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Protesters dig in amid Thai stalemate

Publication Date : 19-12-2013

 

This is what a political stalemate looks like: Canvas sheets, tents and the odd piece of laundry hung up to dry line the perimeter of the prime minister's office.

There are no guards at the security booth, which is covered with abusive posters. Mobile screens nearby blast anti-government TV programmes.

Inside, the manicured lawns and Venetian Gothic building have been abandoned by all but soldiers and police, who live in tents tucked in the back of the compound.

Their water and power supplies have just been restored after being cut off by anti-government protesters last week.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is not in the capital. Instead, she is inspecting northeastern Thailand, the seat of her party's support and far away from the crowds which blew whistles at her and surrounded her ministries to force her to resign.

Thai politics has entered the Siamese equivalent of trench warfare, with the dwindling numbers of street protesters trying to extract more political concessions from a caretaker government determined to remain in place until the February 2 elections.

More than 150,000 turned up on the streets on December 9 to support the call by the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) to overthrow the government. When Yingluck dissolved the House of Representatives and called for snap polls, they demanded she make way first for an unelected "people's council" that would enact political reforms and rid Thailand of the influence of her family.

Her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, remains a polarising figure in the country despite living in self-exile aboard to evade a jail sentence meted out for corruption after he was ousted in a 2006 military coup. He is particularly reviled by the royalist establishment whose patronage networks his populist policies upset.

His parties - including erstwhile ruling party Puea Thai - have repeatedly won elections and Puea Thai is expected to win on February 2.

The PDRC will see none of it. On Wednesday, it hosted a 500-strong crowd in Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University to stress that it wants the elections postponed until reforms are completed.

It invited members of Bangkok's diplomatic community to meet its leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, last night, and a handful of diplomats and representatives from international organisations reportedly turned up. It is also busy lobbying the election commission to push back the polling date. Suthep has called for another mass rally on Sunday and, intriguingly, for women protesters to march to Yingluck's house to ask her "nicely" to resign.

The Democrats, whose party is the oldest in Thailand, are in quandary. They have to decide by next week whether to participate in the polls.

Many of the party's voters, who hail from Bangkok and the south, have thrown their weight behind the PDRC. The party also made all its MPs quit Parliament in order to join the protests.

But it risks losing credibility further by boycotting the elections.

On Wednesday, Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva appeared to be trying to find a middle way when he said the polls should be delayed.

The Puea Thai's political machine is already revving up, with new politicians joining the party for the elections.

Most eyes are on Thailand's powerful military, which has launched no fewer than 18 coups in the past 81 years. The last one, however, triggered a backlash that it is eager to avoid, even though the PDRC has been actively trying to court its support.

The supreme commander of the armed forces, General Thanasak Patimaprakorn, remained taciturn when pressed by reporters on Wednesday. He supports elections, he said, and would send troops to help oversee them if asked.

 

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