Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra declared a state of emergency in Bangkok yesterday as an escalation of attacks on anti-government protesters threatened to derail elections scheduled for Feb. 2.
Bombings and shootings in the capital have killed one person and injured 70 over the past five days, prompting Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha to call for restraint from protesters and security officials. Suthep Thaugsuban, an opposition politician leading the protests, vowed to continue blockades of major Bangkok intersections that began on Jan. 13.
A state of emergency “is a very risky move from a government that has generally been conciliatory of protesters,” said Kevin Hewison, director of the Asia Research Centre at Australia’s Murdoch University. “The risk is escalating violence to goad the military to take sides.”
The move marks a shift in strategy by Yingluck, who put up mild resistance as demonstrators calling for an unelected council to take power occupied buildings and streets over the past three months. Thailand last experienced a state of emergency to combat protests in 2010, when the opposition Democrat party held power and oversaw a crackdown on protesters loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother.
Army Chief Prayuth said his forces would provide support for the decree, although he said police were responsible for enforcing it and he declined to say if the state of emergency was necessary.
Prayuth again expressed concern about “divisions” in society. “It is necessary to find a way out,” he told reporters today. “We need to discuss the conflicts. I support the discussion.”
If the violence reaches a level “that cannot be healed and the army has to solve the situation, we will do our best to protect the country through an appropriate way,” Prayuth said. “We may not move toward violence means, which could worsen the situation.”
The baht fell 0.2 percent to 32.89 per dollar as of 1:38 p.m. in Bangkok and has weakened 5.4 percent since the protest began Oct. 31, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The cost of protecting Thai dollar-denominated bonds against non-payment for five years increased to 161 basis points yesterday in New York, the highest since June 2012, according to CMA prices.
The Bank of Thailand held its one-day bond repurchase rate at 2.25 percent today, saying the political situation posed a short-term risk to the economy.
The benchmark SET Index of stocks dropped 0.6 percent to 1,285.19 at the midday break. The gauge slid 3.5 percent the day after a state of emergency was declared in April 2010. It fell 11 percent in the five trading sessions after the decree was introduced as violence escalated.
“We will start with negotiations,” Yingluck told reporters yesterday. “All officials will be careful, and everything will be done in line with international rules. Please don’t be concerned.”
The emergency decree bans gatherings of more than five people, allows detention without charge and gives soldiers immunity from prosecution. The measure will be in place for 60 days starting today, National Security Council head Paradorn Pattanatabut said, without announcing a curfew.
The government won’t use weapons or disperse protesters at night, Labor Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, who will oversee a joint operation between the military and police, told reporters yesterday. The elections will go ahead as planned, he said.
The Election Commission has urged the government to defer the vote until May, saying the political environment is too tense to proceed next month.
The commission will seek a ruling from the Constitutional Court today on whether the vote can be delayed, Secretary-General Puchong Nutrawong told reporters yesterday. Protesters blocked postal workers from sending out forms for advanced voting yesterday, Puchong said.
“We will talk first, and I will be the one to lead negotiations,” Chalerm said. “I hope Suthep will change his mind and surrender to police.”
Suthep’s critics have said he seeks to create enough turmoil to spur the intervention of the military in a repeat of a 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin, whose allies have won the past five elections on support from rural northern and northeastern regions. The protesters want to prevent parties linked to Thaksin from returning to power.
Thailand has had nine coups and more than 20 prime ministers since 1946. Prayuth earlier this month said that the “door” to a coup is neither open nor closed.
“Don’t be scared about the emergency decree,” Suthep told supporters late yesterday at Bangkok’s Lumpini Park. “If they come to disperse us, we will sit down and pray. If they storm in, we will retreat orderly without any panic.”
The protesters, mostly middle-class Bangkokians and Democrat party supporters from southern provinces, 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.
Chalerm, as a deputy prime minister in Yingluck’s administration, was a vocal supporter of an amnesty law that would have exonerated Thaksin and allowed the former premier to return from self-imposed exile.
Nine people have been killed since the anti-government protests began at the end of October. Kwanchai Praipana, one of the leaders of the pro-Thaksin red shirt movement, was injured in a shooting incident at his home in northeastern Udon Thani province early today, the Nation reported on its website.
The red shirts won’t confront rival protesters in Bangkok, Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said on Jan. 17. More than 90 people were killed in 2010 when Suthep and Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was prime minister at the time, set up live-fire zones and ordered the army to disperse Thaksin supporters occupying Bangkok’s shopping district.
Suthep’s former party, the Democrats, have lost every national election over the past two decades and plan to boycott next month’s poll.
Yingluck dissolved parliament Dec. 9 and announced the election a day after the Democrats resigned en masse to join the rallies, which at their peak drew more than 200,000 people. Protesters initially took to the streets to oppose the proposed amnesty law which the government abandoned. The demonstrations later morphed into a broader movement to erase Thaksin’s influence.