Thailand's former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives at the Supreme...

Thailand's former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives at the Supreme Court to make her final statements in a trial on a charge of criminal negligence in Bangkok, Thailand, on Aug. 1, 2017. A Thai court on Monday, March 4, 2024, dropped a charge against former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, now living in exile, for mishandling government project expenditure in 2013. Credit: AP/Sakchai Lalit

BANGKOK — A Thai court on Monday acquitted former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, now living in exile, on charges of mishandling funds for a government project in 2013, the latest legal victory for the powerful family of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The ruling came shortly after Thaksin, Yingluck's brother, was released on parole on corruption-related offenses. Last year, he returned home after more than a decade of self-imposed exile, and was detained in a hospital for six months before being granted clemency because of his age and ill health.

Thaksin’s release, after almost two decades of antipathy between his populist political machine and Thailand's conservative royalist ruling class, raised speculation that Yingluck also might be returning soon.

It was the latest favorable verdict for Yingluck, who was prime minister from 2011 until she was forced from office in 2014. In December last year, the same court cleared Yingluck of abuse of power in connection with a personnel transfer she had overseen.

But to return to Thailand without facing prison, she would also need a pardon from King Maha Vajiralongkorn or other form of clemency. In 2017 she was sentenced in absentia for alleged negligence in implementing a rice subsidy program that lost the government a massive amount of money, estimated to be as much as 500 billion baht ($14 billion).

Yingluck and her supporters said she is innocent and was being persecuted in an effort to dismantle Thaksin's political machine. He was toppled from power by a military coup in 2006 after being accused of abuse of power, corruption and disrespect for the country’s monarchy.

The Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai party came to power last year after a general election in a coalition with military parties connected to the coups that twice removed the family from power, and Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtran has since become the party’s leader and a prospective future prime minister.

The judges unanimously acquitted Yingluck and five other defendants accused of mishandling 240 million baht ($6.7 million) that had been earmarked for a roadshow to tout investors on an ambitious infrastructure plan, according to a statement from a special body under a division of the Supreme Court that handles criminal cases against political officeholders.

Yingluck, now 56, was the first female prime minister of Thailand. Her acquittal shows that the influence of Thaksin’s family is rising again, said Punchada Sirivunnabood, a political scientist at Thailand’s Mahidol University.

Thaksin's supporters, who delivered him unprecedented electoral victories, believe his only offense was challenging the power of the country’s traditional elite, led by monarchists and the military and supported by the urban middle class.

His release appeared to reflect a reconciliation with his enemies in Thailand’s conservative elite, who had believed his brash populist politics and electoral popularity posed a threat to them and the monarchy.

Parties supported by Thaksin continued to dominate at the polls after his ouster. However, last year, Pheu Thai managed just a close second-place election finish to the more progressive Move Forward party, whose proposals for reform of the army and the monarchy alarmed the royalist conservative establishment more than a return of Pheu Thai, which had softened its anti-military line and was anxious to get back into power.

Yingluck's acquittal is another sign that the establishment has reconciled with the Shinawatras in an effort to face down the rising challenge of the Move Forward party, Punchada said.

“This is the way the conservative or established institution want this to happen because, by the conservatives themselves, I don’t think they can challenge the expanding popularity of the Move Forward party, so then that’s why they use Thaksin and Pheu Thai as one of the factors that can balance the power with the Move Forward party,” Punchada said.

Thaksin remains in legal jeopardy despite his release. The Office of the Attorney General says it is still investigating a charge of royal defamation that was made against Thaksin almost nine years ago. He could face up to 15 years in prison if he is ever convicted.

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