Thai capital on edge as protesters seek PM’s downfall
Protesters besiege army, ruling party offices as scuffles erupt between pro- and anti-government camps
An anti-government mob in Thailand attacked people and vehicles near a stadium rally by supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Saturday as tensions boiled over and protesters tore down barricades to prepare to occupy her offices.
Demonstrators have started to up the ante and briefly occupied the headquarters of the army on Friday, urging it to join them in a complex power struggle centred on the enduring political influence of Yingluck’s billionaire brother, ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Witnesses saw two people on a motorcycle badly beaten, with one left unconscious, and an angry mob using poles and sticks to attack a taxi and a packed bus, accusing the occupants of being pro-government “red shirts”.
The attack took place in the city’s densely populated Ramkamhaeng area, home to the Rajamangala stadium, where red shirts fearing a military coup is possible are rallying in support of Yingluck. The US embassy in Bangkok expressed concern on Saturday about the rising political tension.
The tension heightens a nearly decade-long conflict that broadly pits Thailand’s traditional establishment of top generals, royalists and the urban middle class against the mostly rural, northern supporters of Thaksin.
A crowd of about 2,000 people massed outside state-owned telecoms companies TOT and CAT. Some internet services were interrupted briefly when protesters shut power down at CAT.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has told supporters to surround the headquarters of the national and city police, along with Government House and even a zoo on Sunday.
“We need to break the law a little bit to achieve our goals,” said Suthep, a deputy prime minister in the previous government routed by Yingluck in a 2011 election.
Thaksin remains an intensely polarising figure. He was removed in a 2006 military coup and convicted two years later of graft – charges he calls politically motivated. He is closely entwined with the government from self-imposed exile, sometimes meeting with Yingluck’s cabinet by webcam.
In a televised news conference, Yingluck said security would be increased to protect government buildings.
Yingluck’s son was harassed by parents of other children at his school on Friday, according to Thai media. In an emotional plea, she also urged them to leave her son alone.
“I beg, if you have children you’ll understand the heart of a mother,” she said. “If you’re angry, please make it all about me.”
Suthep has urged his followers to move on the ministries of labour, foreign affairs, education and interior.
But it remains unclear whether he can besiege multiple government offices. Police say protester numbers peaked at more than 100,000 last Sunday and were just 7,000 on Friday.
“We will not allow protesters to seize Government House, parliament or the national police headquarters,” National Security Chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr told reporters. “We have roadblocks and other blockades in place to stop them.”
But they tried anyway and police did not stop them. Some 2,000 demonstrators near Government House pulled down barbed wire fences, then left. Some said they were preparing to occupy it on Sunday.
Suthep has called for a “people’s council”, which would select “good people” to lead the country, effectively suspending Thailand’s democratic system. Yingluck has rejected that step as unconstitutional and has repeatedly ruled out a snap election.
The protesters have accused the government of acting unlawfully after senior members of the ruling Puea Thai Party refused to accept a November 20 Constitutional Court ruling that rejected their proposal for a fully-elected Senate, which would have boosted the party’s electoral clout. Puea Thai says the judiciary has no right to intervene in the legislative branch.
The ruling casts a spotlight on Thailand’s politicised courts, which annulled an election won by Thaksin in 2006 on a technicality and later dissolved his Thai Rak Thai Party for fraud, which resulted in a five-year ban for its executives.
Thaksin’s remaining allies regrouped under the People’s Power Party (PPP), which won a 2007 election. A year later, a court banned then prime minister Samak Sundaravej for appearing in cooking shows and after months of at times violent anti-government protests, a court dissolved PPP for electoral fraud.
Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former prime minister, said Yingluck had “acted above the law” by rejecting the Constitutional Court ruling.
Chaturon Chaisang, education minister and a close ally of Thaksin, said those accusations lacked rationale.
“The government, the prime minister and the cabinet have said nothing about accepting or not accepting the Constitutional Court decision,” Chaturon said.
Any cases lodged with the courts to try to topple the government were unlikely to succeed this time, he said.
“The party won’t be dissolved. Besides, the prime minister is not a party executive. We haven’t heard of any legal cases against the prime minister ... they can’t remove her.”
The protests are the biggest since red-shirted Thaksin supporters paralysed Bangkok in April-May 2010 in a period of unrest that ended with a military crackdown in which 91 people, mostly Thaksin supporters, were killed.
Friday’s brief and peaceful invasion of the army headquarters illustrates how the protesters see the military as a potential ally because of its attempts to intervene against governments led or backed by Thaksin over the last decade.
Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, however, told protesters not to drag the military into politics.