Tense Thailand braces for new protests

Thai opposition protesters prepare to relaunch rallies after temporary truce for king's birthday

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 5:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 5:19pm

Thai opposition protesters were preparing on Friday to relaunch their campaign to overthrow the government after a temporary truce in the strife-hit capital for the birthday of the country’s revered king.

Despite a call by the ailing monarch for “stability and security” in his birthday speech, the demonstrators have vowed to step up their rallies after the lull in tensions, which follows violence that left five people dead and more than 200 injured.

Protesters have no immediate plans for action on Friday and will await an “important speech” in the evening from their leader Suthep Thaugsuban about their next move, said Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for the demonstrators.

The kingdom remains on edge following several days of street clashes between police using tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets against rock-throwing demonstrators seeking to overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and curb the political influence of her brother Thaksin.

With fresh unrest looming, Yingluck has cancelled two planned trips overseas next week to Russia and to the opening ceremony of the Southeast Asian Games in Myanmar, her office said.

The protesters, a mix of royalists, middle class and other Thaksin opponents – sometimes numbering in their tens of thousands – want to suspend the country’s democracy in favour of an unelected “people’s council”.

Suthep, a former deputy premier who now faces an arrest warrant for insurrection, has pledged to rid Thailand of what he calls the “Thaksin regime”.

Demonstrators and police in Bangkok have observed a temporary truce since Wednesday for the 86th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is treated as a near-deity by many Thais.

Any political action or violence during the public holiday would have been seen as a serious sign of disrespect.

The government on Tuesday abruptly ordered police to avoid confrontation with protesters, briefly allowing them into the police and government headquarters in a surprise move that sharply reduced tensions in the capital.

But demonstrators have refused to end their occupation of the finance ministry and a key government complex on the outskirts of Bangkok.

One of the protesters’ own security guards suffered a gunshot wound to his hand on Thursday outside the finance ministry – an attack denounced by the rally organisers as an act of intimidation.

Police however said his attackers could be motorcycle racing gangs angered by checkpoints set up by the demonstrators near the ministry.

“I don’t think it’s related to politics,” said Colonel Sunthorn Kongklam, superintendent of the nearby Bang Sue police station.

Thailand has been periodically rocked by sometimes bloody unrest since Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon-turned-premier, was deposed by royalist generals in a coup seven years ago.

He went into exile in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction which he says was politically motivated, but critics say he still controls his sister behind the scenes.

Thailand’s political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite backed by the military against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin.

The recent protests were triggered by an amnesty bill, since abandoned by Yingluck’s ruling party, which opponents feared would have cleared the way for his return.

They are the biggest and deadliest street demonstrations since 2010, when dozens of people were killed in a crackdown on mass pro-Thaksin rallies in Bangkok.

The king did not specifically mention the recent unrest at a formal ceremony Thursday attended by dignitaries, including the embattled premier, but he said the country “has been peaceful for a long time because everybody worked together”.

“Every Thai should be aware of this and should perform their role for the benefit of the country, which is the stability and security of the country,” he said in the speech broadcast on all television channels.

But Satit Wongnongtauy, a leading figure in the anti-government rallies, told supporters on Thursday that after the anniversary had passed “we will carry on”, with protests expected to intensify over the weekend.

While numbers have fallen sharply since an estimated 180,000 people joined an opposition rally on November 24, demonstrators have besieged or stormed high profile buildings in what some observers believe is an attempt to provoke a military coup.