Thai Protesters Begin Bangkok Blockade to Oust YingluckSuttinee Yuvejwattana and Anuchit Nguyen
About 80,000 Thai protesters blocked major roads in Bangkok, disrupting traffic and increasing pressure on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign.
The demonstrators 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. The demonstrators plan to maintain the blockade until Yingluck agrees to postpone the Feb. 2 election and allow an unelected council to reform the political system.
Yingluck’s administration has faced more than two months of street demonstrations led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former power broker with the opposition Democrat Party, which is boycotting next month’s vote. Suthep says electoral democracy should be suspended until his council of “good people” can remove what he says is the corrupting influence of Yingluck’s family.
“We are staging a coup, but it’s a people’s coup,” he told reporters today. “We are asking for government officials to join hands with the people. We won’t create any violence. We come with our bare hands.”
Allies of Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, have won the past five elections, including two since his ouster in a 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.
Yingluck plans to invite protest leaders and members of the Election Commission and other political parties to discuss proposals to delay the election on Jan. 15, her secretary, Suranand Vejjajiva, said today. Suthep refused earlier offers to negotiate, and the government has said that delaying the vote would be unconstitutional.
Traffic was lighter than usual in Bangkok this morning, as some people opted to stay home or use public transport. Operators of the city’s subway, elevated railway and ferry services increased capacity, the Tourism Authority of Thailand said today. The National Intelligence Agency estimated 80,000 protesters gathered across the city.
Commercial banks closed branches or reduced operating hours at 40 locations near the protest zones, the central bank said today. Siam Commercial Bank Pcl, the biggest by market value, closed four of its 1,142 branches, according to its website.
The demonstrations could cost the economy as much as 1 billion baht ($30 million) a day, according to a survey released last 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.
The benchmark SET Index of shares rose 2.2 percent to 1,283.56, the highest close since Dec. 27. The gauge has dropped 10 percent since the end of October, when the protests began. The baht reached 33.148 on Jan. 6, the weakest level since 2010, and was little changed today, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“People should go about their normal lives,” Surapong Tovichakchaikul, the minister tasked with handling the government response, said Jan. 10, adding that 20,000 soldiers and police will be deployed to maintain order. The U.S. embassy last week 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.
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 International Airport ended with the ouster of a Thaksin-linked government. Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport and U-Tapao airport, near Pattaya south of the capital, have been prepared as back-ups, Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt said Jan. 9.
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, who have vowed to disrupt the elections next month, 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.
“Thailand finds itself bereft of a credible center that can forge reconciliation and a settlement that recognizes elements of justice in both sides of the political divide,” said Michael Connors, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus. “If that center does not emerge, we can only imagine further violence and chaos as one side seeks to crush the other.”