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Thai PM under siege, lengthy protests take toll on economy

Posted by Rattana_S On February - 17 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

(Reuters) – Protesters seeking to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra surrounded Thai government headquarters on Monday in response to police efforts to clear them from the streets, as farmers besieged her temporary office to demand payment for rice.

Thailand has been in crisis since November, when Bangkok’s middle class and the royalist establishment started a protest aimed at eradicating the influence of Yingluck’s brother Thaksin, a populist former premier ousted by the army in 2006 who is seen as the power behind her government.

Data published on Monday showed the economy grew just 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter from the third and, with the country likely to be without a fully functioning government for months, the state planning board slashed its forecast for 2014.

About 10,000 anti-government demonstrators surrounded Government House in Bangkok, taking back control of a road the police had cleared them from on Friday in the first real sign of a pushback by the authorities after months of protests.

These protesters view Yingluck as a proxy for Thaksin, who has lived in exile since 2008 rather than face a jail term for abuse of power handed down in absentia that year.

“We will use quick-dry cement to close the gates of Government House so that the cabinet cannot go in to work,” said Nittitorn Lamrue of the Network of Students and People for Thailand’s Reform, aligned with the main protest movement.

It was a symbolic gesture, Yingluck having been forced to work elsewhere since January.

The separate protests by rice farmers could turn out to be more damaging for Yingluck.

Rural voters swept her to power in 2011, when her Puea Thai Party pledged to pay rice farmers way above market prices for their harvest. But the program has run into funding problems and some farmers have not been paid for months.

“END OF OUR TETHER”

Television showed farmers climbing over barbed wire fences and barriers at a Defense Ministry compound where Yingluck has set up temporary offices. They pushed back riot police, who retreated from confrontation, but did not enter the building.

“The prime minister is well off but we are not. How are we going to feed our children? I want her to think about us,” said one protesting farmer. “Farmers are tough people, they wouldn’t normally speak out but they are at the end of their tether.”

Farmers’ representatives later met ministers, but when Finance Minister Kittirat Na Ranong came out to speak to the crowd he was pelted with plastic bottles.

The government hopes to sell about 1 million tons of rice through tenders this month to replenish its rice fund and is also seeking bank loans to help it pay the farmers.

The Government Savings Bank said on Sunday it had lent 5 billion baht ($153 million) to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), which runs the rice scheme.

It did not say what the money would be used for, but some depositors, apparently hearing on social media that it would be used for the rice payments and would therefore help the government, took their money from the bank on Monday.

“Today the bank’s clients took out around 30 billion baht. Most clients who withdrew were in Bangkok and the south. Around 10 billion baht was deposited. This doesn’t impact the stability of the bank,” Worawit Chalimpamontri, president of the savings bank, told a televised news conference.

He said there would be no more interbank lending to the BAAC because the loan was “misused”. He did not elaborate.

The 30 billion baht withdrawn represents about 1.6 percent of total deposits, according to Reuters calculations.

DISRUPTED ELECTION

Yingluck called a snap election in December and has since led a caretaker administration with only limited powers.

The election took place on February 2 but it was disrupted in parts of Bangkok and the south, the powerbase of the opposition, and it may be many months before there is a quorum in parliament to elect a new prime minister.

The Election Commission has set April 27 as the date to re-run voting that was disrupted but the government said on Monday it wanted the much earlier date of March 2.

“According to the law, the House of Representatives must convene 30 days after a general election,” Pongthep Thepkanjana, a deputy prime minister, said after a meeting between the commission and government.

That date seems improbable, especially as the commission and government can’t agree on procedures for fresh voting and the Constitutional Court may be asked to rule.

The anti-government protesters, who are aligned with the main opposition Democrat Party, want electoral rules changed to limit Thaksin’s influence before an election is held, although their precise demands remain vague.

They accuse Thaksin of nepotism and corruption and say he used taxpayers’ money for generous subsidies and easy loans that have bought him the loyalty of millions of poorer voters in the north and northeast.

Consumer confidence sank in January to its lowest level in more than two years and, with big infrastructure projects on hold because of the political vacuum, the planning agency cut its forecast for economic growth in 2014 to between 3.0 and 4.0 percent from 4.0-5.0 percent seen in November.

“Confidence is low and private sector demand in the domestic economy remains weak given the political deadlock,” said Gundy Cahyadi, an economist with DBS Bank in Singapore.

($1 = 32.5900 baht)

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Athit Perawongmetha and Orathai Sriring; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Alex Richardson and Robert Birsel)

By Chris Blake

Cod Satrusayang’s family has found a way out of their Thai crisis. They’ve stopped talking about politics.

Until that deal was made, Cod said, most gatherings would end in a fight. Cod’s mother, who comes from a wealthy family, sides with protesters calling for an appointed council to run the country, while his father, from a lower-income family, says elections should decide who governs.

Cod’s family is not alone in its differences. Eight years of turmoil have exposed rifts throughout society, between rich and poor, urban and rural, north and south. The polarization has become so entrenched that even if Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is eventually declared the winner of the election held Feb. 2, it is unlikely to bring respite to a kingdom some analysts have said is lurching toward civil war.

“It’s actually dividing us more than just on a regional level but in many cases on a family level,” said Cod, a 28-year-old Bangkok-based writer. “There is definitely a fundamental schism within Thai society and it’s not going to be resolved soon. Honestly if my parents can’t even see eye to eye when they’re sitting at a dinner table, I don’t see how the bigger picture works.”

Suthep Thaugsuban, the former opposition party powerbroker leading protests to oust Yingluck, has cast his movement as a fight of good against evil and called on the military, civil servants and everyday citizens to choose a side. The tensions have dimmed the prospect of a compromise to end the protests, which have led to 10 deaths since October and left Thailand without a functioning parliament, raising the possibility of intervention by the monarchy or military.

Digging Bunkers

“Both sides are now digging their bunkers deeper and deeper,” said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher in Bangkok for Human Rights Watch. “They don’t listen to each other. They don’t even know what is outside their bunker. And with this bunker, you’ve got to jump into one or the other. They don’t respect people who simply sit on top.”

The split is partly rooted in the five-year rule of Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and whose allies have won the past five elections. A billionaire telecommunications tycoon, Thaksin swept to power on promises such as cheap health care that made him popular in the rural north and northeast, even as the opposition Democrat Party retained its traditional stronghold in the south.

Before Thaksin, politicians had a “very distant” relationship with the nation’s poor, said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University. “Political parties weren’t built from below, they were built from above. Thaksin came along, made promises and then delivered on his promises.”

Thaksin Enemies

Still, Bangkok’s middle class bristled at Thaksin’s “tendency toward tyranny,” Chambers said. Thaksin would talk of being prime minister for 20 years and say that he saw no problem with a strong, single-party government. Local and international rights groups accused him of infringing on media freedom, and said his war on drugs led to extra-judicial deaths.

Thaksin also tested two powerful groups: Those close to the palace and the military, Chambers said. Many royalists thought Thaksin was “stealing the king’s thunder” with his populism, while he angered generals by trying to exert civilian control over the armed forces.

Ultimately, Thaksin was ousted on the grounds that he was corrupt, had abused his power and disrespected the monarchy, and now lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid a jail term for a corruption conviction.

Red, Yellow

Thailand has a history of instability, with 11 coups since the end of direct rule by kings in 1932. Until Thaksin, no prime minister had ever served a full term. Even so, the turmoil has worsened since 2006 as more people have fallen into one of two camps: Red or yellow.

The current protesters are aligned with the original yellow-shirt movement, best known for seizing Bangkok’s two airports during a 2008 campaign to bring down a Thaksin-allied government.

In broad terms, the yellow side comprises Bangkok’s middle class, royalists and retired generals who see politicians as corrupt and the poor as easily swayed. They have called for several versions of an appointed government and are aligned with the Democrats, who have not won a national vote since 1992 and boycotted the recent poll as well as a 2006 election.

On the other side is the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or red shirts, who point to the coup and subsequent court rulings that dissolved parties allied with Thaksin as proof that Thai society is unjust and filled with double standards. They took to the streets in both 2009 and 2010, calling for new elections.

Values Clash

At its heart, the split is “a clash of two values in politics: One that is rooted in people’s power and one that belongs to the aristocracy,” Sunai said. It “has been going on since the overthrow of absolute monarchy and has has kind of lingered on.”

The divide has created a chilling effect on people who want to remain neutral, he said.

“Both sides see their struggle as the absolute good, which cannot be,” Sunai said. “It leaves no room for challenge, for criticism. And when you challenge something that is so absolutely good, you become absolutely evil. And that’s why there is no mercy for critics.”

It is still possible to prevent civil war, Sunai said. Still, “if we don’t have breathing space now, if violence doesn’t stop now, we fear for the worst.”

Pheu Thai

The current protests began when Yingluck’s government tried to pass an amnesty bill that would have thrown out most post-coup political charges, including those against Thaksin. The bill was also disliked by many red shirts because it would have spared politicians who ordered a deadly army crackdown on their protest in 2010, including Suthep.

Once the bill was tabled, the protest morphed into a broader bid to topple Yingluck and then to stop the election. While Yingluck denies her brother is still in charge, her Pheu Thai party campaigned in 2011 on the slogan “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts.” The protesters have said no election held under the current system would be fair due to Thaksin’s influence.

“The protesters have bought into this very much outdated rhetoric of vote buying and they believe either that the Pheu Thai party is literally buying votes, or that the populist spending policies in which the Pheu Thai party involves itself are tantamount to buying votes,” said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

‘Losing Touch’

Part of the misunderstanding is due to urban Thais “losing touch with realities in provincial Thailand,” where increased off-farm employment, education and economic growth has left many aware of the importance of politics in improving their lives, Montesano said.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University and author of “Reinventing Thailand: Thaksin and His Foreign Policy,” agrees the unrest goes beyond Thaksin and corruption.

“It’s about the overall anxiety of the traditional elite, the older power, who can’t accept the shift in the political landscape,” he said.

Royal Question

One undercurrent of the tensions that hinders a swift resolution is concern over the next royal succession, with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch, now 86 and ailing.

“In many ways, the nervousness is about who gets to be close to the next king and who gets to play a leading role in the next reign,” Montesano said. “Part of the urgency Suthep is showing is due to this fear that a Thaksinite government will be in power when the king passes away and that will allow the Thaksinite government to play some leading role in managing the transition.”

The protest movement under the People’s Democratic Reform Committee is independent of the monarchy, said Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for Suthep. “The PDRC, like all Thais, holds a deep reverence for this institution that remains separate from the current conflict,” Akanat said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Hate Everyone’

Cod said for everyday Thais it is hard to see a way out of the divide. Rather than pick a side, he has chosen to “hate everyone equally.”

“I think once you become acquainted with the system and you know what’s going on, the rational position is to hate everything. Think about it. What’s to love?”

Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) — After disrupting a national election, anti-government demonstrators in Thailand have vowed to keep up their campaign against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The troubled election Sunday, which was boycotted by the main opposition party, appears unlikely to resolve Thailand’s protracted political crisis, which has fueled bouts of deadly unrest in the Southeast Asian country.

During the tense election process, anti-government protesters stopped candidates from registering, blocked delivery of ballot boxes and prevented people from casting their votes. As a result, voting was disrupted in 69 out of the country’s 375 electoral districts, authorities said.

The demonstrators have been protesting since November, saying they want to rid Thailand of the influence of Yingluck and her older brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in exile.

Protest leaders are demanding that an unelected “people’s council” be given the power to carry out political and electoral changes in a country where parties affiliated with Thaksin have dominated elections since 2001.

Disrupted election

Yingluck has insisted that an election is the only legitimate way forward for Thailand, which has been repeatedly wracked by political conflicts over the past eight years. Her party is expected to win this vote comfortable, especially as the opposition Democrat Party refused to participate.

An estimated 45.84% of voters participated in the election, the Election Commission said Monday, a far lower turnout than the 75% in the 2011 vote that brought Yingluck to power.

Election results are yet to be announced, but since voting was disrupted in so many districts, the vote appears unlikely to produce enough valid results to form a parliament, meaning Yingluck will remain as caretaker Prime Minister.

The Electoral Commission says holding by-elections in all the disrupted districts — a process likely to face further pressure from protesters — could take as long as six months.

But Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkarnchana said Monday that the commission is required under the constitution to organize enough by-elections to reopen parliament within 30 days of Sunday’s vote.

The opposition, meanwhile, is mounting a legal challenge to the election’s legitimacy.

Last week, an attorney for the Democrat Party filed a petition asking the nation’s constitutional court to declare Sunday’s election invalid because of the disruptions to voting.

Protesters resolute

The outlook for Thailand appears to be more uncertainty and unrest.

Since November, at least 10 people have died and nearly 600 have been wounded in violence linked to tensions around the protests.

The conflict has deepened the country’s political divide. The anti-government movement draws it support from southern Thailand, Bangkok’s middle class and the established elites. Yingluck’s base is in the less affluent but more populous regions north and east of the capital.

In Laksi, a Bangkok district of mixed pro- and anti-government sentiment, gunfire erupted Saturday between masked men amid demonstrations against the elections, witnesses said. Health officials reported at least eight people wounded since Saturday.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban on Sunday sought to distance his movement from the violence.

“We need to keep our principles. We fight in peace, with no weapons and violence. We only fight with our feet and whistles,” he said. “We have the right to a peaceful protest.”

Suthep said his supporters would continue efforts this week to block government offices in Bangkok. They held a march in the center of Bangkok on Monday.

Lt. Gen. Paradon Patthanathabut, the national security chief, estimated that there were between 2,000 and 3,000 demonstrators on the city’s streets Monday. Protesters generally dispute authorities’ estimates of their numbers, claiming they are far higher.

Amid the political deadlock, some observers have suggested Thailand’s powerful military, which has carried out coups in the past, could step in. The military’s stance on the crisis remains unclear.

The U.S. government is opposed to a coup, the State Department said Monday.

“We are speaking directly to all elements of Thai society to make clear the importance of using democratic and constitutional means to resolve political differences,” Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said at a regular news briefing.

Voters determined

Despite the tensions in Bangkok over the weekend, many voters insisted on casting their ballots.

“I’m very excited to exercise my right to vote today,” Nopphorn Tabupha said from Bangkok’s Bueng Kum district. “I didn’t think I would be able to come out. I thought I was going to be blocked by the protesters.”

Others found their efforts to participate frustrated.

In the Bangkok district of Din Daeng, voting was called off because protesters blocked officials from distributing ballot boxes. A group of government supporters responded by gathering at the district office chanting, “Election, election” and “We want to vote today.”

Meanwhile, opposition supporters reiterated their rejection of the vote.

“No, I didn’t (vote) — I want reform before elections. Because if I did, we will only get bad people, corrupt politicians,” said Suriya Phodhikul, a computer technician participating in an anti-government rally in the Phayathai district of Bangkok.

Thaksin’s role

Suthep’s anti-government protesters say Yingluck is merely a puppet of Thaksin, a polarizing figure who built his support on populist policies that pleased residents of the north and northeast. Yingluck has repeatedly denied her brother calls the shots in her government.

Thaksin, a business tycoon whose electoral success unsettled the Thai elite, was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and has spent most of the time since then in exile overseas. If he returns, he risks a two-year prison sentence on a corruption conviction, which he says was politically motivated.

Yingluck’s government set off the current crisis with a botched attempt to pass an amnesty bill that would have opened the door for Thaksin’s return. The move stirred anger around the country.

Thailand’s worst civil unrest took place in 2010, when the government — run at the time by the Democrat Party — ordered a crackdown on largely pro-Thaksin protesters, leaving about 90 people dead.

(Reuters) – Thailand went to the polls under heavy security on Sunday in an election that could push the divided country deeper into political turmoil and leave the winner paralyzed for months by street protests, legal challenges and legislative limbo.

Voting started peacefully a day after seven people were wounded by gunshots and explosions during a clash between supporters and opponents of embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a north Bangkok stronghold of her Puea Thai Party.

Voting was called off in the district and some other polling stations were unable to open because of pressure by anti-government protesters. Polling outside the capital and the south was unaffected.

“The situation overall is calm and we haven’t received any reports of violence this morning,” National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabutr told Reuters. “The protesters are rallying peacefully to show their opposition to this election.”

The usual campaign billboards, glossy posters and pre-election buzz have been notably absent, as will be millions of voters fearful of violence or bent on rejecting a ballot bound to re-elect the political juggernaut controlled by Yingluck’s billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin, 64, is loved and loathed in Thailand, but his parties have won every poll since 2001. His opponents say he is a corrupt crony capitalist who rules by proxy from self-exile in Dubai.

“We’re not blocking the election. We’re postponing it,” said Nipon Kaewsook, 42, one of the hundreds of protesters blocking Ratchathewi District Office in central Bangkok to prevent the distribution of dozens of ballot boxes.

“We still need an election, but we need reform first,” added Nipon, an English teacher from Phattalung in southern Thailand.

Protesters shouted “Yingluck get out!” and “Thaksin go to jail!” They took celebratory selfies in front of the ballot boxes, placed in a car park at the back of the building.

Victory celebrations for Yingluck would probably be muted. With parliamentary seats unable to be filled, she could find herself on shaky ground, exposed to legal attacks and unable to pass bills and budgets crucial to reviving a stuttering economy.

Yingluck last week refused to postpone the election, even though a fifth of those registered for advance voting were unable to cast ballots after protesters blocked polling stations in 49 of 50 Bangkok districts as part of a “shutdown” of key intersections. In 28 southern constituencies, no votes will be cast because no candidates could sign up.

The Election Commission says results will not be available on Sunday. Its commissioners are braced for a deluge of complaints and challenges to the results.

“There’s been a lot of obstruction, so much, every single step of the way,” commission secretary-general Puchong Nutrawong told Reuters.

“We don’t want this election to be a bloody election. We can get every single agency involved to make this election happen, but if there’s bloodshed, what’s the point?”

INTRACTABLE CRISIS

Anti-government demonstrators say Thaksin subverted Thailand’s fragile democracy by entrenching money politics and using taxpayers’ money for generous subsidies, cheap healthcare and easy loans that have bought him loyalty from millions of working-class Thai voters in the north and northeast.

With broad support from Bangkok’s middle class and tacit backing of the royalist establishment, old-money elite and military, the protesters reject the election and want to suspend democracy, replacing it with an appointed “people’s council” to reform politics and erode Thaksin’s influence.

The latest round of tumult in the eight-year political conflict erupted in November and underscored Thaksin’s central role in the intractable struggle, both as hero and villain.

Yingluck was largely tolerated by Thaksin’s opponents but her party miscalculated when it tried to introduce a blanket amnesty that would have nullified a graft conviction against Thaksin and allowed him to return home.

Many Thais see history repeating itself after a cycle of elections, protests and military or judicial interventions that have polarized the country and angered Thaksin’s “red shirt” supporters, who held crippling blockades in 2010 and have vowed to defend his sister from any overthrow attempt.

Thailand’s military has remained neutral so far, but the judiciary has taken on an unusually large number of cases in the past two months in response to complaints against Yingluck and Puea Thai that could result in the party’s dissolution and lengthy bans for its top politicians.

There is also a chance the election could be annulled, as it was in 2006, over a technicality. The Election Commission is expecting lawsuits to be filed demanding the election be voided.

The main opposition Democrat Party is boycotting the poll and the commission has already voiced concerns that it would result in too few legitimately elected MPs to form a parliamentary quorum.

With no quorum to re-elect a prime minister, it looks likely Yingluck could be a caretaker premier for months. Even with a fresh mandate, a stalemate is almost certain, giving her opponents more time to intensify their campaign against her and for legal challenges to be lodged.

(Additional reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall, Alisa Tang, Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Mark Bendeich, Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez)

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