Countdown begins for Thailand protesters' shutdown amid worries it will lead to coup

Anti-government demonstrators fan across Bangkok as they hope to block all traffic into the city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 9:34pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 2:19pm

Residents of Thailand’s congested capital are bracing for worse traffic chaos than usual, with anti-government demonstrators planning to occupy major intersections on Monday in what they describe as an effort to shut down Bangkok. There is concern that violence may ensue and possibly trigger a military coup.

The protesters are trying to force caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and have her government replaced by a non-elected interim administration to implement reforms they say are needed to stop corruption and money politics.

They want to scuttle an early general election called by Yingluck for February 2.

Since November, the demonstrators have engaged in street battles with police, cut off water and electricity to national police headquarters, and occupied for a time the compounds of other government agencies.

There have been at least eight deaths, including a policeman, associated with the political unrest.

The protest leaders said last week that the demonstrators would occupy seven key intersections on Monday in a city known for its debilitating traffic jams. They’re also threatening to occupy government office compounds.

Groups of demonstrators started arriving at some of the venues late Sunday, where they said they would erect stages.

Earlier on Sunday some demonstrators blocked a road in Bangkok’s northern outskirts, where many government offices are located, said deputy police spokesman Colonel Anucha Romyanan. There were no immediate confrontations with the authorities, who have vowed to show restraint in order to avoid violence.

Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said Friday that a combined force of around 12,000 police officers and 8,000 soldiers was being deployed to maintain order in the capital.

Protest leaders have said they will maintain their “shutdown” of Bangkok for weeks, or until they obtain their goal. Their recent demonstrations have drawn up to 200,000 people at their height. Attacks on government installations have been carried out by young men armed with home-made weapons.

Watch: Protesters gather ahead of Bangkok 'shutdown'

Coup concerns

The protesters’ attempt to destabilise the country has been assisted by the opposition Democrat Party, which is boycotting the February elections. The main protest leader is a former senior Democrat leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, who served at deputy prime minister in the party’s 2008-2011 government.

The current crisis dates back to 2006, when mass protests calling for then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — Yingluck’s brother — to step down because of alleged corruption and abuse of power led to a military coup. Since then, supporters and opponents of Thaksin have vied for power, sometimes violently.

The protesters claim that billionaire Thaksin continues to manipulate Thai politics though his sister by using his wealth to buy elections.

Thaksin, however, commands overwhelming support in Thailand’s less well-off rural areas, where voters are grateful for his populist programmes, including virtually free health care. He and his allies have won every national election since 2001.

Concern about a coup is high because of the army’s history of intervening in politics. Army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha has refused to rule out the possibility of a military takeover.

Another deputy prime minister, Pongthep Thepkanjana, said on Friday that be believed the army had learned a lesson from the 2006 coup — which ended up polarising Thailand rather than pacifying it — and that the international community and many Thais would be opposed to a military takeover.

The grass-roots pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement, closely allied to Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, has said it would mobilise its supporters to fight any coup.

Most Bangkok residents, however, have more practical concerns. The US Embassy on Friday issued a warning that said the demonstrations “can result in significant traffic disruptions and delays”.

“We advise you to plan ahead,” said the notice, posted on the embassy’s website. “It is prudent to ensure you have a week’s supply of cash, keep your mobile communications devices charged and stock a two-week supply of essential items, such as food, water and medicine.”

Thai authorities have dismissed the advice as overly cautious.