Updated: 02/27/2014 13:51 | By Agence France-Presse

Embattled Thai PM to miss anti-graft hearing

Thailand's premier is set to skip an anti-corruption panel hearing Thursday into negligence charges that could lead to her removal from office, as she grapples with a four-month deadly political crisis.


Embattled Thai PM to miss anti-graft hearing

Anti-government protesters wave Thai flags during a rally outside the national police headquarters in Bangkok on February 26, 2014 - by Manjunath Kiran

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is fighting for her political survival as pressure mounts on several fronts -- in the streets, the courts and from the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

The backdrop is a long-standing struggle between a royalist establishment -- backed by the judiciary and the military -- and Yingluck's billionaire family which has strong support in the northern half of Thailand.

The prime minister's critics welcome the graft probe as a long-overdue attempt to hold the government to account, but to her supporters it is part of an attempted power grab.

Yingluck, who has protested her innocence, will not personally attend the appointment to acknowledge allegations linked to her government's flagship rice farm subsidy scheme, her office said.

"She assigned her lawyers to represent her," Yingluck's deputy secretary Thawat Boonfuang told AFP.

Yingluck flew to her political stronghold in northern Thailand on Wednesday where she is expected to spend several days inspecting government-backed projects.

She said last week that she was "willing to cooperate to establish the facts".

The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), which filed charges against Yingluck earlier this month, says she ignored warnings that the rice scheme was fostering corruption and causing financial losses.

If found guilty she could face a five-year ban from politics.

It is unclear how long the commission will take to reach a conclusion.

If the panel decides that Yingluck is guilty, the case will be referred to the partially elected upper house of parliament for an impeachment vote.

It follows a wave of political violence, often targeting protesters, that has left 22 people dead and hundreds wounded, with a string of shootings and grenade blasts by unknown attackers in recent days.

- Justice or judicial coup? -

The premier's opponents accuse the Shinawatra family of plundering the public coffers to win the votes of rural voters through populist policies such as the rice scheme.

But government supporters and some experts see the charges as part of an attempted "judicial coup" by Thaksin's foes within the royalist establishment without sending tanks onto the streets.

"These are elaborate plans to overthrow the government without actually staging a physical coup," said Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-educated lawyer and political commentator.

Dozens of pro-Yingluck lawmakers in the Senate, the upper house, face possible political bans over a failed attempt to amend the constitution to make the Senate fully elected.

Without a ruling party after protesters disrupted a February 2 election, a power vacuum could emerge, leaving the remaining unelected senators to appoint a new prime minister, according to legal experts.

The political crisis comes at a time of anxiety about the health of 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Some observers say that behind the street protests, a struggle is unfolding over who will be running the country when the revered but ailing monarch's more than six-decade reign eventually draws to a close.

Dozens of pro-government "Red Shirt" supporters gathered outside the NACC offices on the northern outskirts of Bangkok Thursday, a day after they padlocked its gates -- copying the tactics of opposition protesters who have blocked major state buildings.

Opposition protesters, who have occupied parts of the capital for nearly four months, want Yingluck to step aside in favour of an unelected "people's council" to tackle what they see as corruption and a culture of money-driven politics.

A Civil Court has ordered the government not to use force against the protesters, limiting its scope to deal with rallies that have sometimes descended into violence.

The kingdom's coup-prone army, which has voiced reluctance to get involved in the current standoff, this week began to set up dozens of security checkpoints around Bangkok.

The demonstrators accuse Yingluck's elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra -- a billionaire tycoon-turned-premier who was ousted from office by royalist generals in 2006 -- of running the government from overseas, where he lives to avoid a jail term for corruption.

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