Thailand's military rulers have again pushed back elections to return the leadership to civilian hands, announcing on Tuesday a six-month delay shortly before Yingluck Shinawatra, the deposed former prime minister, faced court to be tried for criminal negligence.
The holdup — the second since the junta rescheduled promised elections from this October to next February — means the nation will not go to the polls until August 2016 at the earliest, some 27 months after the army seized control of the country in a coup last May and installed General Prayuth Chan-Ocha as the new head of state.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, Prayuth's second-in-command, announced the new election timetable to reporters, saying that the deferral would allow the country to hold a referendum next February on a new constitution being drafted under direction of the military.
Just hours later, Yingluck stood in a courtroom in the outskirts of the capital of Bangkok and pleaded not guilty to charges of negligence for her role in a failed rice trading scheme with rural farmers. The trial, which is expected to last up to a year, could result in the country's first female prime minister being imprisoned for up to 10 years.
"I am confident that I am innocent, and I hope the court will give me justice and allow everything to proceed in accordance with the law," Yingluck said outside the court, where roughly 50 cheering supporters had gathered in a show of defiance against the military's ban on gatherings of more than five people.
Yingluck has been released on bail, but she is prevented from leaving the country for the duration of the trial. The 47-year-old was formally impeached in January and banned from politics for five years.
Under the rice subsidy scheme, the government bought rice from farmers above the market price to boost their incomes. The program helped Yingluck, who was popular among the rural population, secure a victory in the 2011 elections.
The gambit ultimately failed, however, costing the government some $15 billion. Analysis by the Economist in 2013 showed that Thailand's exports fell by about 4 million tons — approximately a third — in the first full year of the scheme, as it was overtaken by Vietnam and India.
Critics of Thailand's military regime see its prosecution of Yingluck as an attempt to keep her and her powerful family out of politics for the foreseeable future. Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecoms executive who is currently in exile, served as the country's prime minister from 2001 to 2006, when he was also ousted by a military coup.
Like Yingluck, Thaksin was popular among the rural poor and disliked by Thailand's elites, who have accused their family of corruption. The junta took power last May following six months of violent anti-government protests bolstered by royalist "yellow shirts."
After the takeover, Yingluck's supporters rallied in support of the leader, joining a growing number of other voices that demanded the military restore civilian government and end martial law, but Thailand's popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorsed Prayuth as prime minister last August.
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