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State of emergency declared for Bangkok

Posted by Rattana_S On January - 25 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) — The Thai government has declared a state of emergency for the tense capital of Bangkok amid anti-government protests, a security official said Tuesday.

It will go into effect Wednesday and will last 60 days, Thailand’s national security chief, Lt. Gen. Paradon Patthanathubut, told CNN.

Since demonstrations against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government began in November, at least nine people have died and more than 450 have been wounded, according to authorities.

The emergency decree gives authorities the power to impose curfews, detain suspects without court permission, censor media and declare parts of the capital off-limits.

In a bid to resolve the crisis, Yingluck dissolved parliament last month and called for new elections to be held February 2.

But the move has done little to appease protesters. They have called on Yingluck to step down from her caretaker position and be replaced by an unelected “people’s council,” which would see through electoral and political changes.

The opposition Democrat Party has said it will boycott the elections.

Protesters remain on streets

Paradon said the emergency decree had been considered because “we are predicting that (the) situation might get more violent” as the vote nears.

“We are witnessing more gun shootings and bomb incidents on the streets of Bangkok,” he said.

Thousands of protesters have remained on the streets ahead of the elections.

Protest leaders have said they want to rid Thailand of the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the older brother of Yingluck.

Thaksin 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.

The recent protests in Bangkok were prompted by a botched attempt by Yingluck’s government to pass an amnesty bill that would have opened the door for her brother’s return.

No resistance as crowds of protesters occupy Thai capital

Posted by Rattana_S On January - 13 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

(Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Thai anti-government protesters occupied parts of central Bangkok on Monday, meeting no resistance from the authorities, ratcheting up a two-month agitation to force the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Police and soldiers kept a low profile as the “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand” drive got under way in the city of about 12 million people, and the mood among protesters was festive, with many singing and dancing in the streets.

Although major intersections that normally teem with cars and trucks were blockaded, city trains and river ferries were operating, most shops were open and motorbikes plied the roads freely.

But protesters said they were prepared for a long haul to tighten the noose on the capital, suggesting the crisis could drag on for days, if not weeks, threatening to inflict substantial damage on Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.

The upheaval is the latest chapter in an eight-year conflict pitting Bangkok’s middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of Yingluck and her self-exiled brother, billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin was ousted by the army in 2006 and sentenced to jail in absentia for abuse of power in 2008, but the former telecoms tycoon still looms large over Thai politics and is the dominant force behind his sister’s administration from his home in Dubai.

In a bid to end the unrest, Yingluck – who has a commanding majority in parliament – called a snap election for February 2. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has rejected the poll, which Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party would probably win.

As the blockade began to bite, Yingluck invited the protest leaders and political parties for a meeting on Wednesday to discuss an Election Commision proposal to postpone the vote, according to a senior aide of the prime minister.

However, the protesters are determined to install an appointed “people’s council” to change the electoral system and bring in other reforms to weaken Thaksin’s sway.

“This won’t end easily, and the turnout today is impressive, so it seems this deadlock looks set to continue,” said Sukum Nuansakul, a political analyst and former dean at Bangkok’s Ramkhamhaeng University.

“Suthep has said he won’t negotiate with the government, yet the government said today it will try to invite all warring parties to the table. The protest group’s aims to overhaul the political system in this country won’t happen overnight. This could be just the beginning.”

Eight people, including two police officers, have been killed and scores wounded in violence between protesters, police and government supporters since the campaign against Yingluck’s government started in November.

Shootings were reported overnight near a government administrative complex that protesters began to blockade late on Sunday and at the headquarters of the opposition Democrat Party, which has thrown in its lot with the protest movement.

At one junction, near the American and Japanese embassies, around 100 protesters sat on the road to halt traffic. Som Rodpai, 64, said they would leave after nightfall, amid fears their citywide protest could spark a violent reaction.

Suthep’s stated goal is to eradicate the influence of the Shinawatra family on Thai politics, but he says he would call the protests off if, as some fear, civil war breaks out.

Pro-Thaksin groups started rallies in several provincial regions on Sunday but are steering clear of Bangkok for now.

The government has deployed 10,000 police to maintain law and order, along with 8,000 soldiers at government offices.

“We don’t want confrontation with the protesters … In some places we will let them into government buildings,” Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said on Sunday.

“SIT AND MEDITATE”

National security chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr said around 20,000 protesters had joined a march from what has been the movement’s main camp at Democracy Monument in the old quarter.

Among them was Prasert Tanyakiatpongsa, a small business owner, who backed Suthep’s plans for electoral reforms.

“I’m not sure if we can achieve what we want in a day but maybe we can after a week … We are not out to clash with police. We will sit and we will meditate,” Prasert said.

Although rumors of a coup are rife, the military, which has staged or attempted 18 coups in 81 years of on-off democracy, has tried to stay neutral this time and army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has publicly refused to take sides.

But some fear extremists or agents provocateurs could instigate violence to provoke military intervention, leading to a repeat of 2010 when more than 90 people, many of them Thaksin supporters, were killed in an army operation to put down a rally that had closed parts of central Bangkok for weeks.

The latest protests took off when the government tried to push through a political amnesty that would have let Thaksin return home without serving jail time for corruption. The bill was ultimately withdrawn but the agitation gathered pace.

Thaksin, who redrew Thailand’s political map by courting rural voters to win back-to-back elections in 2001 and 2005, gained an unassailable mandate that he then used to advance the interests of major companies, including his own.

He is opposed by the elite and establishment, who feel threatened by his rise and regard his sister as a puppet. Thaksin’s opponents include some academics who see him as a corrupt rights abuser and the urban middle class who resent, as they see it, their taxes being used for his political war chest.

The unrest has hurt tourism and further delayed huge infrastructure projects that had been expected to support the economy this year at a time when exports remain weak. Consumer confidence is at a two-year low.

Protest leaders say they will not shut down public transport or Bangkok’s airports. Anti-Thaksin protesters shut the two main airports for days in late 2008, causing chaos for tourists and exporters.

However, the central bank, finance ministry and some other ministries have been forced to move operations to buildings around the city or even to neighboring provinces.

“The aim is not war,” Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister and member of the opposition who joined Monday’s protests, told Reuters. “We have to keep pressure on the government until it is crippled and cannot function.”

(Additional reporting by Andrew R.C. Marshall, Panarat Thepgumpanat and Orathai Sriring; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Alan Raybould)

Thailand braces for looming Bangkok ‘shut down’

Posted by Rattana_S On January - 12 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

(CNN) — Thailand is bracing for a critical showdown Monday, as anti-government protesters vow to occupy key Bangkok locations in a massive show of political might intended to shut down the capital and force an end to the political deadlock gripping the nation.

1. Why are the protesters demonstrating?

Since November, protesters have been taking to the streets and occupying government buildings, calling for an end to the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They accuse Yingluck of being a puppet of her brother, the ousted prime minister and telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a 2006 military coup.

In response to the crisis, Yingluck dissolved parliament on December 9, calling new elections to be held on February 2. But the move failed to mollify protesters, with the opposition Democrat Party, closely aligned with the protest movement, announcing a boycott of the vote.

Led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister and Democrat MP who resigned his parliamentary seat in November to spearhead the protests, the demonstrators are demanding that no elections be held until major political reforms are implemented.

2. Why are the opposition refusing to participate in the polls?

Protesters contend that Thaksin’s immense fortune has allowed him to warp Thailand’s fragile democracy in his own interests, giving him an unfair political advantage and making substantial reform necessary.

Suthep has outlined his preferred vision for the current government to be replaced by a “people’s council,” made up of representatives from various professions and led by a prime minister appointed by the Thai king. The council would be charged with implementing a wide-ranging program of reform, including restructuring the police force and decentralizing power to provincial governors.

But observers say that the Democrats would be unlikely to win anyway against Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party, which commands significant support in the populous rural areas of north and northeast of Thailand. Thaksin-affiliated parties have consistently triumphed in parliamentary elections since 2001.

3. How ugly are Monday’s protests likely to get?

The specter of the 2010 crisis, when a crackdown by security forces on pro-Thaksin “red shirt” protesters occupying upscale parts of Bangkok left about 90 dead, looms large over the current impasse.

But despite the high tensions, the recent protests have been largely peaceful, with 8 deaths in contrast to the bloodshed of 2010.

Back then, the protesters immobilizing Bangkok were supporters of Thaksin; this time, they are opponents of the tycoon and his sister. The pro-Thaksin “red shirts” remain players in the current crisis, however, with rallies in support of Yingluck’s government scheduled to be held around the country this weekend.

Organizers have told state media they will not protest near the anti-government demonstrations Monday; similarly, Suthep has similarly promised the anti-government protesters will be peaceful, assuring Thai state media the demonstrators will be non-violent, unarmed and restricted to seven locations in the capital.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Embassy has issued an advisory to its citizens to avoid demonstration areas, warning that while recent protests had been generally calm, they had the potential to “escalate into violence without warning.”

“Most of the protestors will be peaceful,” said Bangkok Post political columnist Voranai Vanijaka. “It’s the few in the militant wing that we have to watch out for.”

The U.S. and other Thai allies have been urging the country to resolve the deadlock by proceeding with democratic elections.

4. How much support remains for Suthep?

After months of political instability, Thais are growing weary of the impasse, says Vanijaka.

“The support for Suthep is waning … because many have begun to see that this is a road that leads to nowhere except for achieving changes through intimidation and violence, and possibly a military or judicial coup,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said, Suthep still drew strong support from his political base, broadly drawn from Bangkok’s middle classes and members of the old establishment threatened by Thaksin’s rise.

“Suthep can still command a large number in the streets,” he said.

5. Where’s the military in all this?

Observers are watching keenly as to whether Thailand’s military, which dislodged Thaksin from office in 2006 and has launched more than a dozen coups or attempted coups during the country’s democratic era, will play a similarly decisive role in breaking the current deadlock.

The army has thus far declared itself neutral in the conflict, and has proven reluctant to assist in defending government agencies from protesters.

6. What triggered the current crisis?

Yingluck’s prime ministership was largely stable until her party attempted to pass a controversial amnesty bill in November.

The bill would have nullified Thaksin’s corruption conviction, allowing him to return to the country. The tycoon has been living in exile in a number of different locations, most recently Dubai, while continuing to play an active role in Thai politics, since being sentenced in absentia to two years jail over a controversial land deal in 2008.

7. How is the crisis impacting Thailand’s economy?

The Thai economy is already feeling the effects of months of turmoil since November, said Capital Economics economist Krystal Tan, with the tourism sector suffering and significant investments in infrastructure projects deferred.

While Thailand, southeast Asia’s largest economy, had rebounded well economically from crises in 2006 and 2010, the picture was less rosy this time. “The difference this time around is the economy wasn’t in good shape even before the crisis,” said Tan. “Thailand has very high household debt; exports are not quite picking up.”

“The longer the impasse lasts, the worse it is for the economy,” she said.

Coup-prone Thailand looks to army chief to break deadlock

Posted by Rattana_S On January - 11 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

(Reuters) – Standing inside one of Bangkok’s many military bases is a giant poster of Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha in full dress uniform, along with a list of attributes. “Intelligent,” reads the poster. “Knowledgeable. Modern. Visionary.”

As Bangkok braces for a “shut down” by anti-government protesters on Monday, and rumors multiply that yet another military coup is imminent, another adjective for General Prayuth springs to mind: opaque.

Paralyzing Bangkok is the latest bid in a two-month attempt by protesters to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose brother, Thaksin, was overthrown in the last military coup in 2006.

Yingluck called a snap election for February 2, but this failed to mollify protesters, who want her government to resign in favor of an unelected people’s council to oversee political reform.

Many Thais believe the military will soon step in again to break the political deadlock, especially if next week’s citywide protests turn violent.

But Prayuth, 59, has remained noncommittal, brushing aside rumors of a military coup while deftly side-stepping an outright denial.

It wasn’t always so. Famous for irascible exchanges with the media, Prayuth once suggested coups were obsolete and slammed rumor-mongers for damaging the country.

As Thailand’s latest round of protests gathered pace, however, his public statements have fuelled rather than scotched the rumors.

“I cannot confirm whether there will or will not be a coup,” he said on January 7.

Two weeks earlier, Prayuth likened the unrest between pro- and anti-government protesters to an intersection where he had the power to “turn the lights red” to stop traffic from left and right colliding.

“The odds of an all-out military coup remain lower for now but will increase as instability drags on,” said Christian Lewis, a Southeast Asia specialist at political risk consultants Eurasia Group. “Prayuth and the military will most likely intervene only if the police lose control of an eroding security situation.”

“NOT CONSTRUCTIVE”

Thousands of protesters have taken to Bangkok’s streets since November, accusing the Shinawatra family of corruption and nepotism.

The protests, which have drawn 200,000 people at their peak, have been mostly peaceful.

Four people, including two police officers, died of gunshot wounds and scores were injured after protesters clashed with police outside a stadium on December 26 while candidates registered for the election.

In broad terms, the current crisis pits the Thai elite, including military generals and royalists, and the educated middle-classes against supporters of twice-elected former prime minister Thaksin, who now lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail for a graft conviction he says was politically motivated.

But with Yingluck clinging onto power and protesters refusing to back down, analysts say protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, can only win with Prayuth’s backing.

That has sparked fears that protagonists might instigate an attack on protesters during next week’s rallies in hopes of provoking army intervention.

But senior officers told Reuters the military is reluctant to see a repeat of the September 2006 coup, which Prayuth helped execute as a deputy regional commander and plunged the country into years of turmoil.

“Prayuth is aware that dealing with the problem by staging a coup is not constructive and, after a while, the same problems will come back again,” said army spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukhondhadhpatipak.

Born in northeast Thailand, now a stronghold for Thaksin supporters, Prayuth has a reputation for “hard-headed decisiveness”, wrote Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based analyst at security consulting firm IHS-Jane’s, after Prayuth was appointed in October 2010.

“An officer of polished social skills, he has become a regular visitor to the palace, suggesting that in royal circles he is seen as a vital figure to ensure the future stability of both the nation and the monarchy,” said Davis.

Prayuth also established a cordial relationship with Yingluck after her election the following year. He has repeatedly said he wants the military to remain politically neutral.

Yet Prayuth, who is a few months shy of mandatory retirement, commands a highly politicized army. It has played a pivotal role in a country that has seen 18 successful or attempted coups in the past 81 years.

“Prayuth was involved in a coup once before and knows that after a coup come many obstacles,” said Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political analyst at Ramkamhaeng University in Bangkok.

“He has shown no political ambitions but even if he did, staging a coup today is much more difficult than in 2006. Thailand is a different country and he risks upsetting the politically awakened masses,” he said, referring to Thaksin’s supporters who would be outraged if his sister’s government was overthrown.

“WATERMELON SOLDIERS”

Prayuth faces another dilemma from some rank-and-file soldiers in green uniforms dubbed “watermelons” – green on the outside with red, pro-Thaksin, sympathies on the inside.

Fissures within the army were evident during a bloody April and May 2010 crackdown on pro-Thaksin red shirts in Bangkok who were demanding fresh elections and the resignation of pro-establishment Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Some soldiers openly sympathized with red-shirted protesters, tipping off the group’s leaders ahead of a planned army operation, unnerving the top brass and sapping troop morale. Ensuing clashes between soldiers and anti-government protesters killed 91 people. More than 2,000 were wounded.

“Last time the objective was to protect the Abhisit government which many soldiers disliked. But this time any decision by the generals will be made carefully and to protect national interests and all sides,” said army spokesman Werachon.

“Of course, there are some ‘watermelon’ soldiers but they know that, as an army, we have to present a united front.”

Compounding the situation is the complex web of loyalties within the army establishment.

Prayuth belongs to a powerful clique that includes retired former defense minister General Prawit Wongsuwan and former army chief General Anupong Paochinda, who both despise Thaksin.

A December 13 Reuters report revealed both men secretly back protest leader Suthep and his ambitions to eradicate Thaksin’s influence from Thailand. Prayuth is pulled between his loyalty to Anupong and Prawit, and his desire to restore the army’s image after the 2010 clashes.

When Thailand was hit by its worst floods in decades in 2011 he went on a media blitz to promote the army by sending soldiers to help civilians.

(This version of the story corrects Prayuth’s 2006 rank to deputy regional commander in paragraph 18.)

(Editing by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Robert Birsel)

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