Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of anti-government demonstrations in Thailand, called for a nationwide rally to try to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, escalating his confrontation with the administration.
Protesters will take control of Yingluck’s office and the police headquarters this weekend, Suthep said at a rally in Bangkok this evening, while naming Dec. 1 as a so-called victory day. Demonstrators will also seize control of ministries in Bangkok, he said, listing interior, foreign and commerce.
Suthep has rejected multiple offers from Yingluck for talks to ease tensions in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, saying that the protests won’t end until her government and the political influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, her brother, have been removed. Parties linked to Thaksin have won the past five elections on support from Thailand’s rural north and north-eastern provinces.
The protesters, who are backed by the main opposition party, the Democrats, earlier today stormed the grounds of the army headquarters in Bangkok. About 1,000 demonstrators seeking to dismantle the political network of Thaksin, toppled in a 2006 coup, entered the compound in the afternoon, before leaving.
“The party will support the uprooting of Thaksin’s regime,” said Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat party leader who oversaw a deadly crackdown on Thaksin’s supporters as premier in 2010. “There may be some differences in details about the country’s reforms, but we have the same target.”
All civil servants at government complexes should stay home, Suthep told the rally this evening. Demonstrators will take control of CAT Telecom and TOT tomorrow, he said, referring to two state-owned telecom agencies. Until last month, Suthep was a senior member of the Democrat party.
“Clearly these people have felt that they couldn’t compete with the Thaksin proxy in politics through the electoral process,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto’s University’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “This is the only way for them to get rid of the government.”
Rallies that began about a month ago against an amnesty for most political offenses stretching back to the coup have morphed into a wider push to replace what Suthep has called the “Thaksin system” with an appointed “parliament of the people.” More than 100,000 people joined the anti-government demonstration on Nov. 24, and protesters have spent the days since then blockading government ministries.
“I want to ask protesters to stop the demonstrations and return the government offices,” Yingluck said yesterday in an address on national television, adding that she didn’t want to see a violent confrontation. “The government is willing to cooperate with stakeholders and work out a plan to solve the problems in a way that is acceptable to all parties.”
Yingluck, whose party controls more than 300 seats in the 500-member lower house of parliament, survived a no-confidence vote yesterday over opposition allegations of economic mismanagement, corruption and attempting to pass amnesty legislation that would exonerate Thaksin of crimes he committed before being ousted in the coup.
The central bank on Nov. 27 unexpectedly cut its key interest rate for a second time this year as escalating protests threaten investor confidence and local demand.
Yesterday, protesters gathered outside the police headquarters in central Bangkok, the site of an army crackdown on Thaksin supporters in 2010 that killed more than 90 people. They partially cut the electricity supply to the building and an adjacent hospital, police spokesman Piya Uthayo said.
“The protest lacks righteousness,” police chief Adul Sangsingkeo said at a media briefing. “What they are doing is destroying the country.”
‘Peaceful So Far’
The rallies, which have been peaceful so far, haven’t had an impact on tourism, said William Heinecke, chief executive officer of Minor International Pcl, which owns the Four Seasons, St. Regis, Marriott and Anantara hotel chains in Thailand.
“We so far haven’t noticed any drop in bookings,” Heinecke said in a Bloomberg Television interview from Bangkok yesterday. “The demonstrations are limited to the government sectors and no tourist or business operations in the city are affected at all by these peaceful demonstrations.”
Foreigners pulled a net $1.3 billion from bonds this month through Nov. 27, according to Thai Bond Market Association data. The baht reached 32.228 per dollar yesterday, the weakest level since Sept. 9, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Suthep became Abhisit’s deputy when the Democrats assumed power in 2008 after a court ruling disbanded a Thaksin-allied party. He oversaw the deadly crackdown on anti-government protesters in 2010, and both he and Abhisit are facing murder charges for allowing soldiers to use live ammunition to put down the unrest.
As Suthep’s demands have grown this week, including a call for the government to be replaced with an unelected council, his former Democrat-party colleagues distanced themselves from the goals of the protest movement.
Deputy party leader Korn Chatikavanij said Nov. 27 in a Bloomberg Television interview that while the Democrats had links with the protest movement, the party was “not in charge.”
“We are not calling the shots,” Korn said by phone from Bangkok. “It is not our decision to enter government offices.”
Shifting the focus of the protests after the amnesty bill was defeated may have been a mistake for the opposition, said Ora-Orn Poocharoen, an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
“They could have just made their point and then say ‘OK. It was a victory. We stopped the amnesty bill. Let’s move on.’,” Ora-Orn said. “But by asking this kind of way-out-there kind of request to take down the whole Thaksin system, which is not concrete, I think the Democrat party is not strategic enough.”
Thaksin has lived overseas since a court in 2008 sentenced him to two years in prison for helping his wife buy land from the government. A court seized 46.4 billion baht ($1.4 billion) of his family’s money in 2010, two weeks before his supporters started protests that shut down Bangkok’s commercial center and ended in the military crackdown and arson attacks.
It appears that powerful institutions in Thailand have no interest in efforts to overthrow the government, partly because of the “lack of a decent alternative,” said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“The Democrats must accept that their party has not looked very much during the past three weeks like one ready to run the country in a constructive or even steady manner,” he said.