Thai opposition protesters start Bangkok ‘shutdown’


Tue, Jan 14, 2014 - Page 1

Tens of thousands of opposition protesters occupied major streets in central Bangkok yesterday in an attempted “shutdown” of the capital, escalating a campaign to unseat embattled Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The demonstrators want Shinawatra to resign to make way for an unelected “people’s council” that would oversee reforms to curb the political dominance of her billionaire family and tackle a wider culture of money politics.

Thousands of flag-waving protesters massed at key intersections in the city, setting up rally stages along with tents for sleeping and stalls offering free food.

The well-organized protest movement has vowed to occupy parts of the capital until Yingluck quits, threatening to disrupt an election next month, which it fears will only return the Shinawatra clan to power.

“This is a people’s revolution,” said firebrand protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, an opposition party heavyweight who faces a murder charge over a deadly crackdown on political rallies in 2010, when he was deputy premier.

In the eyes of the protesters, Yingluck is “no longer prime minister,” he told reporters while leading a huge crowd of marching supporters through the capital.

A hardcore faction of the movement has threatened to besiege the stock exchange and even air traffic control if Yingluck does not quit within days.

“It’s going to be very volatile,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat and associate professor at Japan’s Kyoto University.

“In a way, there is no turning back for the protesters — they have come too far,” he added.

The government said it would invite all sides to a meeting tomorrow to discuss the election commission’s proposal to postpone the Feb. 2 election, although it looks unlikely to agree to the demonstrators’ demand for a delay of at least a year.

Within hours of launching the shutdown, the movement succeeded in bringing widespread disruption to Bangkok’s central retail and hotel districts, large swathes of which were taken over by whistle-blowing demonstrators.

Many schools were closed and some residents stockpiled food and water, but the city of about 12 million people did not grind to a complete halt.

The city’s subway and skytrains were running as usual, shops and restaurants were open and demonstrators promised to leave a lane unblocked at each major intersection to allow ambulances and buses to pass.

While there was the usual Thai carnival atmosphere, protests in the kingdom have a history of suddenly turning bloody.