Thai opposition protesters gear up for new mass rally

AFP, BANGKOK

Mon, Dec 23, 2013 - Page 1

Tens of thousands of Thai protesters massed ahead of a major rally yesterday aimed at ousting the premier, paralyzing central Bangkok a day after the main opposition party declared a boycott of snap polls.

At least 110,000 people had gathered at several sites across Bangkok by late yesterday afternoon, officials said.

Earlier, several thousand people — mainly women — gathered outside Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s suburban house amid tight security, according to a reporter at the scene, although the premier was traveling outside the capital.

Blowing whistles — the symbol of the weeks-long protests — and waving Thai flags, the crowd chanted: “Yingluck get out.”

The embattled prime minister, who was forced to dissolve the house early this month after the Democrat Party resigned en masse from parliament, is in the northeast of the country, the heartland of her ruling party.

Thailand has lurched deeper into crisis despite Yingluck’s scheduling of new elections on Feb. 2.

Demonstrators want to rid Thailand of Yingluck and the influence of her Dubai-based brother Thaksin — an ousted billionaire ex-premier who is despised by a coalition of the southern Thai poor, Bangkok middle classes and elite.

Firebrand protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who has vowed to destroy the “Thaksin regime,” dismisses Yingluck’s call for an election, saying it will install another Thaksin-allied government.

Instead the self-proclaimed People’s Democratic Reform Committee is calling for an unelected “people’s council” to be installed to oversee sweeping, but loosely-defined reforms before new elections in about a year to 18 months.

“People want reform before an election,” he said to rapturous applause at a stage near Bangkok’s largest shopping mall.

“Today we closed Bangkok for half a day. If the government doesn’t resign we will close Bangkok for a whole day... If it still does not resign we will close it for a month,” he said.

Analysts say Suthep’s bid is backed by powerful behind-the-scenes forces in a country which has seen 18 successful or attempted coups since 1932.

His movement was bolstered on Saturday by the Democrats’ announcement of a poll boycott.

The move dismayed the prime minister who said elections must take place to secure Thailand’s fragile democracy.

“If we don’t hold on to the democratic system, what should we hold on to?” she told reporters yesterday.

Opposition protesters began to converge at the protest base at Democracy Monument for the main rally due early yesterday evening.

Suthep led a boisterous march of several thousand people to Bangkok’s main commercial district, as demonstrators blocked traffic at several points — including at a symbolic intersection occupied by rival “Red Shirts” in 2010 pro-Thaksin rallies which ended in bloodshed.

Suthep, then deputy prime minister for the Democrat Party, faces murder charges over the crackdown which left scores dead.

Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva — who has also been indicted for murder over the crackdown — on Saturday said his party would boycott February polls.