Thailand's Opposition Launches Mass Rallies To Close Bangkok

NPR icon by Scott Neuman
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Damir Sagolj

Anti-government protesters in Thailand have thronged key intersections in the capital, Bangkok, in the start of a mass demonstration aimed at thwarting elections and forcing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office.

For months, opposition protesters have been engaged in an on-again, off-again, effort to topple Yingluck and have said they want to replace her government with an unelected ruling council.

The New York Times reports on the latest protests:

"In this vast metropolis of well over 10 million people, the protesters could not paralyze all movement and commerce. But by Monday morning they had closed busy intersections, vowed to make major government offices inaccessible and laid plans to besiege the homes of top officials in the administration of [Yingluck], whose party is most likely to win the general elections that are scheduled for Feb. 2."

According to the BBC, about 18,000 security personnel have been deployed to maintain order as the demonstrations continue despite an offer by the prime minister to discuss delaying the elections.

The Associated Press says:

"The intensified protests, which could last weeks or more, were peaceful and even festive, as people sporting "Shutdown Bangkok" T-shirts blew whistles, waved Thai flags of various sizes and spread out picnic mats to eat on the pavement. Otherwise, life continued normally in much of the capital, with most businesses and shops open."

Although the protests have been largely peaceful thus far, NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports that eight demonstrators have been killed in political violence in the past two weeks.

The latest round of unrest raises the stakes in Thailand's long-running governmental crisis. The opposition says Yingluck is a puppet of her elder brother, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and now lives abroad to escape a corruption conviction related to his business dealings.

During his tenure in office, Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon, pushed through a series of populist measures primarily benefitting the country's poor rice-farming regions, home to his electoral power base. The opposition, whose ranks are largely drawn from the country's urban middle class, bitterly opposed Thaksin's rice subsidies and a low-cost rural health program.

On Monday, Bangkok restaurant owner Sutthipan Leykhasiri echoed another common refrain among anti-government protesters: "Elections will work in certain countries, but not in Thailand. The government uses money to win elections – it's corruption," he was quoted in The Financial Times as saying.

The most recent street demonstrations were sparked by Yingluck push to enact an amnesty law that would have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand. Following an initial round of protests, the government withdrew the bill and subsequently called new elections.

Yingluck, whose ruling party is certain to win a fresh round of parliamentary elections, has vowed not to use force against the protesters, but many fear the latest mass demonstration could test the government's resolve not to crack down.

Her supporters, who have staged their own demonstrations in recent weeks, say the opposition rallies are part of a power-play aimed at destroying the country's fragile democracy.

Thailand's powerful military, which has been behind about a dozen successful coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in the 1930s, has so far rebuffed overtures from protest leaders to overthrow the government. However, last month, the country's top general, Prayuth Chan-ocha, refused to rule out another putsch, implying that chaos on the streets might prompt the army to action.

Opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former government minister, ordered the army to move against pro-Thaksin demonstrations in 2010 that resulted in the deaths of about 100 protesters. He and the prime minister at the time, Abhisit Vejjajiva, have pleaded guilty to murder charges stemming from the deadly crackdown.

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