Thai capital braces for mass protests

Anti-government protesters waving national flags during a demonstration in Bangkok on Monday. AFP PHOTO

Anti-government protesters waving national flags during a demonstration in Bangkok on Monday. AFP PHOTO

BANGKOK: Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched through the tense Thai capital on Monday in an escalation of mass street rallies aiming to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s embattled government.

The protests against Yingluck and her brother, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, are the biggest since 2010 when the kingdom was rocked by its worst political bloodshed in decades with more than 90 civilians killed.

The turmoil has raised fears of a fresh bout of street violence in a country that has been convulsed by several episodes of political unrest since royalist generals overthrew Thaksin in a coup in 2006.

Police said more than 30,000 protesters opposed to Yingluck’s elected government marched on more than a dozen state agencies across the capital including military and police bases, as well as several television stations.

“What we want is to get rid of the Thaksin system,” deputy opposition leader Suthep
Thaugsuban said, addressing the crowd of demonstrators.

Chanting “Thaksin get out, army come in,” some of the demonstrators called for the intervention of the military in a country that has seen 18 actual or attempted coups since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

High ranking military officers emerged from army offices close to the capital’s Democracy Monument to accept a bouquet of roses from protesters, as police with riot shields and helmets stood by.

The move comes after a boisterous rally on Sunday brought more than 90,000 anti-government demonstrators on to the streets of Bangkok, according to police estimates. Organizers said the turnout was several times higher.

Around 50,000 pro-government “Red Shirts” met overnight in a suburban football stadium in Bangkok in support of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, who remains a hugely divisive figure in Thailand.

The rallies are the biggest challenge yet for Yingluck, who swept to power in elections in 2011 on a wave of support from pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts,” whose protests in 2010 were crushed by the previous government.

“Yingluck’s options are very limited. Something has to give this week. It will be very difficult for Yingluck to stay in office, let alone get anything done,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“Anti-government protesters are demanding the wholesale uprooting of the Thaksin regime,” he said.

The Thai capital has faced weeks of opposition-backed rallies sparked by an amnesty bill that could have allowed the return of Thaksin from self-imposed exile.

The amnesty bill—which was rejected by the upper house of parliament—also angered Thaksin’s supporters because it would have pardoned those responsible for the 2010 military crackdown on their rallies.

Former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva—now the opposition leader—and his deputy Suthep face murder charges for overseeing the military operation, which involved soldiers firing live rounds and backed by armored vehicles.

In another blow to the government, the Constitutional Court last week blocked the ruling party’s plans for a fully elected Senate.

The opposition Democrat Party is seeking to raise the pressure on Yingluck with a no-confidence debate on Tuesday—although her party dominates the lower house and should comfortably defeat a move against her.



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