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(Reuters) – Thailand on Friday played down talk of a military coup ahead of a planned “shutdown” of the capital next week by protesters trying to overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and said life would go on much as normal.

Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said it was alarmist of the U.S. embassy to advise its citizens on Friday to stock up on two weeks’ supply of food and water ahead of what protest leaders say will be a prolonged siege of Bangkok.

“Maybe they worry too much … People will live their normal life. Don’t be afraid of things that will happen because we try to control the situation,” he said.

Demonstrators led by former opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban aim to paralyze the capital for between 15 and 20 days by blocking seven main intersections, causing gridlock in a city clogged with traffic at the best of times.

The turmoil is the latest episode in an eight-year conflict that pits Bangkok’s middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The protesters want to suspend what they say is a fragile democracy destabilized by Thaksin, whom they accuse of nepotism and corruption. They want to eradicate the political influence of his family by altering electoral arrangements in ways they have not spelt out, along with other political reforms.

Thaksin was ousted by the military in 2006 and sentenced to jail in absentia for abuse of power in 2008 but he still looms large over Thai politics, the dominant force behind his sister’s administration from his self-exile in Dubai.

COUNTER-COUP PLANS

The authorities say they will deploy more than 14,000 troops and police on Monday, including police at the main airport, to maintain order in the streets.

Rumors of an impending coup have intensified. The army has staged or attempted 18 coups in 81 years of on-off democracy, but it has tried to tried to remain neutral this time and its chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has publicly refused to take sides.

The government has repeatedly played down talk of a military intervention but said on Friday if there was one, it would counter it. “We already have a plan …,” said Surapong, offering no elaboration.

He said the government would operate during the shutdown from backup locations at the national police headquarters and at an army base in the north of Bangkok.

He said Yingluck would not relocate her government to other provinces. She heads a caretaker cabinet after calling a snap election in December.

Polling is set for February 2, but the Election Commission said on Friday the government should consider pushing back the date.

It said some candidates had been unable to register in 28 districts in the south – a stronghold of the anti-Thaksin protesters – and that could delay the reopening of parliament if there were not enough lawmakers elected to meet the quorum of 95 percent of the seats in the house.

The protesters have rejected the election, demanding that the government step down to be replaced by an unelected “people’s council”.

The courts may play a part in forcing the government out, as legal cases are building up against Yingluck and her allies.

The country’s anti-corruption body pressed charges on Tuesday against 308 lawmakers, mostly from her Puea Thai party, for trying to make the Senate a fully elected chamber, which a court ruled illegal in November.

Puea Thai officials have expressed concern the government’s enemies might be plotting a judicial coup and accuse the courts of bias. They say they are alarmed at the speed with which such matters are being processed, in contrast to cases against opposition figures, including protest leader Suthep, that have languished in the courts for years.

“They (the protesters) want to grab power unconstitutionally … but the Constitutional Court ruled that there was no case (to answer against that),” Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana told foreign media on Friday.

“In this Constitutional Court there are some judges … who had an explicit role against the government in 2006,” he added, referring to when Thaksin was toppled.

The judiciary has intervened several times in the past to throw out governments linked or allied to Thaksin.

(Editing by Alan Raybould and Clarence Fernandez)

Q&A: Thailand anti-government protests

Posted by Rattana_S On January - 4 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

Thailand has been hit by major protests after three years of relative calm. The BBC looks at the factors behind the protests and what the demonstrators want.

What started the protests?

Demonstrations kicked off in November after Thailand’s lower house passed a controversial amnesty bill, which critics said could allow former leader Thaksin Shinawatra to return without serving time in jail.

Mr Thaksin, one of the most polarising characters in Thai politics, was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He now lives in self-imposed exile overseas, but remains popular with many rural voters.

The amnesty bill, which was proposed by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party, was eventually rejected by the Senate. However, anti-government protests have continued.

Who are the protesters?

The protesters are united by their opposition to Mr Thaksin, and their belief that he is still controlling the current Pheu Thai government.

The demonstrations are being led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Thai deputy prime minister who resigned from the opposition Democrat Party to lead the rallies.

The protesters tend to be urban and middle class voters.

Around 100,000 opposition supporters rallied in Bangkok on 24 November, although turnout has since dropped. The protests were largely peaceful for the first week but turned deadly when violence broke out near a pro-government red-shirt rally on 30 November. At least five people have been killed since.

There was a pause in the protests to mark the 86th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In his traditional address to the nation, the king urged people to support each other for the sake of the country.

Protesters, however, vowed to continue their demonstrations after the royal celebration.

What do the protesters want?

The demonstrators have surrounded and occupied government buildings in an attempt to disrupt government and force Pheu Thai to step down.

Mr Suthep and his supporters say they want to wipe out the “political machine of Thaksin” and install an unelected “people’s council” to pick the country’s leaders.

They say the government “bought votes” in the last election through irresponsible spending pledges.

What will happen next?

On 8 December, all opposition MPs in parliament resigned and it was announced that protesters would march to Government House, the prime minister’s office, the next day.

In response, Ms Yingluck said in a televised address that she would dissolve parliament and called a snap election on 2 February.

The opposition Democratic Party says it will boycott the election.

Ms Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party still commands significant support, especially with rural voters, and will be the front-runner in the polls.

What impact will the protests have?

Ms Yingluck early on warned that further protests could cause the “economy to deteriorate”.

Protests in 2008 and 2010 hit Thailand’s economy hard, especially the business and tourism sectors.

This time, several countries have issued travel warnings for Thailand.

Thai army asked to secure polls after clashes

Posted by Nuttapon_S On December - 27 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

Despite electoral commission calls for delay, Yingluck’s government wants the February polls to take place as scheduled.

The Thai government has said it will ask the military to help protect candidates and voters in a February election after clashes between police and anti-government protesters in which two people were killed and scores wounded.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government on Thursday rejected a call by the kingdom’s election commission to postpone the vote, after a policeman was shot dead during political violence in the capital.

A 30-year-old civilian who was struck by a bullet in the chest during the unrest also died in hospital early Friday, according to the public health ministry.

It said 153 people were injured, of whom 38 were still hospitalised.

Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said Friday he would ask the armed forces supreme commander for help with security for a second round of registration for constituency candidates due to begin around the country on Saturday.

“I will also ask the military to provide security protection for members of the public on the February 2 election date,” he said in a nationally televised address.

Limited military involvement

Thailand has been periodically convulsed by political bloodshed since Yingluck’s older brother Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown by royalist generals in a coup seven years ago.

The protesters have vowed to block the February election, saying it will only return Thaksin’s allies to power.

But so far the army, traditionally a staunch supporter of the anti-Thaksin establishment, has avoided any public intervention in the unrest, apart from sending a limited number of unarmed troops to guard government buildings.

The weeks-long unrest, which has drawn tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets, has left seven people dead and about 400 wounded.

It is the worst civil strife since 2010, when more than 90 civilians were killed in a bloody military crackdown on pro-Thaksin protests under the previous government.

The Last Gasp of Thai Paternalism

Posted by Rattana_S On December - 22 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

New York — Thailand is not one democracy, but two. In the 1990s the Thai political scientist Anek Laothamatas argued that the middle classes of Bangkok, educated and sophisticated, opposed corruption and embraced democratic values, while the uneducated masses in the rest of the country were susceptible to manipulation by unscrupulous politicians. This narrative is now being repeated by the middle-class Bangkokians who have recently taken to the streets en masse and occupied government buildings, forcing Yingluck Shinawatra, the democratically elected prime minister, to call for early elections in February.

In fact, the protesters themselves are proving Mr. Anek wrong. Now it’s the urban middle classes who are being manipulated by wayward politicians — like Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister who resigned from Parliament last month to lead the demonstrations — and who oppose holding fresh elections. And it’s the voters from the countryside who are backing electoral democracy.

Most administrations have traditionally comprised unstable coalitions of warring factions, which means the traditional elites in the military, the royal palace and the judiciary called most of the shots because they could bring down prime ministers at will. Monarchism is to Thailand what Kemalism is to Turkey: a founding principle that the military can always invoke to justify seizing power on grounds of national security.

At least that was the case until 2001, when Thaksin Shinawatra, Ms. Yingluck’s older brother, won his first election, paving the way for the victory of pro-Thaksin parties in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011. An upstart Chiang Mai police officer turned telecommunications magnate and then political hustler, Mr. Thaksin is a controversial and polarizing figure. He was ousted in a military coup in 2006. Now in exile abroad, he faces jail time should he return home. Yet he has managed to consolidate power in the hands of a dominant ruling party, which has survived two court-mandated dissolutions and other judicial challenges.

Thailand’s oldest political party, the Democrat Party, last won an election in 1992; its conservative, pro-bureaucracy bases in Bangkok and the south are not big enough for it to secure a national majority. And this very sore loser is now playing a central role in trying to oust an elected government. Its members have resigned from Parliament and joined the demonstrators who are calling for an end to the broader “Thaksin regime” and claiming that pro-Thaksin politicians have been buying rural voters.

But the protesters are failing to grasp that the Shinawatra family is simply the astute beneficiary of seismic changes in Thailand’s political economy. Although money undoubtedly plays a role in all Thai elections, Mr. Thaksin, Ms. Yingluck and their parties have built up a huge and genuine following, especially in the very populous northern and northeastern parts of the country.

Full-time farmers hardly exist in these regions any more. They have become urbanized villagers: provincials only on paper, who have migrated to work in greater Bangkok but vote in their home provinces. General elections in Thailand are now determined by some 16 million or more urbanized villagers, who make up around a third of the total electorate.

Urbanized villagers have incomes not much lower than their urban middle-class counterparts, but they are often in debt, have insecure employment and have to work more than one job. Unlike the villagers of old, they are not interested in subsistence agriculture; they want to enjoy the benefits of consumer society and send their children to university. Like most Democrat Party supporters, they dream of socio-economic advancement, yet for more than a decade, the pro-Thaksin parties have locked in their support with populist policies such as subsidized healthcare programs and village-development funds to promote small businesses.

The current antigovernment protests in Bangkok are the last gasp of Thai dynastic paternalism. They reflect the determination of the old elite and its middle-class allies to check the rising power of the formerly rural electorate by bringing down the Yingluck administration. They are calling for the creation of a “people’s assembly,” an unelected temporary governing body representing different occupational groups that would oversee a process of political reform — in effect, a dictatorship of the capital over the rest of the country.

The protests are taking place in a climate of growing national anxiety. This nervousness has several sources: fears about royal succession, as the long reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej approaches its twilight; fears about secession, as one of the world’s worst insurgencies by Malay-Muslim separatists continues to rage in the southern provinces; fears about alienation, as pro-Thaksin groups have established thousands of “red-shirt villages” in the increasingly psychologically isolated north and northeast — and above all, fears among Bangkok’s middle classes about being outvoted by low-class urbanized villagers.

It was all so unnecessary. Just a few weeks ago, Ms. Yingluck was governing Thailand with the tacit support of the military and the monarchy. Her government had numerous failings, but for two and a half years there had been no serious political protests and the country’s deep divisions had been largely papered over.

A new pact among the pro-Thaksin and pro-royalist elites is urgently needed. This time, however, it should be broadened to engage the wider public. More urbanized villagers should be allowed to register to vote in and around Bangkok. Power should be decentralized in favor of the provinces, with some form of autonomy granted to the troubled south.

Instead of occupying ministry buildings in Bangkok, the Democrats would do well to make serious attempts to woo provincial voters. Urbanized villagers cannot be wished away by the Bangkok elites; they rightly expect to share the benefits of Thailand’s remarkable economic success. When they no longer are treated as underdogs, their pragmatic ties with pro-Thaksin parties will wither — and Thailand will stop being two democracies and become one unified nation.

Duncan McCargo is professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds and a senior research affiliate at Columbia University.

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