Rival Thai Political Groups Risk Violence by Escalating Protests

Protest leaders on both sides of Thailand’s political divide have vowed to bring the latest chapter in almost a decade of unrest to an end this month, increasing the risk of fresh violence.

With his plan to replace the country’s elected government with an appointed council no closer to reality, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said he was launching a nine-day campaign to harass remaining government ministers until they resigned. He said his half-year of protests would finish by May 26.

Jatuporn Prompan, leader of the rival Red Shirt movement, called Suthep’s plan “impossible” and said his group would ensure the government survived. “I guarantee that Suthep will be completely finished within May,” he wrote on his Facebook page yesterday. “This is Suthep’s last breath.”

Thailand has been without a fully functioning government since December, when then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called snap elections in a bid to ease the unrest. The poll was disrupted by Suthep’s followers and the government and election officials were unable to schedule a new one before Yingluck was removed from office this month on an abuse of power charge.

“They obstruct the progress of the country, so we want them to hand power back,” Suthep told supporters yesterday, urging government officials, police and soldiers to aid him in removing the government, now helmed by acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan.

Senate Move

A group of senators said May 16 that they were ready to install an interim prime minister to end the more than six-month deadlock, though the government has said they don’t have that power. Suthep had expressed disappointment that the senators didn’t immediately act to appoint a government.

The senators, representing half of parliament’s upper house, said they’ll seek the cooperation of political parties and the government to find a solution “with full participation of the Thai people.” The Senate is the only legislative body still functioning after the lower house was dissolved in December for the disrupted election, held in February and later declared void by a court.

“If we let the situation go on, it may lead to a collapse of the economy, society and national security.” Acting Senate Speaker Surachai Liengboonlertchai said. “We should speed up reform in the country in all areas as fast as possible. We must have a prime minister and Cabinet with full authority to do that.”

Such a move would enrage the government’s Red Shirt supporters, who have held a week-long protest on the outskirts of the capital, and whose occupation of central Bangkok in 2010 culminated in a military crackdown that left more than 90 people dead and sparked arson attacks across the city. The Red Shirts, along with the caretaker government, say the only way to resolve the crisis is to hold an election.

Past Votes

Government supporters have accused the Senate of acting on behalf of Suthep’s protesters, who are aligned with the opposition Democrat Party, which boycotted the February poll and hasn’t won a national vote in more than two decades. The crisis has its roots in the removal of Thaksin Shinawatra as premier in a 2006 coup, with opponents aiming to end his family’s influence over politics.

Suthep’s supporters accuse the Shinawatras of corruption, crony capitalism and using populist policies to secure the support of rural voters. The government’s supporters accuse the protesters of seeking to subvert democracy because they know they will lose at the ballot box

Parties linked to Thaksin have won the past five elections, including the 2011 vote that brought Yingluck, his sister, to power. Yingluck stepped down May 7 after the Constitutional Court ruled she abused her power, the third ruling against a Thaksin-linked leader since the coup.

Army Warning

“Their Red Shirt supporters will feel that they’ve been pushed against the wall and that they have no alternative but to turn to violence,” Omar Hamid, head of Asia Pacific country risk at IHS Inc. said May 16 in a Bloomberg Television interview.

Thailand’s army chief said the military may need to use force to counter clashes after three people were killed this week in a grenade and gun attack on an anti-government protest site in Bangkok. “If the violence escalates, the military may need to come out in full force to keep the situation under control,” army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha said, signaling the military may consider imposing martial law.

The caretaker government and the Election Commission had previously agreed on a July 20 poll date, though it was thrown into question when Yingluck was ousted. The vote will probably be delayed until August after protesters disrupted a meeting this week between election officials and the government.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.