BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's parliament began an impeachment hearing against former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Friday that could lead to her being banned from politics for five years and stoke tension in the divided country.
Yingluck, Thailand's first woman prime minister, was removed from office for abuse of power in May and days later her government was ousted in a military coup that ended months of street protests against her by her rivals.
Yingluck remains popular among the rural poor who elected her in a 2011 landslide, as does her brother, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and the impeachment hearing could test a fragile calm under military rule.
In her opening statement to the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly, Yingluck said the proceedings were futile as she no longer held any political post.
"I was removed from my position as prime minister. I have no position left to be removed from," Yingluck told the assembly.
About 20 of Yingluck's supporters gathered outside parliament despite government warnings to stay away. Some held red roses and tried to raise pictures of Yingluck until police told them to put them away.
Thailand is under martial law and public gatherings are banned.
The case concerns Yingluck's role in a rice subsidy program which critics denounced as a wasteful handout to the Shinawatras' supporters and which incurred billions of dollars in losses.
A day after she was ordered to step down in May, the National Anti-Corruption Commission indicted her for dereliction of duty in relation to the rice scheme.
The impeachment is the latest chapter in a divisive 10-year struggle for power between the Shinawatras and the royalist-military establishment which Thaksin, a populist former telecommunications tycoon, as a threat.
A guilty verdict would see Yingluck banned from politics.
Her supporters say the case is aimed at barring her from an election the military has promised to hold early next year and ending the influence of the Shinawatra family.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in self-exile to avoid a 2008 graft conviction but remains hugely influential.
The National Legislative Assembly has said a decision could come by the end of the month.
Under the subsidy scheme, Yingluck's government bought rice from farmers at prices much higher than on the open market leading to huge stockpiles.
Yingluck defended the scheme in her opening statement.
"Please look at the benefits of the scheme and not just the financial cost," she said.
The hearing resumes on Jan. 16.
Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Damir Sagolj; Editing by Robert Birsel