Thai Protesters Extend Blockade After Rejecting Poll Talks
Thai anti-government protesters pledged to maintain a blockade of central Bangkok until Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra agrees to quit, rejecting an offer to discuss a postponement of elections scheduled for Feb. 2.
“We will not compromise on our demand for Yingluck to get out before the election,” Suthep Thaugsuban, a former member of the opposition Democrat Party, who is leading the protest, told supporters in Bangkok yesterday. “There are only two ways. We win and remove Yingluck, or we lose and go to jail.”
Yingluck has faced more than two months of street rallies led by Suthep, who says electoral democracy should be suspended until a council of “good people” can remove what he says is the corrupting influence of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as premier in a 2006 coup. Suthep faces murder charges for ordering a deadly crackdown on pro-Thaksin demonstrators in 2010, when the Democrats were in power.
“There is no win-win situation,” said Suthep, who also has an outstanding arrest warrant on insurrection charges for leading the protest. “One side has to win and one side will lose. There is no compromising. We need to get rid of the Thaksin system and reform the country.”
Demonstrators yesterday set up stages at five intersections in Bangkok’s central business districts, and two others at Lad Prao and the Government Complex at Chaeng Wattana in northern Bangkok, forcing commuters onto crowded trains and ferries. The blockade may last for five to seven days, National Security Council head Paradorn Pattanatabut said yesterday.
Protester numbers that the government estimated at about 80,000 yesterday dwindled at most locations overnight, with fewer than 100 people manning a blockade at the Asoke intersection on Sukhumvit Road early today. Traffic in central Bangkok was lighter than usual.
Most businesses, tourist attractions and shopping malls remain open in the capital, and train, ferry and bus operators have increased capacity to cope with the shutdown, the Tourism Authority of Thailand said on its website. Protesters have pledged not to occupy the city’s airports, as they did in 2008 when an eight-day siege of Suvarnabhumi International Airport ended with the ouster of a Thaksin-linked government.
The demonstrators held rallies outside the Ministry of Commerce and the Customs Department today. They won’t target public transport links or the nation’s stock exchange, Ekkanat Prompan, a spokesman for the protest leaders, told reporters.
About 8,000 people joined anti-government rallies in southern Thailand yesterday, police spokesman Piya Uthayo said. About 50,000 people gathered in 32 provinces for rallies in support of the government and the Feb. 2 poll, Piya said.
The baht climbed 0.4 percent, the biggest gain since Oct. 25, to 32.84 per dollar as of 1:02 p.m. in Bangkok, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That was the strongest level since Jan. 2. The benchmark SET Index (SET) of shares fell 0.1 percent to 1,282.12 at the midday trading break. The gauge has dropped about 10 percent since the protests began Oct. 31.
Ten banks closed 36 branches in areas affected by protests today, according to the Bank of Thailand. The baht has been stable, and interest rates in the money market and bond market have moved in a tight range, the central bank said in a Thai-language statement.
Protesters initially took to the streets in late October to oppose a proposed amnesty law that they said would benefit Yingluck’s brother, which the government abandoned. The demonstrations later morphed into a broader movement to erase Thaksin’s political influence.
Allies of Thaksin have won the past five elections, including two since his ouster in the 2006 coup, on support from rural northern and northeastern regions. The protesters, mostly middle-class Bangkokians and Democrat party supporters from Thailand’s 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.
“The last straw was the amnesty bill that showed Yingluck cared more about her family and her own people’s business interests,” Songpol Limopasit, 62, from Nakhon Pathom province on Bangkok’s outskirts, said in an interview outside a Louis Vuitton store in Bangkok’s Rachaprasong shopping district. “I don’t know when this will end, but I will continue to join the shutdown every day.”
The government invited 70 people to talks tomorrow aimed at easing political tensions, including 54 representatives from political parties, election commissioners, the military supreme commander and police chief, and members of groups that oppose and support the government. The meeting will be held at 10 a.m. at an undisclosed location, according to the invitation letter.
The Election Commission has urged the government to delay the vote until April or May. Suthep has refused all offers to negotiate, and the government has said delaying the election or stepping down from its caretaker role would be unconstitutional.
‘The government can’t postpone the election alone,’’ said Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, who is overseeing the government response to the demonstrations, in televised remarks. “We need to look at other elements and have cooperation from all parties.”
Yingluck has refused demands from the demonstrators 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. Clashes have left eight people dead and hundreds injured.
The protesters 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.
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.
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