By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra spoke to the media on Friday for the first time since her government was ousted in a May coup, rejecting charges she was negligent in stemming corruption.
Yingluck is the younger sister of another deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, whose nearly 10-year struggle for power with the royalist establishment has subverted stability and divided a country once seen as a surging economic "tiger".
Yingluck was an executive in a Shinawatra family company before she became Thailand's first woman prime minister in 2011, swept to power by the self-exiled Thaksin's legions of loyal voters among the urban and rural poor.
The National Anti-Corruption Committee said on Thursday it would press dereliction of duty charges against Yingluck, saying a rice-buying scheme run by her government had incurred billions of dollars in losses which she had failed to stem.
The rice scheme, which paid farmers way above market rates for their harvest, was at the heart of her administration's populist policies and was widely seen by critics as a blatant bid to lock-in votes in the countryside.
In addition to the huge financial losses, the scheme left Thailand with rice stock piles that it has struggled to offload.
Speaking to the media for the first time since a court forced her from office for abuse of power just days before the May 22 coup, Yingluck accused the anti-corruption agency of preventing her from defending herself properly.
"I tried to submit (more) evidence but the NACC refused to accept it," a defiant Yingluck said in a statement delivered at a Bangkok hotel owned by her family. "Blaming rice quality and the disappearance of rice on me is not right."
If the case is taken up by the courts and she is found guilty, Yingluck, 47, could face time in jail.
'READY TO RETURN'
Yingluck's government never revealed the full extent of the rice scheme's losses. Critics said it was riddled with corruption and the military is auditing rice stocks nationwide to assess the costs.
The military briefly detained Yingluck and hundreds of other politicians, activists, academics and journalists after the coup, which it says it had to stage to restore order after months of sometimes violent protests against her government.
The military has curtailed political activity and banned many critics from leaving the country but said on Thursday Yingluck could travel to Europe this month as long as she stayed out of politics.
She is expected to attend a party for her brother's 65th birthday and she rejected any suggestion she might not come back to dodge the charges against her.
"I am traveling for personal reasons and there was a clear travel period set before the NACC announcement. I am ready to come back," she said.
Yingluck's supporters accuse the courts and independent agencies, including the NACC, of bias and say they are aligned with an establishment intent on ridding the country of the influence of Thaksin, a brash former telecommunications tycoon who broke the political mould with populist pro-poor policies.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and sentenced in absentia in 2008 to two years in prison over a corrupt land deal. He has lived abroad ever since although he remains a huge influence over politics.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)