Thai PM Leaves Bangkok As Bombs, Gunfire Punctuate Unrest
By Amy Sawitta Lefevre 24 February 2014
BANGKOK — Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the target of anti-government protesters who have blocked parts of Bangkok for weeks, has left the city and is staying 150 km (90 miles) away, her office said on Monday, without specifying the location.
The protests, punctuated by occasional gunfire and bomb blasts, including one on Sunday which killed a woman and a young brother and sister, are aimed at unseating Yingluck and erasing the influence of her brother, ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, regarded by many as the real power behind the government.
Yingluck’s office told reporters she was not in Bangkok and asked media to follow a convoy outside the city where they said Yingluck was “undertaking official duties” 150 km away.
The office would not confirm how many days Yingluck had been working from outside the capital. She was last seen in public in Bangkok nearly a week ago, last Tuesday, and is due to attend a corruption hearing there on Thursday.
Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said Yingluck would hold a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
“It is highly likely that we will hold the cabinet meeting outside of Bangkok. As for the prime minister’s exact whereabouts today, I have not been informed about her location,” Surapong told reporters.
The political crisis, which pits the mainly middle-class anti-government demonstrators from Bangkok and the south against supporters of Yingluck from the populous rural north and northeast, shows no sign of ending soon.
Protesters, who disrupted and boycotted this month’s general election, have been urged by their leader to target businesses linked to Thaksin and gathered outside a television station on Monday managed by Thaksin’s son.
They also headed for the foreign and finance ministries.
The Election Commission had said it would try to complete the election process in late April, but has since suspended that date pending a court decision, leaving the country in political limbo under a caretaker government with limited powers.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for Sunday’s bomb blast in a busy shopping district, but the polarization of Thai society raises the possibility of wider civil strife.
The 6-year-old sister of a boy killed in the attack died on Monday, doctors said, taking the death toll to three.
Each side has accused the other of instigating violence, while armed provocateurs have a history of trying to stir tension. Protesters and the police have also blamed violence on shadowy third parties.
Yingluck said Sunday’s attack, and one on Saturday in the eastern province of Trat in which a 5-year-old girl was killed, were terrorism.
“I strongly condemn the use of violence in recent days … since the lives of children were lost,” she said on Facebook.
“The violent incidents are terrorist acts for political gains without regard for human life.”
The UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) urged protest leaders and parents to protect children by keeping them away from protest sites.
Four protesters and a police officer were killed last Tuesday when police tried to reclaim protest sites near government buildings.
The protests are the biggest since deadly political unrest in 2010, when Thaksin’s “red shirt” supporters paralyzed Bangkok in an attempt to remove a government led by the Democrat Party, now the main opposition party.
More than 90 people were killed and 2,000 wounded during that unrest, which ended when troops moved in to disperse the protests.
Demonstrators accuse Thaksin of nepotism and corruption and say that, prior to being toppled by the army in 2006, he used taxpayers’ money for populist subsidies such as a rice subsidy scheme and easy loans that bought him the loyalty of millions.
Rice farmers, angry at not being paid under the current rice scheme, called off a protest tractor drive to Bangkok’s main airport on Friday after an assurance they would get their money this week.
Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Panarat Thepgumpanat.