Hundreds show support for former Thai PM as rice scheme trial nears an end

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Ousted former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck greets supporters as she arrives at the Supreme Court for a trial on criminal negligence in Bangkok

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Aukkarapon Niyomyat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrived at a Bangkok court to shouts of encouragement from her supporters on Friday, two weeks before the final stages of a case about her involvement in a ruinously expensive state rice subsidy scheme.

Yingluck, whose government was ousted in a 2014 military coup, faces up to 10 years in prison if she is found guilty of negligence over her role in the scheme, which proved popular with rural voters but was a disaster for state coffers.

The former prime minister and opposition say the trial is politically motivated and is aimed at undermining the populist movement that has won every election since 2001. The movement is opposed by Thailand’s powerful military and conservative elite.

Around 500 supporters showed up outside the court on Friday, police said, the largest turnout in many months. One wrote “Love the prime minister” on his hand, while others shouted: “fight, fight”. Yingluck has denied the charges against her.

The military has said it will deploy troops to maintain security on July 21, when a final hearing in the case is expected.

Yingluck’s critics see the rice case as a litmus test of the junta’s sincerity in tackling corruption in politics, one of its promises after it seized power in 2014.

Closing statements in the case will be delivered within 30 days of the final hearing, court officials said.

“I’m confident in the witnesses we’ve presented,” Yingluck told crowds outside the court.

“The encouragement I’ve been given is still good … this is a strong characteristic of the Thai people,” she said.

STREET PROTESTS

Successive Thai governments have supported farmers since the 1980s, but none of the schemes has proved as popular with rural voters as the rice programs pioneered by Yingluck’s brother, ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Yingluck’s government went a step further, promising to buy rice from farmers at some 50 percent above the market price.

The scheme helped her to sail to victory in a 2011 general election, making her the country’s first female prime minister.

However, public losses from the scheme fueled street protests against Yingluck that eventually saw her removed from power just weeks before the 2014 coup.

The scheme also saw Thailand lose its crown as the world’s top rice exporter as other countries, notably Vietnam and India, filled the void when Thailand held back rice stocks it had bought from farmers.

The military government has managed to sell off most of about 18 million tonnes of rice accumulated during the rice scheme, some of it for industrial purposes, according to the commerce ministry.

Yingluck said on Friday she was not sure when she would deliver her closing statement.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Paul Tait)

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