BANGKOK (Reuters) — Protesters trying to
topple Thailand's government tightened a blockade around ministries on
Tuesday and their leader warned the prime minister that she could be
targeted next, as some saw more than two months of turmoil inching
towards an endgame.
Major intersections in the capital, Bangkok, were blocked for a
second day, and a hardline faction of the agitators threatened to
storm the stock exchange.
Protest leaders say demonstrators will occupy the city's main
arteries until an unelected "people's council" replaces Prime
Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's administration, which they accuse of
corruption and nepotism.
The unrest is the latest chapter in an eight-year conflict pitting
the Bangkok-based middle class and royalist establishment against
the mostly poorer, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother,
Thaksin Shinawatra, a former premier ousted by the military in 2006.
Although the capital was calm and the mood among the tens of
thousands of protesters remained festive, analysts said the scope
for a peaceful resolution of the crisis ahead of elections called
for February 2 was narrowing.
"There is no clear way out," the International Crisis Group (ICG)
think-tank said in a report. "As anti-government protesters
intensify actions, the risk of violence across wide swathes of the
country is growing and significant."
Ministries and the central bank have been forced to operate from
back-up offices after protesters led by Suthep Thaugsuban stopped
civil servants getting to work.
"In the next two or three days we must close every government
office," Suthep told a crowd of supporters. "If we cannot, we will
restrict the movements of the prime minister and other ministers. We
will start by cutting water and electricity to their homes. I
suggest they evacuate their children."
Groups of demonstrators marched peacefully from their seven big
protest camps to ministries, the customs office, the planning agency
and other state bodies on Tuesday, aiming to paralyze the workings
A student group allied to Suthep's People's Democratic Reform
Committee (PDRC) threatened to attack the stock exchange, with
faction leader Nitithorn Lamlua telling supporters on Monday it
represented "a wicked capitalist system that provided the path for
Thaksin to become a billionaire".
A PDRC spokesman said the bourse was not a target.
"We will not lay siege to places that provide services for the
general public, including airports, the stock exchange and trains.
However, we will block government offices to stop them from
functioning," Akanat Promphan told supporters at a rally.
Jarumporn Chotikasathien, president of the Stock Exchange of
Thailand, said emergency measures had been prepared to secure the
premises and trading systems. Trading was normal with the index up
nearly 1.0 percent at the close.
There was no special security visible at the exchange. A Reuters
photographer said one group of protesters marched past on their way
to the customs department but did not stop.
The demonstrations, which have been gathering pace for weeks, could
cost the economy as much as 1 billion baht ($30.33 million) a day,
according to a survey released by the University of the Thai Chamber
Disruption to government services compounds the problems faced by
Yingluck, who dissolved parliament in December and called a snap
election for February. Now working from Defense Ministry facilities
on the outskirts of Bangkok, she heads a caretaker administration
that has a limited remit and cannot initiate policies that commit
the next government.
Yingluck invited protest leaders and political parties to a meeting
on Wednesday morning to discuss an Election Commission proposal to
postpone the election until May.
But that proposal looked doomed, with protest leaders and opposition
party members boycotting the meeting scheduled to be held at the air
force's headquarters in the north of the city.
Suthep says he is not interested in any election. He wants a
"people's council" to take power and eradicate the political
influence of Thaksin and his family by altering electoral
arrangements in ways he has not spelt out.
"A deal to postpone the election could buy time for negotiation but
would be only a stopgap without a comprehensive, broadly accepted
agreement on the future political order," the ICG said. "Thailand is
deeply polarized and the prospects for such an agreement are dim."
It is widely thought that, if the agitation grinds on, the judiciary
or the military may step in. 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.
Thaksin turned to politics after making a fortune in
telecommunications. He redrew Thailand's political map by courting
rural voters and won elections in 2001 and 2005.
He now lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence handed down in 2008
for abuse of power, but he is seen as the power behind Yingluck's
government. Their Puea Thai Party seems likely to win any election
held under present arrangements.
Many schools have been closed until Wednesday as a precaution in
case of trouble, but shops and most private offices were open, even
if many shoppers and commuters appeared to be avoiding the city
The government has deployed 10,000 police to maintain law and order,
along with 8,000 soldiers at government offices, but they are
largely keeping out of sight.
Ministers have said they want to avoid confrontation, hoping the
protest will run out of steam. It flared up in early November when
the government tried to force through a political amnesty that would
have allowed Thaksin to return a free man.
(Additional reporting by Pairat Temphairojana and Panarat
Thepgumpanat; writing by Alan Raybould and John Chalmers; editing by
Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)