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Thai emergency 'could raise tensions'

Publication Date : 22-01-2014


Thailand's political crisis is hanging in the balance, as the government declared a 60-day emergency in Bangkok and surrounding provinces effective Wednesday.

The decree gives special powers to police, in the face of several weeks of demonstrations, including the takeover of key traffic intersections in the capital since January 13.

Protesters from the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) have been demanding that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of the Puea Thai Party resign.

The unrest has left eight dead and 250 injured so far.

Meanwhile, the Election Commission will ask the Constitutional Court today to clarify who has the authority to delay the February 2 mid-term polls.

The commission wants to postpone elections, citing the lack of candidates in 28 constituencies, as well as fears of violence.

The emergency decree was necessary because some protesters were "reckless" and had to be contained, the prime minister's secretary-general Suranand Vejjajiva told The Straits Times last night.

"Police have had one arm tied behind their backs so far," he said. But he insisted there would be no "crackdown" on protesters.

The decree was invoked after consultation with the military, he said.

While Cabinet minister Chalerm Yubamrung - known as a hardline Thaksin Shinawatra loyalist - is in charge of the government's new centre set up to manage law and order, police chief Adul Saensinkaew will have operational command.

He is known to have a good working relationship with army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has chosen to keep his forces on the sidelines so far.

The army has mounted as many as 18 coups in Thailand since 1932, but is known to be reluctant to step into politics again.

But use of the police is politically loaded. The force is seen as generally pro-Thaksin, the main target of the PDRC and Premier Yingluck's older brother.

Self-exiled former premier Thaksin, a former police officer, has deep ties in the force.

"The police have done a pretty good job of avoiding confrontation," said academic and author David Streckfuss. "But there comes a point when that is not working."

But he noted that in 2008, when the government led by Thaksin imposed a state of emergency in a similar situation, police were unable to prevent a mob from seizing Bangkok's international airport. More importantly, the army did nothing to stop them either.

"The question is what they will do when there is a flash mob style protest," Streckfuss said.

Analysts believe the PDRC may ratchet up protests.

Professor Pitch Pongsawat, from Chulalongkorn University, told The Straits Times that the emergency changed little from the protesters' point of view.

"It is not just the election now for them," said Pitch. "It is the Shinawatra family."

The PDRC, with Bangkok's upper-middle class elites the backbone of its support, sees the Yingluck administration as Thaksin's puppet.

They believe he is corrupt and a closet Republican bent on returning to Thailand and re-establishing himself at the expense of the monarchy itself.

"This is unlikely to be over as long as the prime minister remains in office," said Korbsak Sabhavasu, a senior Democrat Party figure and former deputy prime minister. "The invocation of the emergency is more about leverage than negotiations. It does not sound very good, it will make things more tense."


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