Let’s hope that whoever is writing Thailand’s political script is not over-inspired in the next seven days. Otherwise, we may be in for a big anticlimax after days of trying to figure out where Yingluck Shinawatra is, who helped her flee, which escape route she took and whether her clan might actually be in cahoots with the military government.
A cautious scriptwriter would have Yingluck found guilty in absentia on September 27. The ruling would be controversial, all right, but at least it won’t change much. She will continue to be in exile. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will continue to be angry, genuinely or otherwise, when asked if his security forces intentionally looked the other way in the lead-up to August 25 and the scheduled court verdict. Thailand’s political divide will continue in all its bitterness.
A verdict of “not guilty” would of course be a bombshell. Would she remain in exile? If she wants to come back, what should she say? Should Prayut continue to look angry? Or should he look mad? Or should he laugh? And what will happen to Thailand’s political divide? Can we handle another twist?
A “guilty” verdict will in fact serve both sides of the polarity. One camp can say she’s a heroine fleeing political persecution, while the other can call her a cowardly crook running from justice. “Not guilty” will leave a sour taste in all mouths. “See? She’s innocent!” one side will gleefully declare. “And courageous, too, don’t you think,” will come the sarcastic retort.
Yingluck is almost certainly praying for a “guilty” ruling. Before her vanishing act, the former prime minister and her defence tried everything they could to discredit the trial, branding it a conspiracy to put her in jail. Which means a “not guilty” verdict will leave her looking pathetically paranoid, her decision to flee a laughable act that she will never live down.
So, a “guilty” verdict will confirm her existing reputation in the eyes of both admirers and haters – as either a hero or a crook. “Not guilty” would threaten to turn her into a clown. Which of these does she want to be?
Her brother Thaksin won’t be much better off after a “not guilty” ruling. His “philosophical” tweet following the August 25 no-show will be something he wants to forget. The Montesquieu quote he used – “There’s no crueller tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice” – is redundant unless his sister is convicted.
But the biggest beneficiary of a “not guilty” verdict could be Prayut. For one thing, he could fling back the reporters’ accusations in their faces. “Do you still think I assisted her flight?” he will yell at them. “I guess that was a smart thing to do, eh? Helping an innocent suspect escape who was going to be cleared by the court anyway?”
But the conspiracy theorists would of course come up with alternative explanations. Scenario one: Prayut fooled Yingluck into thinking she would end up in jail, making her flee and look bad in the process. Scenario two: Prayut told Yingluck to run first and return later because he knew of the impending verdict and wanted her escape as a distraction. Here, Prayut let Yingluck know she was going to be laughed at, but only by those who don’t like her that much anyway.
Actually, a “not guilty” verdict wouldn’t have been much of a bombshell had it been delivered on August 25. Some analysts saw a plausible compromise in punishing former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom while sparing Yingluck. The anti-Shinawatra camp would gain satisfaction in the confirmation of massive corruption in the rice-pledging scheme whereas the pro-Shinawatra side would be happy to see Yingluck ruled innocent.
Having found Boonsong guilty, the Supreme Court’s section for politicians has made clear its view of the rice-pledging operations. But the judges kept their cards close to their chests regarding what they think of Yingluck’s role in the scandal. This means that they could now decide either that corruption and financial damages are something beyond the control of those at the policy level, or that she cannot escape responsibility.
The chances of a “not guilty” verdict are slim, but they are not zero. Thai politics is known for story lines whose twists out-do even the best thrillers. In a week’s time we will find out whether our political saga continues with the same old problems, or whether the scriptwriter up there throws us some new ones.