Updated at 5:42 p.m. ET on 2017-08-28
Thailand’s junta chief Monday rejected reports that government officials may have helped former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra flee the country ahead of a verdict in her trial on negligence charges stemming from a failed rice subsidy scheme.
The government did not allow Yingluck to leave as part of any deal to stop Red Shirt activists who are aligned with her opposition Pheu Thai party from stoking unrest if she were convicted, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told journalists.
“Who allowed her to leave? Who was that insane to have allowed her to leave? ...” Prayuth said during a visit to the Queen’s Guard regiment in Chon Buri province.
“Don’t you pay much attention to that. … But we have to investigate how she exited and when. I have ordered the security officials to trace how she could have slipped away.”
Yingluck, whose government was toppled in a military coup led by Prayuth three years ago, was due to appear at the Thai Supreme Court on Friday to hear the verdict in her trial. After she failed to show up, the court issued a warrant for Yingluck’s arrest and postponed the ruling until Sept. 27.
Sources told the Bangkok Post on Friday that state officials were complicit in allowing Yingluck to leave the country and that “people of influence” had subsequently helped her travel from Cambodia to the Middle East.
“Let’s just say the powers that be gave her the green light to go,” said a source the Post described as close to “the upper echelons of power in Thai politics.”
“If she had been convicted or jailed it would have caused more trouble and social unrest, so letting her leave was considered the best option,” the source reportedly said.
Sources close to Yingluck and her party told BenarNews that she crossed into neighboring Cambodia before flying to Singapore, and from there possibly on to the United Arab Emirates. Last week, CNN reported that she had fled to Dubai, where her brother Thaksin, another former PM overthrown in a similar coup, has a home.
On Saturday, however, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen denied that Yingluck had entered his country.
Senior Thai police officials met Monday to discuss Yingluck’s possible whereabouts and efforts to ensure she appears for the rescheduled verdict.
“Immigration police nationwide do not have records of her going out at any check points. But she could have slipped through non-governed border passes. ... We don’t know where Yingluck is – inside or out of Thailand. We could not guess,” Pol. Gen. Srivarah Rangsipramanakul told reporters in Bangkok.
Police Maj. Gen. Apichart Suribunuya said Thailand would seek help from Interpol to locate Yingluck.
“Under the dictatorial grip of the NCPO, Yingluck could not have slipped unless a traitor turned one blind eye or helped Yingluck flee,” said Weera Somkwamkid, a prominent former political activist opposed to the Shinawatras, referring to the junta’s official name, the National Council for Peace and Order.
“She could not have escaped successfully, is it right? So the government must punish the traitor, otherwise it is the one to blame,” Weera told BenarNews.
If convicted of negligence charges, Yingluck, 50, could be sent to prison for 10 years and banned from politics for life.
The charges stem from her administration’s scheme to buy entire rice crops at prices well above the market rate.
In a bid to influence the world rice market, she encouraged rice farmers – a huge voting bloc – to store their crops in government silos and gave advance payments of 15,000 baht (U.S. $450) per ton. At the time, rice sold for 9,000 baht ($270) per ton.
The program was riddled with graft and it failed as the global rice market plummeted. Officials appraised the loss at 178 billion baht ($5.3 billion), from 2012 to 2014, when the government was left with warehouses full of overpriced crop that eventually rotted in silos.