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Now, may the fight be clean and fair

Yingluck's return paves the way for historic graft trial

Earlier this month ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra reportedly sought permission from the military junta to postpone her return to Thailand. But, just as her critics began rubbing their hands in glee, she came back, purportedly ready to face trial for corruption and gross neglect of her duty as the country's chief executive. Yingluck thus put an end to one line of speculation, but she remains the subject of ongoing political suspense. In fact her case is far more significant than the one that prompted her brother Thaksin to flee the country in 2008.

Thailand's lingering political strife is far more severe than it was at the time of Thaksin's departure, and much now depends on the success or failure of the reforms promised by the military. In this scenario, Yingluck's trial is one of the most crucial things to watch. There are political and legal reasons why this is so.

First and foremost, her case involves alleged corruption that took place while she was in power, was directly linked with her government's policy and affected the country on a grand scale. This is nothing like the scandal over Thaksin's concealment of stock shares, which took place before he became prime minister. Neither does it compare to Thaksin's Ratchadapisek land purchase, which violated the law but was defended as personal business that "hurt" no one.

Yingluck's vow to stay and fight the case is welcome news. If the trial were to take place in her absence and the verdict were handed down while she was abroad, the impact on Thailand's fight against corruption would be overshadowed by the same old politicisation and propaganda. The country would be back at Square One. Her critics would brand her a coward, while her supporters would complain of a "conspiracy" like the one that forces Thaksin to live in exile. The fragile peace would be broken as soon as the military relinquished political control.

Now that she has returned, all parties concerned must focus on allowing her the opportunity to fully defend herself. The National Anti-Corruption Commission, her accuser, must prove that its evidence is genuine or legitimate. But while the burden of proof lies with the NACC, Yingluck's rebuttal must be straightforward and clear. The way she and her Pheu Thai Party responded to charges related to the rice scheme during last year's censure debate left much to be desired.

Thailand's reform hinges on how an anti-corruption standard is set, and how that standard is set hinges on the manner of Yingluck's trial and verdict. While her return increases the likelihood that all sides will accept the trial and verdict, the bottom line is that the legal showdown must be credible. Politics must be set aside. Legal facts must prevail.

Responsibility for the investigation into the rice-scheme corruption has been moved from the NACC to the Supreme Court's political division, whose check-and-balance mechanisms were prescribed by the 1997 Constitution. The trial might be taking place in the wake of a coup, but it involves normal anti-graft mechanisms that should be respected by all. Yingluck's supporters can argue that a "fair" trial is unlikely when the country is ruled by coup-makers who ousted her government, but what is "fair" in Thailand? It helps here to recall that Thaksin was convicted while his own party was in power.

When a high-profile figure goes on trial it's difficult for everyone. But it's obvious that the country needs this trial and, more importantly, needs it to be fair. If Yingluck is sure of her innocence, there should be nothing to fear, especially in an era in which every fact and figure will be scrutinised in microscopic detail outside the courtroom. Her return seems to confirm the right attitude, which will be crucial as the Thai crisis edges towards a new climax.


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