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Thai protesters target revenue offices, PM awaits graft ruling

Source: Reuters - Thu, 16 Jan 2014 02:15 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat

BANGKOK, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Protesters in Thailand trying to paralyse ministries to force the government to resign said they would target revenue offices on Thursday, but their numbers appeared to be dwindling and ministers say the movement could be running out of steam.

A state anti-corruption panel is due to give a ruling on Thursday on irregularities in a rice-buying scheme, that the government introduced to support farmers, that could give ammunition to opponents of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The unrest, which flared in November and escalated this week when demonstrators led by former opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban occupied main intersections of the capital, Bangkok, is the latest chapter in an eight-year conflict.

The political fault line pits the Bangkok-based middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former premier ousted by the army in 2006 who is seen as the power behind her government.

Many ministries and state agencies have been closed to avoid confrontation with demonstrators, but the government says operations and services are being maintained by civil servants working at home or from back-up offices.

In a speech at the blockaded Asoke intersection late on Wednesday, Suthep told protesters to target revenue offices, which come under the Finance Ministry, on Thursday.

"Protesters from every area must find out where the nearest revenue office is and close it," he said.

Some hardline activists threatened to blockade the stock exchange and an air traffic control facility on Wednesday if Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra had not stepped down by 8 p.m. (1300 GMT) but they made no move to do that.

The number of people camping out overnight at some of the seven big intersections targeted by Suthep's group appears to have dropped and attempts to block traffic along other roads have become half-hearted.

Yingluck dissolved parliament in December in an attempt to end the protests and set an election for Feb. 2.

On Wednesday she invited protest leaders and political parties to discuss a proposal to push back the election date, but her opponents snubbed her invitation.

After the meeting, the government said the poll would go ahead as scheduled and officials said the protests were losing momentum.

"We believe the election will bring the situation back to normal," Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana told reporters after the meeting. "We can see that the support for Mr Suthep is declining. When he is doing something against the law, most people do not support that."

RICE RULING

Thaksin's rural and working-class support has ensured he or his allies have won every election since 2001 and Yingluck's Puea Thai Party seems certain to win any vote held under present arrangements.

The protesters want to suspend what they say is a democracy commandeered by the self-exiled billionaire Thaksin. They say Thaksin is corrupt and buys election victories and they want to eradicate the political influence of his family by altering electoral arrangements.

On Thursday, a sub-committee of the National Anti-Corruption Commission is due to deliver an opinion on the government's rice intervention scheme, a money-guzzling subsidy programme that has been a lightning rod for government critics.

If corruption is alleged and the panel recommends legal action, there would be implications for Yingluck, who nominally heads the National Rice Committee, although it could take many months for a case to reach court.

In its manifesto for the 2011 election, her Puea Thai Party promised farmers a price for their grain that was way above the market. That made their rice so expensive Thailand lost its position as the world's top rice exporter to India.

Critics say corruption is rife in the scheme and that it has cost the taxpayer as much as 425 billion baht ($12.9 billion), although that figure would drop if the government managed to find buyers for the rice in bulging state stockpiles.

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