manage the sale of rice from the RPS to China under a Government-to-Government agreement. However, the NACC found that the rice was actually sold to Thai companies that have connections with Boonsong. Still, there was no proof that Yingluck was directly involved in or benefited from the corruption
 
Since it is unusual for a Prime Minister to be prosecuted for corruption that he or she did not commit, state agencies were initially hesitant to pursue the case. The junta therefore invoked Article 44 in late 2016 to grant legal immunity to officials involved in the prosecution, meaning that they cannot be held accountable if the prosecution is later proved malicious or unfair to Yingluck.
 
During the 28-month trial, Yingluck was summoned to court 26 times. She was always greeted in front of the court by supporters showing solidarity. The junta head Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, however, discouraged the crowds.
 
“You (media) have to tell people that they don’t have to come. Just watch it from home. There’s no point in coming,” said the junta head.
 
On 1 August 2017, the final day of the trial, Yingluck gave a closing statement of her case to the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Persons Holding Political Positions. The verdict is scheduled to be read on 25 August and if found guilty, Yingluck will have to pay 35 billion baht in damages, equal to 20 per cent of the estimated total loss arising from the policy.
 
“The making of story and unlawful adding of new evidence against me in such a way that bringing the criminal charge against me first and find additional evidence to submit to the court later is not only unfair but is also tantamount to leading the trial and the public to believe that I am guilty and liable to damage despite the fact that the criminal case has not yet been decided,” read Yingluck’s closing statement.
 
But even before the verdict was declared, Yingluck tweeted on 26 July that her bank accounts had been already confiscated. And the junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha stated that the government was right to do so. 
 
In response, Yingluck’s lawyer Noppadol Laothong filed a motion with the Administrative Court to revoke the seizure. The court then ordered the Finance Ministry and related agencies to submit an explanation within 15 days on why it was necessary to seize Yingluck’s assets. 
 
Thus, the trial of Yingluck is seen as harassment of the junta’s political opponents, rather than a quest for justice and accountability. No matter what the junta’s intention is, however, the trial has certainly set a political norm for Thailand’s public policies in the future. 
 
Prachatai, therefore invited Thai rice experts to discuss the RPS and the implication of Yingluck’s trial. What they all agree on, as does the junta, is that the RPS has done more harm than good, but the ongoing trial is far more problematic.
 
 
Yingluck greets her supporters in front of the court house

Failure of RPS

 
Thanapan Laiprakobsup, a lecturer in political science from Chulalongkorn University, accepts that the RPS was beneficial for poor farmers since it distributed wealth and public resources. Farmers stood to gain by selling rice at the above market rate of 15,000 baht per ton. Farmers were perhaps able to participate further in the local economy through increased spending.
 
But the downside of the RPS was huge. Since 1980, Thailand was consistently the world’s largest rice exporting country. But in 2012, when the RPS was implemented, Thailand’s ranking dropped to third because the policy created extra costs for exporters. Farmers also had less incentive to develop production technologies, preferring to wait for aid and subsidies from the government. 
 
Weera Wongsatjachock, a lecturer at Burapa University’s Faculty of Political Science and Law, agrees that the RPS created more problems than benefits for the Thai rice industry. Previously, rice cultivation took about five months. After the RPS was implemented, farmers changed the types of rice planted in order to reduce the cultivation period to two or three months. While this produced more rice, it led to a decline in rice quality.
 
However, Weera is somewhat sympathetic to the state’s attempt to interfere in the free market for the sake of the people. Before the RPS, the rice price was set by rice exporters who only focused on maximising their own profits. Wealth was concentrated among the rich and the RPS challenged this model of inequality.

Implication of Yingluck’s trial   

 
Despite the failures of the RPS, the prosecution of Yingluck cannot be justified in any legal sense. Weera argues that, on principle, politicians should be tried in court only when they violate the law or are guilty of corruption. But in the case of Yingluck, she is not being prosecuted for corruption but for running a failed policy — which should be punished politically through a fall in electoral popularity, rather than through prosecution. 
 
“The allegations that Yingluck is facing are about political responsibility, which should be expressed through protests or debates. But to seize her assets, that seems controversial,” Weera stated. 
 
He added that governments should have a different mentality from the private sector. While the latter seeks the most profitable policy, governments should also factor in the people’s wellbeing. In this sense, deficits from public policies are inevitable.
 
“Unlike the private sector, the government is a public service provider. They don’t care how profitable a policy is, but rather how to help people’s livelihoods and how much deficit is acceptable,” Weera argued. 
 
Weera predicts that Yingluck’s trial, on the one hand, will make future governments more wary of running populist policies. But on the other, future governments will have more cause to embrace austerity policies. Due to the fear of prosecution, they might hesitate to institute welfare or protectionist policies that risk large deficits. 

Junta’s rice policy

 
Yingluck’s trial can be seen as an attempt by the junta to send a message that policies that interrupt the free market and create losses will not be tolerated. 
 
So what kind of rice policies do the military prefer? Thanapan, who has researched Thailand’s rice policies, said that unlike the former Pheu Thai administrations, the junta is against interfering in market mechanisms and prefers to work on reducing rice production costs. 
 
The junta’s main solution has been to grant farmers 1,000 baht for each rai (approximately 0.4 acres) of farmland to a maximum of 10 rai, meaning that 10,000 baht is the highest subsidy a farmer is entitled to. 
 
Thanapan points out that poor farmers have little farmland, and are unlikely to benefit fully from the scheme. Farmers who choose to rent more land to get a bigger subsidy often must forfeit between 20 to 50 per cent of the subsidy to their landlord. 
 
“Many policies of this government have the same problem. The farmers that the government wants to help don’t get the full subsidy and the policy is not seriously implemented,” added Thanapan. 
 
Ultimately, the junta’s subsidy may make little difference to the lives of Thailand’s rice farmers.