Thai Protest Leader Quits as Tear Gas, Roadblocks Damp Turnout
Thai anti-government forces called off a rally yesterday aimed at toppling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra because of a poor turnout after clashes left two police officers in critical condition.
“I quit,” Boonlert Kaewprasit, a retired general leading the demonstration, said in an interview after he called off the rally. “I told the truth. I needed a million people, but we were interrupted when police fired tear gas and blocked people from coming.”
Police said as many as 20,000 protesters attended the rally on a rainy day in Bangkok, short of the 500,000 that demonstration leaders had predicted. Boonlert had earlier threatened to storm Yingluck’s office complex after police used tear gas and detained about 100 people who attempted to breach a road block set up as part of crowd-control measures.
The demonstration represented the latest effort by an alliance of generals, royalists and middle-class urbanites to oust a party linked to Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra, whose allies have won the past five elections dating back to 2001. While the rally’s quick demise gives the government a short-term victory, Thaksin’s opponents remain a “potent force,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“It’s a desperate plea to ask for another government when they cannot win at the polls,” he said by phone, referring to the anti-Thaksin group. “Time is not on their side. The tide of history, the forces at work, are going toward electoral democracy.”
Protesters set up a stage under a large tent that demonstrators huddled under as monsoon rains poured down. People held up pictures of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and waved yellow flags bearing the royal insignia while listening to speeches blasted on loudspeakers.
“The military should come in to take over the parliament and let the king choose who runs the country,” said Kaew Yopying, 52, who runs an office-supply store in Bangkok. He wore goggles to protect himself from tear gas and a shirt that said “I love the king more than anyone in the world.”
“We don’t want another election for five years,” he said. “We want a new generation of good people to govern Thailand. Another election will bring more corrupt people.”
Boonlert leads Siam Pitak, which means Protect Thailand. The group, which hasn’t specified how it aims to remove Yingluck from office, is calling for a suspension of the political system.
“Those corrupt politicians must be frozen,” Boonlert told supporters yesterday before stepping down. “We will let good ones govern us.”
In 2008, demonstrators pushed for a parliament in which 30 percent of lawmakers were elected and the rest appointed from various professions, including teachers, doctors and farmers. Tit-for-tat protests by Thaksin’s supporters and opponents since the 2006 coup have killed more than 100 people and led to road blockages and arson attacks.
The clash yesterday between police and protesters who attempted to cut through razor wire left nine protesters and 10 officers injured, including two who are in critical condition, Anchulee Theerawongpaisarn, a police spokeswoman, told reporters. Police also detained 132 people, including some carrying knives and bullets.
“The demonstrators are trying to ignite violence,” Piya Utayo, a police spokesman, told reporters. “They tried to break our barricade, so the tear gas is to stop them and control them.’
Yingluck’s government approved using an internal security law to manage the protests after police warned of violence and a plot to abduct her. Police measures to control the crowds include tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets, according to a statement issued to reporters.
‘‘If a large number of people is mobilized by incitement, led by those who seek to overthrow an elected government and democratic rule -- which is against the constitution -- and there is evidence that violence may be used to achieve those ends, then this is a case of national security,” Yingluck said in a national address three days ago. “It is the government’s duty to preserve law and order.”
The protest came less than a week after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Thailand to bolster relations on a three- country trip to the region. During the visit, he had meetings with Yingluck and Bhumibol, who turns 85 next month and has been head of state since taking the throne in 1946.
“What you’re seeing here in Thailand is a democratically elected prime minister who is committed to democracy, committed to rule of law, committed to freedom of speech and the press and assembly,” Obama said in a joint briefing with Yingluck at Government House on Nov. 18. “But obviously, what’s true in Thailand, as is true in America, is that all citizens have to remain vigilant.”
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