Thai protest leader slain

LITMUS TEST::Yesterday’s advance voting for those who cannot cast their vote this weekend was seen as a test of whether Sunday’s vote can be held peacefully


Mon, Jan 27, 2014 - Page 5

A Thai anti-government protest leader was shot dead yesterday as demonstrators besieged polling stations in Bangkok and forced most to close, hampering advance voting for next weekend’s disputed election.

More than 2 million people are registered for advance voting before Sunday’s election, which was called by Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to try to defuse rising political tensions after weeks of mass anti-government protests.

Protesters descended on scores of polling stations in the Thai capital and several southern provinces, stopping ballot officials from entering and prompting election authorities to shut at least 45 venues.

As the disrupted polls closed yesterday afternoon a leader of the anti-government rallies was gunned down while he gave a speech from the back of pick-up truck in a Bangkok suburb.

Nine other people were injured in the shooting, according to the city’s Erawan emergency center, with the violence deepening doubts over the viability of next weekend’s ballot.

“The government has failed to provide any safety and security for anybody today despite the emergency decree,” protest spokesman Akanat Promphan said, referring to a Thai government order empowering police to control protests.

Akanat accused a “pro-government mob” of carrying out the attack that killed Suthin Tharathin — a leader of the Dharma Army, a Buddhist organization, which has been prominent in the demos.

Suthin was the 10th person to be killed during nearly three months of rallies.

Yesterday’s blockade of polls denied the franchise to thousands of registered voters and flouted the Thai government-imposed state of emergency.

Away from the capital voting went ahead in 66 of the country’s 76 provinces, including the ruling party’s heartlands in the north and northeast, he said.

Yingluck, who has so far refused to resign or delay the poll, is set to meet elections officials tomorrow after the Thai Constitutional Court ruled that the general election could legally be delayed because of the crisis.

While the protest augurs badly for this weekend’s general election, Yingluck is likely to press on with the ballot regardless, according to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan’s Kyoto University.

“I don’t think it will increase pressure on her to postpone it ... she wants to boost her government’s legitimacy with a quick election,” Pavin added.

Demonstrators had insisted they would not obstruct advance voters, although analysts have questioned whether the disruption is tantamount to intimidation of the electorate.

Advance voting is routinely offered for those who cannot cast their ballot on polling day, but yesterday’s exercise was seen as a test of the prospects of holding this weekend’s vote peacefully.

At a Bangkok polling station frustrated voters said the poll closure amounted to an assault on their democratic freedoms.

“I came to protect my rights,” 75-year-old Vipa Yoteepitak said. “If we don’t fight today [to vote], we will keep losing our rights.”