Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has called an
election for February 2 but the protesters, aware she would probably
win on the back of support in the rural north and northeast, want
her to step down and be replaced by an appointed "people's council"
to push through electoral reforms.
The protesters accuse Yingluck of being a puppet of her self-exiled
brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, a man they say is a
corrupt crony capitalist who used taxpayers' money to buy electoral
support with costly populist giveaways.
The anti-government push is intended to block an election that looks
increasingly uncertain. The government's supporters fear that if
protests fail to halt the poll, chaos or violence could be
instigated to trigger intervention by either the military or the
That prospect became more of a possibility on Tuesday when the
National Counter-Corruption Commission decided to press charges
against 308 former lawmakers, mostly from Yingluck's Puea Thai
Party, for trying to change the constitution to make the Senate a
fully elected chamber.
The Constitutional Court in November ruled such an amendment
The impact of a court ruling against those politicians, who do not
include Yingluck, is not clear, but it could complicate the
election, either before or after it takes place.
Puea Thai adviser Prompong Nopparit shrugged off the charges but
questioned the timing of the NCCC's decision to pursue them.
"I'm very curious to know why older legal cases concerning
opposition lawmakers still haven't moved forward, but charges
against the government side have been rushed," he told Reuters.
The refusal by the army's top general to rule out military
intervention also puts Yingluck in a precarious position, aware the
top brass is close to the royalist establishment that backs the
protests and engineered the overthrow of Thaksin in a 2006 coup, one
of 18 successful or attempted overthrows in the past 81 years.
Fears of another coup were compounded this week when tanks and other
military equipment were moved into Bangkok ahead of an Army Day
parade on January 18.
Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha says he wants to keep the military
above the fray but some of his recent comments have been ambiguous,
including those he made on Tuesday.
"Don't be afraid of things that haven't yet happened," he said when
asked about a coup. "But if they happen, don't be frightened. There
are rumors like this every year."
Yingluck said military intervention would be a big mistake.
"We've learned from the past that no good comes from coups," she
told reporters. "I'd prefer to see a long-term solution ... one that
is accepted by the international community."
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Yingluck is refusing to postpone the poll, a move she says that
would be unconstitutional. Any delay would not only expose her to
more attacks, but make it hard to run the country as her caretaker
administration is not supposed to make policy decisions that commit
the next government.
Several thousand demonstrators are determined to undermine her
legitimacy and marched from Bangkok's historic quarter across the
river and back, avoiding the centre of the city.
The protests have drawn 200,000 people at their peak and have been
mostly peaceful, although clashes between police and demonstrators
outside an election registration venue on December 26 saw scores of
people wounded and several shot by mystery gunmen. Four people,
including two police, died from the shootings.
The authorities are expecting big crowds and say 20,000 police,
backed up by troops, will be deployed in the streets on the first
day of the planned "shutdown" on Monday to secure government
buildings and prevent attempts to create unrest.
"We're concerned about the likelihood of violence ... especially
third parties trying to instigate violence," National Security
Council Chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr told Reuters. He did not
specify which third parties.
Thai markets have felt the pressure. The baht is around a four-year
low at 33.10 per dollar, while the stock market has been hit by
selling. It rose 2.6 percent on Tuesday, however, a second day of
gains, bouncing from the oversold mark for the first time since
The benchmark index has fallen nearly 14 percent since the beginning
of November, when the protests took off as a result of a
miscalculation by Puea Thai, which tried to force through an
unpopular amnesty bill that would have nullified a 2008 graft
conviction against Thaksin and allowed him to return a free man.
The bill was pulled, but it was enough to trigger the latest episode
in eight years of political turmoil that pits Bangkok's middle
class, southerners and an old-money oligarchy of royalists,
conservatives and generals threatened by Thaksin's rise against his
mostly poor supporters and tycoons who prospered under his rule.
(Additional reporting by Vorasit Satienlerk, Aukkarapon Niyomyat,
Pracha Hariraksapitak; writing by Alan Raybould and Martin Petty;
editing by Nick Macfie)
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