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Thai Protesters to Blockade Bangkok in Bid to Oust Yingluck

Jan. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Thailand’s government is preparing to deploy 20,000 security personnel to counter a plan by protesters to create traffic chaos in central Bangkok in a push to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office.

Authorities are seeking to put enough security in place to thwart what anti-government forces are calling the “Bangkok shutdown” while avoiding clashes. Protests calling for Yingluck’s administration to be replaced with an unelected council have dragged on for more than two months and sparked violence that left eight people dead. Seven people were injured in a shooting incident near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument early this morning, the Bangkok Emergency Medical Service said.

“People should go about their normal lives,” Surapong Tovichakchaikul, the minister tasked with handling the government response, said yesterday in a national television address. “Demonstrations on Jan. 13 shouldn’t cause any chaos as protesters confirm that they will gather without weapons.”

The protesters, who have vowed to disrupt elections scheduled for Feb. 2, have told civil servants and soldiers that they must choose a side in the conflict. Their leaders’ refusal to negotiate with Yingluck, and mounting legal cases against government efforts to change the constitution and implement spending plans, have stoked rumors that the military may stage a coup, which the army chief hasn’t ruled out.

“The renewed protests and ‘shutdown’ are about furthering defections from state agencies and weakening the caretaker government’s position,” said Michael Connors, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus. “It is also about paving the way for an imposed people’s council and ensuring that no government will emerge from the proposed elections.”

‘Good People’

The protesters are led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former power broker with the opposition Democrat Party, which is boycotting the vote. He says electoral democracy should be suspended until his council of “good people” can reform politics and remove what he says is the corrupting influence of Yingluck’s family.

Allies of Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, have won the past five elections, including two since his ouster in a 2006 military coup, enraging royalists who accuse him of being a threat to Thailand’s monarchy. The protesters say Yingluck’s government is illegitimate and run from abroad by Thaksin, who faces a two-year jail term for corruption if he returns in a case he says was politically motivated.

Yingluck has refused to resign, arguing that the almost 16 million people who voted for her in 2011 deserve to have a say in the nation’s future. She has offered to hold talks with Suthep, which he has rejected.

Seeking Intervention

It is “not realistic” to think the Bangkok protest itself will exert enough pressure on Yingluck to force her to step down, said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “There has to be some form of intervention for her to be crippled,” he said, noting the protest was designed “clearly to provoke a crisis.”

“Whether the provocation comes through a violent incident that requires military intervention, whether it leads to some sort of chaos that brings the police in or some judicial coup, I can’t say,” Montesano said.

Thailand has had nine coups and more than 20 prime ministers since 1946. Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha has said in recent weeks that the “door” to a coup is neither open nor closed, raising speculation that the army may step in if protests become violent.

“People are scared of something that hasn’t taken place yet,” he said Jan. 7. “Don’t be scared if you can’t see it. Everything must happen for a reason.”

Economic Cost

The demonstrations could cost the economy as much as 1 billion baht ($30 million) a day, according to a survey released this week by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce. Tourism accounts for about 10 percent of Thailand’s $366 billion economy, according to central bank data.

Global funds pulled a net $3.9 billion from Thai bonds and stocks since the beginning of November, official data show, contributing to the baht’s 3.5 percent decline during the period. The baht reached 33.148 on Jan. 6, the weakest level since 2010, and traded at 33 per dollar yesterday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Next week’s protest “could be the next catalyst for weakness in the currency and Thai assets, particularly if it gets violent,” Sacha Tihanyi, a Hong Kong-based strategist at Scotiabank, said in an interview yesterday. “Further political unrest raises the probability of additional foreign selling of Thai assets, constrains growth and increases the chance of additional monetary easing from the Bank of Thailand.”

‘Very Cautious’

The SET Index of shares slumped 13 percent since the end of October, when the protest began, and had its lowest close on Jan. 3 since August 2012.

“Political risk is extremely high and investors are very cautious as it’s very hard to predict how and when this turmoil will be resolved,” Tawatchai Asawapornchai, research manager at Globlex Securities Co., said yesterday by phone. “If the political crisis is resolved quickly, stocks will shoot through the roof. The only hindrance to Thai stock market is the political deadlock.”

Government offices, commercial banks and financial markets will open on Jan. 13, Foreign Minister Surapong said yesterday. The U.S. embassy advised U.S. citizens in the city to keep a week’s supply of cash and a two-week supply of food, water and medicine, according to its website.

‘Bangkok Shutdown’

Protesters plan to set up stages at seven locations, five major intersections in Bangkok’s central business districts, one at Lat Phrao in the north of the city, and one outside the Government Complex at Chaeng Wattana, near Don Mueang Airport.

The protests won’t paralyze the city because the subway, elevated railway and ferries will operate normally, Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt said Jan. 9. The government has set up 36 additional parking lots that can hold 18,000 vehicles to help people who commute to the inner-city by car.

“We don’t expect they will close many roads, but we are prepared,” Sittipunt said. He encouraged tourists to use the Airport Rail Link, which connects Suvarnabhumi International Airport with stations in the city.

Tourist arrivals may drop to 2.1 million in January, from an earlier estimate of 2.5 million, as carriers including Singapore Airlines Ltd. cancel some flights amid a drop in demand, according to the Tourism Council of Thailand. The country may still meet its full-year target to attract 29.9 million tourists if the protests don’t turn violent, Piyaman Tejapaibul, the council’s president, said on Jan. 9.

Suthep has said the anti-Thaksin demonstrators won’t target either of Bangkok’s two airports, as they did in 2008 when an eight-day siege of Suvarnabhumi ended with the ouster of a Thaksin-linked government. Bangkok’s Don Meuang airport, and U-Tapao airport near Pattaya south of the capital, have been prepared as back-ups, Chadchart said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Blake in Bangkok at cblake28@bloomberg.net; Suttinee Yuvejwattana in Bangkok at suttinee1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net

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