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Protesters warm up for Bangkok 'shutdown'

Publication Date : 06-01-2014

 

Thousands take to streets in 'practice' march for next Monday's big protest

 

Several thousand Thais bent on derailing the February 2 election marched through the streets of Bangkok yesterday, rallying support for next Monday's massive protest designed to "shut down" the capital.

The festive mood at the 8km "practice" march belied its serious intent, and contrasted with rising concerns over the potential impact of the unrest on Thailand's tourism.

The self-styled People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by politician Suthep Thaugsuban, wants to bring Bangkok to a standstill next Monday in a bid to topple the government.

Weeks of protests since November have forced an increasing number of tourists to stay away.

The Airports Authority of Thailand held an emergency meeting yesterday amid reports of a tourism slowdown, including plans by Singapore Airlines to cancel some flights to Bangkok starting next week. Local media reported there may be a drop of about 400,000 tourist arrivals this month.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra pleaded her case yesterday, saying the election is "the best medicine" to solve conflict under the democratic system. "I don't want to see a recurrence of the 2010 violence or an economic crisis," she added.

A series of political crises since 2006 have tested the resilience of Thailand's economy, especially its tourism sector. In 2010, more than 90 mostly civilian protesters were killed in street clashes between "red shirt" supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - Yingluck's brother - and army troops.

The PDRC's plan is to take over major intersections and government buildings, pressure independent and state TV to cover their speeches, and set up an unelected "people's council" to institute unspecified reforms before allowing the country to return to electoral democracy. The aim is to eradicate the influence of Thaksin, who was booted out by the army in 2006 and now lives abroad in self-imposed exile.

Last Saturday, the ruling Puea Thai party kicked off its campaign for the election, which the opposition Democrat Party is boycotting. Many of the latter's politicians support the PDRC.

The prospect of violence on and after next Monday is real, as "red shirts" gather in strength in provinces outside Bangkok.

Tomorrow, the National Anti- Corruption Commission will decide whether to charge 381 Puea Thai MPs, including the Premier, with improperly voting to change the Constitution in a bid to restore the Senate to its pre-2006 set-up with fully elected members. On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court will rule on whether one particular draft amendment is unlawful. A negative verdict in both cases would be a blow to the government and would also embolden the PDRC.

The Thai military has so far refrained from intervening in the crisis, but army chief Prayuth Chan- ocha has not ruled out the possibility of a coup.

 

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