Thai Protesters March on New Govt Targets

By Grant Peck & Thanyarat Doksone 17 January 2014

BANGKOK — Throngs of whistle-blowing protesters surrounded several new government agencies in Thailand’s capital on Thursday to keep up pressure on the prime minister to resign and call off next month’s election.

The marches to the Revenue Department, Health Ministry and other offices appeared to be a way to maintain momentum amid a decline in the number of protesters who have blocked key intersections in Bangkok for four days in an attempt to shut down the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Their numbers could swell again this weekend.

Yingluck’s opponents, largely from the south and urban middle and upper classes, say she is carrying on the practices of her billionaire brother by using the family fortune and state funds to influence voters and cement her grip on power.

But she has widespread support among Thailand’s poor majority in the countryside because of the populist policies carried out by her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid being imprisoned on a corruption conviction.

The protests this week have been mostly peaceful, although there have been several acts of violence including gunshots in the middle of the night at protest venues and small fireworks-type explosives hurled at the homes of protest leaders, according to police.

Since the latest wave protests started in November, at least eight people have been killed and more than 450 have been injured.

Despite pressure from the protesters, Yingluck has said repeatedly that the Feb. 2 parliamentary election will go ahead. She dissolved Parliament and called the early vote to defuse tension that has been building over the past three months.

Her opponents don’t want an election because they know that her rural supporters would almost certainly give her victory. Instead, they are calling for an unelected “people’s council” to replace the government and amend laws to fight corruption in politics.

The protesters are hoping that pressure from the powerful military—and particularly Army Commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha—could help push Yingluck out. Thailand has had about a dozen successful military coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

“General Prayuth Chan-ocha, our brothers and sisters are waiting for you to come out and announce that you are on the side of the protesters. This will be immediately over and the government will without a doubt be finished,” protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said in a speech to followers Thursday.

Yingluck’s government also faces threats on the legal front. The National Anti-Corruption Commission announced Thursday that it found grounds to investigate allegations that she was criminally negligent in her handling of what the government has described as a deal to export surplus rice to China. The commission has already determined that there are grounds to press charges against her former commerce minister and more than a dozen other officials.

While the road blockages created traffic disruptions, life continued normally in most of Bangkok, a bustling city of 12 million.

Thailand has been wracked by repeated bouts of unrest since the military ousted Thaksin in 2006 amid charges of corruption and alleged disrespect for the monarchy. The crisis boiled over again late last year after a failed ruling party bid to push through an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return from exile.

Associated Press writers Papitchaya Boonngok and Jinda Wedel contributed to this report.