Police and soldiers maintained a low profile as the "Shutdown
Bangkok" drive got under way in the city of about 12 million people.
The mood was festive, with many protesters singing and dancing in
Major intersections that normally teem with cars and trucks were
blockaded, but trains and river ferries were operating, most shops
were open and motorbikes plied the roads freely.
"Don't ask me how long this occupation will last," protest leader
Suthep Thaugsuban said in a speech to supporters carried by the
movement's BlueSky television channel. "We will not stop until we
The turmoil is the latest chapter in an eight-year conflict pitting
Bangkok's middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly
poorer, rural supporters of Yingluck and her self-exiled brother,
billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin was ousted by the army in 2006 and sentenced to jail in
absentia for abuse of power in 2008, but the former telecoms tycoon
looms large over Thai politics and is the dominant force behind his
sister's administration from his home in Dubai.
In a bid to end the unrest, Yingluck called a snap election for
February 2, but Suthep has rejected the poll, which the prime
minister's Puea Thai Party would probably win.
As the blockade began to bite, Yingluck invited the protest leaders
and political parties to a meeting on Wednesday to discuss an
Election Commision proposal to postpone the vote, according to a
senior aide of the prime minister.
The stock exchange rose on the hint of a compromise, ending 2.2
percent higher. But the protesters have rejected any election and
want to install an appointed "people's council" to change the
electoral system and bring in reforms to weaken Thaksin's sway.
"This won't end easily, and the turnout today is impressive, so it
seems this deadlock looks set to continue," said Sukum Nuansakul, a
political analyst and former dean at Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng
"Suthep has said he won't negotiate with the government, yet the
government said today it will try to invite all warring parties to
the table. The protest group's aims to overhaul the political system
in this country won't happen overnight. This could be just the
Eight people, including two police officers, have been killed and
scores wounded in violence between protesters, police and government
supporters since November.
Shootings were reported overnight near a government administrative
complex that protesters began to blockade late on Sunday and at the
headquarters of the opposition Democrat Party, which has thrown in
its lot with the protest movement.
Pro-Thaksin groups started rallies in several provincial regions on
Sunday but are steering clear of Bangkok for now. Suthep has said he
would call off the protests if, as some fear, civil war threatened
to break out.
The government deployed 10,000 police to maintain law and order,
along with 8,000 soldiers at government offices.
"We don't want confrontation with the protesters ... In some places
we will let them into government buildings," Foreign Minister
Surapong Tovichakchaikul said on Sunday.
In Lumpini Park in central Bangkok, protesters had erected hundreds
of closely packed, brand new tents in anticipation of what could be
a long standoff.
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As the first day of the shutdown drew to a close, a crowd of several
thousand — including farmers from the south and workers from nearby
office buildings — gathered near a stage to hear speeches and jeer
at Yingluck's government.
As the light faded, the carnival atmosphere was tempered by
apprehension that provocateurs could attack the camp, said Thanat
Thanakitamnuay, a Maserati-driving protest leader who is the
grandson of a former deputy prime minister.
"We expect a few home-made bombs or rounds fired at us but we don't
expect any serious injuries, or injuries at all," he said, before
adding, laughing: "I'm just being optimistic."
"As soon as the situation gets out of hand, the army will step in,"
Rumors of a coup are rife. The military has staged or attempted 18
coups in 81 years of on-off democracy, although it has tried to stay
neutral this time and army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has publicly
refused to take sides.
In 2010 the army put down a pro-Thaksin movement that closed down
parts of central Bangkok for weeks. More than 90 people, mostly
Thaksin supporters, died during those events.
The latest protests took off when the government tried to push
through a political amnesty that would have let Thaksin return home
without serving jail time for corruption.
Thaksin, who redrew Thailand's political map by courting rural
voters to win back-to-back elections in 2001 and 2005, gained an
unassailable mandate that he then used to advance the interests of
some major companies, including his own.
He is opposed by an elite that feels threatened by his rise and
regards his sister as a puppet. Thaksin's opponents also include
some academics who see him as a corrupt rights abuser and the urban
middle class who resent, as they see it, their taxes being used for
his political war chest.
The unrest has hurt tourism and delayed huge infrastructure projects
that had been expected to support the economy. Consumer confidence
is at a two-year low.
Protest leaders did not target public transport or Bangkok's
airports. Anti-Thaksin protesters caused chaos when they forced the
two main airports to close for days in 2008.
However, the central bank, finance ministry and some other
ministries were forced to move operations to buildings around the
city or even to neighboring provinces.
"The aim is not war," Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister and
member of the opposition who joined Monday's protests, told Reuters.
"We have to keep pressure on the government until it is crippled and
(Additional reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall, Aubrey Belford,
Panarat Thepgumpanat and Orathai Sriring; writing by John Chalmers;
editing by Alan Raybould and Nick Macfie)
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