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(Reuters) – Thailand is lifting a state of emergency in Bangkok, taking a step to restore some confidence as anti-government protests subside, though the crisis has entered a new phase with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra besieged by legal challenges.

The protesters, mainly from Bangkok and the south, have been trying since November to oust Yingluck and rid the country of the influence of her brother, self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was toppled by the army in 2006.

The government imposed a state of emergency two months ago, but largely resisted taking heavy-handed action, though 23 people have been killed during the unrest, most in shootings and grenade blasts.

The protests have waned in recent weeks and are now mostly confined to Lumpini Park in Bangkok’s central business district and a few other sites.

But the threat of further violence remains real, especially after changes at the top of the pro-Thaksin “red shirt” movement at the weekend, with a new, more militant leader promising “to fight tooth and nail” to defend Yingluck.

The emergency will be lifted from Wednesday after a decision taken at a cabinet meeting held on Tuesday in Nakhon Pathom province, about 80 km (50 miles) from Bangkok.

Yingluck arrived for the meeting in a wheelchair after slipping as she stepped out of a car on Saturday in the northern city of Chiang Mai, her stronghold.

“The cabinet lifted the state of emergency to instil more confidence in the private sector and tourist industry,” she told reporters.

In its place, the government will use the Internal Security Act, a less harsh law that still allows the authorities to impose curfews, operate security checkpoints and restrict the movement of protesters as needed.

“Lifting the emergency law should have a positive impact on businesses. Many really felt the pinch and lost customers because the state of emergency was in place, including tour operators who saw huge cancellations,” said political analyst Kan Yuenyong at Siam Intelligence Unit.

“It should also improve the state’s image because rights groups tend to view the emergency law as draconian. But, ultimately, no law can help the government contain the protests if they flare up again.”

The stock market and baht currency rose slightly on the government’s move, which had been expected, although that was enough to take the baht to a three-month high.

LEGAL CHALLENGES

The government set the 60-day emergency from January 22 to help contain protests in the run-up to a general election on February 2, but most of its measures were barely used, especially after a court ruled on February 19 that some had been imposed illegally.

The election in February was disrupted by protesters in almost 70 of the 375 constituencies, leaving the House of Representatives without a quorum to elect a new prime minister.

The Constitutional Court has accepted a petition to consider annulling the election, which could further delay the formation of a government.

Yingluck, whose Puea Thai Party had been expected to win the vote, heads a caretaker administration with limited powers. She faces a slew of court cases that could bring her down, including a charge of dereliction of duty over a rice subsidy scheme that owes money to hundreds of thousands of farmers.

Tourism has suffered during the unrest. Arrivals were down 4.1 percent in January and February compared to the same high-season period last year, according to the tourism ministry.

Pitaya Tanadamrongsak, managing director of Dongfeng Motors (Thailand), a unit of China’s Dongfeng Motor Corp that announced an expansion in Thai vehicle production on Tuesday, told Reuters the business community needed more than the lifting of an emergency decree.

“In order for the country to be fundamentally strong, I think the conflict has to stop … I do hope the government and opposition will find a conclusion and look forward,” he said.

“Only by having a stable government can we really take advantage of the AEC,” he added, referring to a Southeast Asian economic community set to start in late 2015 that Thailand ought to be well placed to benefit from, given its export prowess.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Pairat Temphairojana; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Alan Raybould and Simon Cameron-Moore)

Thai police wounded in clashes with protesters: witnesses

Posted by Rattana_S On February - 18 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

(Reuters) – At least three police officers were wounded as Thai authorities launched an operation to clear anti-government protesters from streets in Bangkok on Tuesday, one with what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the head, Reuters witnesses said.

Three Reuters witnesses said they heard what sounded like gunfire in the Thai capital and saw firearms being carried by both sides. Authorities did not immediately confirm that shots had been fired.

Television pictures showed clouds of teargas and police crouching behind riot shields as officers clashed with protesters near Government House. It was not clear who had fired the teargas and the authorities blamed protesters.

“I can guarantee that teargas was not used by security forces. The forces did not take teargas with them,” National Security Council Chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr told Reuters.

“We understand protesters are the ones who threw teargas at the security forces. Police are armed with just batons and shields and no rubber bullets are being used.”

The protesters have been rallying since November to try to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whom they view as a proxy for her elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former premier and telecoms tycoon toppled in a military coup in 2006.

Security officials said 15,000 officers were involved in an operation, called the “Peace for Bangkok Mission”, to reclaim protest sites around government offices in the centre and north of the capital.

The Erawan Medical Center, which monitors Bangkok hospitals, said 14 people were hurt in the clashes with no reports of any deaths.

Live television pictures showed police with shields and batons pushing and jostling with protesters near Government House. One man could be seen bleeding from a head wound.

Police said about 100 protesters had been arrested in an early morning operation to clear demonstrators from a protest site near the Energy Ministry.

The protests are the latest installment of an eight-year political battle broadly pitting the Bangkok middle class and royalist establishment against the poorer, mostly rural supporters of Yingluck and her billionaire brother Thaksin.

Demonstrators accuse Thaksin of nepotism and corruption and say he used taxpayers’ money for populist subsidies and easy loans that have bought him the loyalty of millions in the populous north and northeast.

Yingluck has been forced to abandon her offices in Government House by the protesters, who have also blocked major intersections since mid-January.

Bluesky TV, the protest movement’s television channel, had earlier shown protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban addressing police lines near Government House.

“We are not fighting to get power for ourselves,” Suthep said. “The reforms we will set in motion will benefit your children and grandchildren, too. The only enemy of the people is the Thaksin regime.”

Labour Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, who is in charge of the security operation, has said police would reclaim sites near Government House, the Interior Ministry and a government administration complex in north Bangkok as well as the Energy Ministry.

The largest protest sites in the city’s business and shopping districts are not included for now.

(Additional reporting by Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat, Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Prapan Chankaew and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Alex Richardson; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel) nL3N0LN16K

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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