Bangkok: Former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is believed to have fled Thailand ahead of a verdict at her negligence trial where she faced up to 10 years jail, prompting ridicule from the junta that overthrew her.
“I thought she was brave enough to show up,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army general who led a coup in 2014, told reporters.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said it was likely Ms Yingluck had already left the country.
The government ordered authorities to investigate whether Ms Yingluck had passed through either legal or illegal border posts.
Some Thai media quoted sources close to the Shinawatra family saying she had crossed the border into Cambodia via the island of Koh Kong last Wednesday before flying to Singapore, and then on to Dubai to join her exiled elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Earlier the Supreme Court had issued an arrest warrant for Thailand’s 50 year-old first female prime minister who had already been fined US$1 billion and had her 16 bank accounts frozen by Thai authorities.
Judges said they did not believe Ms Yingkluck was suffering symptoms of severe headaches and dizziness and could not travel to the court.
They said they would deliver a verdict in the case on September 27 and seized the equivalent of about A$1.1 million bail.
The court had earlier ruled she could not leave the country.
Ms Yingluck was last seen in public on Wednesday when she went to several Buddhist temples to make offeringsand pray.
Her departure from Thailand would be a serious blow to her family’s “Red Shirt” movement and substantially weaken its prospects at elections which the military has promised will be held next year.
Seeing Ms Yingluck go into jail would have angered millions of supporters in her rural heartland in the country’s north and north-eastern provinces, possibly sparking new unrest in the country after a decade of sometimes violent upheaval.
General Prawit denied that security authorities intentionally let Ms Yingluck flee the country, saying they had followed her and reported she had not left home for two days.
Any official who aided her escape would be punished, he said.
The charges related to Ms Yingluck’s handling of a failed rice subsidy scheme when she was in power that brought her government billions of dollars in losses.
Her former commerce minister was jailed for 42 years in a related case on Friday.
Ms Yingluck had told her supporters on the eve Friday’s scheduled verdict hearing to stay home, saying she feared people with “ill-intentions” might and try and cause trouble for her movement.
But thousands of supporters defied a government ban on gatherings of more than five people and threats of legal action to converge on the court.
.”Yingluck, fight, fight fight,” many shouted.
The military government put its credibility on the line by pursuing the first charges against a former prime minister over a flawed government policy.
No corruption allegations were made against her in the case.
Prosecutors alleged Ms Yingluck’s government ignored numerous written warnings from the Auditor-General and the country’s anti-corruption commission about the program’s risks and irregularities.
Ms Yingluck told the court she did not terminate the program because it was never intended to generate revenue but to raise the incomes of farmers, and she forwarded the warnings to the relevant government agencies.
A subsequent investigation found no irregularities, she said.
Other former governments have implemented similar subsidy schemes.
The plan was to buy up local rice harvests for as much as 50 per cent above market rates to drive up global prices. But the market saw it as a clumsy attempt at price manipulation.
Thailand amassed huge rotting stockpiles of rice rather than sell at a loss overseas.
The case is the latest in a decade-long offensive against a largely rural-based mass movement supporting a political machine founded and directed by Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 military coup.
Some analysts said the movement may now be irreversibly crippled.
Mr Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, fled into exile in 2008 to escape a prison sentence on a conflict of interest charge he claims was politically motivated.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said if Ms Yingluck has fled it would disappoint her supporters and make her opponents feel vindicated.
“It does not help with Thailand’s division and polarisation,” he said.
Since the 2014 coup, Thailand has become one of south-east Asia’s most repressive countries with political gatherings banned, strict censorship of the media and hundreds of activists, journalists, academics and former politicians detained or charged.