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Shutdown protest in Bangkok ratchets up risk of violence and coup, ICG warns

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 14 Jan 2014 07:00 AM
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Anti-government protesters take part in a rally outside the Labour Ministry in Bangkok, on Jan. 14, 2014. Protesters trying to topple Thailand's government said they would tighten the blockade around ministries on Tuesday and a hardline faction threatened to storm the stock exchange, while many major intersections in the capital Bangkok remained blocked. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
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BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As protesters trying to topple Thailand’s government and derail Feb. 2 elections continue day two of blockades at major intersections in the capital Bangkok, the prospect of “widespread political violence” is rising and scope for peaceful resolution narrowing, the International Crisis Group warned.

The rallies are the latest chapter in an eight-year conflict between the mainly Bangkok-based middle class and traditional sources of authority including the royalist establishment, and the mostly rural supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother Thaksin, the self-exiled former premier who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

The blockade which began Monday forced employees from several ministries as well as the central bank to work from back-up offices, and many schools were shut. A student group allied to protesters led by Suthep Thaugsuban, former secretary-general of the opposition Democrat Party, has threatened to attack the stock exchange.

“As anti-government protesters intensify actions, the risk of violence across wide swathes of the country is growing and significant,” ICG said in a conflict alert Monday evening.

While anti-government protests in the past two months have been mostly peaceful, demonstrators have also occupied government buildings, attacked pro-government Red Shirt activists, disrupted election registration and occasionally clashed with police.

“At least eight people have been killed and more than 450 injured in protest-related violence,” ICG said. “There is immediate risk of violence designed to instigate a coup.”

Thailand has seen 18 successful and attempted coups since 1932, but the army has never intervened on behalf of a Thaksin-aligned government, according to the ICG.

NO CLEAR WAY OUT

The latest protests gained momentum in early November after Yingluck's government tried to push through a political amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home a free man.

It would also have absolved ex-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy, Suthep, for ordering the 2010 military crackdown on pro-Thaksin Red Shirt protesters in Bangkok that killed more than 90.

In December, Yingluck dissolved parliament and called a snap election for February, but Suthep and his People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) say they are not interested in any election, which Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party is almost sure to win. The Democrats, Thailand’s oldest political party, has not won an election in 21 years.

PDRC instead is calling for an unelected “people’s council” made up of 100 “good people” whom PDRC would appoint and 300 others chosen as functional representatives.

ICG noted that there is “no obvious route to a peaceful resolution that does not respect the voice of a majority of voters”, and imposition of an appointed government without consent of the electorate would invite violence.

“There is no clear way out. But there are ways to render a bad situation potentially catastrophic,” it said. “Denying the chance to vote is one. So is the propensity of some leaders to achieve by mass action – often violent – what they cannot by popular mandate or negotiation.”

While Thailand needs to confront how it is governed, these issues should be discussed nationally and “take place in parallel to and beyond, not in place of, the constitutionally-required electoral process,” ICG said.

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