Thailand’s protest leader plans to occupy symbolic seat of power
Man in charge of Thailand's anti-government movement aims to move into vacated prime minister's office as political crisis deepens
Associated Press in Bangkok
Emboldened by the removal of Thailand's prime minister, anti-government protesters withdrew from Bangkok's main park yesterday and marched to the vacated prime minister's office compound - where the protest leader has pledged to set up his new office.
Meanwhile, the new caretaker leader hosted his first formal news conference with foreign media at a makeshift, suburban outpost that has been the government base for months. He shrugged off the protesters' plans to occupy the symbolic seat of power.
"We do not want violence or any problems," said acting Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan, defending the government's hands-off approach as good crisis management.
Niwatthamrong also reiterated calls for a July election and said he and his cabinet were committed to finding a peaceful solution to Thailand's deepening political crisis.
Yesterday's developments highlighted the government's lack of power as the crisis grinds into its seventh month. One newspaper compared the situation to a sinking ship that it called the "Thaitanic".
Protesters achieved one of their goals last week when the Constitutional Court dismissed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra for nepotism in a case that many viewed as politically motivated.
But they say her removal is not enough. They want to set up an unelected "people's council" to implement still-undefined reforms to combat corruption and money politics before an election can be held. They oppose elections scheduled for July, which the current ruling party would likely win.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who has led the movement for six months, has called for a "final push" to install an unelected leader - a goal that critics call undemocratic.
Suthep yesterday ended a months-long occupation of Bangkok's Lumpini Park, a tropical oasis that protesters had converted into a litter-strewn campground. He led thousands of supporters to the parliament, where the Senate was holding a meeting to discuss the crisis.
Later in the evening, protesters planned to march to their new base outside Government House. The compound has been vacant for months due to violent clashes between protesters and police nearby.
Suthep says protesters will remain outside the compound and that he will not occupy the actual prime minister's office. But he plans to set up an office in the compound's Santi Maitree Building traditionally used for state visits.
There was no apparent resistance to Suthep's plan. The military that provides security at Government House said over the weekend he would be allowed in to avoid further clashes in a crisis that has left more than 20 dead and hundreds injured since November.
"Every so often, the stewards of the nation rearrange the deck chairs, as 'Thaitanic' continues to plough relentlessly further into uncharted territory, without a captain," the Bangkok Post newspaper said. "The ship is still heading right for that iceberg."
Yingluck's cabinet named deputy premier Niwatthamrong as acting prime minister, but protesters say he doesn't hold the authority and status to be head of the government. Her supporters have warned that any attempt to install an unelected prime minister could spark civil war.
Niwatthamrong, who is forced like his predecessor to work out of the Office to the Permanent Secretary for Defence in the unfashionable suburb of Muang Thong Thani, told foreign journalists gathered there that that was unlikely.
"I don't think we'll have a civil war," he said. "It's already [been] six months, and we can manage the country quite well."
Thailand's long-running political crisis began in 2006, when Yingluck's brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled by a military coup and accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.