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Thai protesters target revenue offices, govt awaits graft ruling

Source: Reuters - Thu, 16 Jan 2014 07:38 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Protesters reject snap election, want government out now

* Their main aim is to eradicate influence of ex-PM Thaksin

* PM Yingluck says protests running out of steam

* Finance minister says disruption will cut GDP growth

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Andrew R.C. Marshall

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

A state anti-corruption panel is due to give a ruling later in the day on a rice-buying scheme introduced to support farmers, a money-guzzling subsidy programme that has been a lightning rod for government critics, and that could give new ammunition to opponents of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The unrest flared in November and escalated this week when demonstrators led by former opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban occupied main intersections of the capital, Bangkok.

The turmoil is the latest episode in an eight-year conflict that pits Bangkok's middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The protesters want to suspend what they say is a fragile democracy destabilised by Thaksin, whom they accuse of nepotism and corruption. They want to eradicate the political influence of his family by altering electoral arrangements in ways they have not spelt out, along with other political reforms.

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.

Around 500 protesters marched from their camp in Lumpini Park to government revenue offices in the area. A handful of protesters went in to talk with officials at each site and some said they wanted to freeze Yingluck's salary.

However, 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.

"People see that the requests of the protesters are impossible under the (law) and constitution," Yingluck told Reuters. "That's why the number of supporters is getting less."

She was speaking as she left her temporary offices at a Ministry of Defence facility in northern Bangkok, heading for a "reform forum" at a nearby air force base.

"That's the best way for Thailand, to have a dialogue," she said. "Whatever we don't agree on (and) the conflicts of the past can be solved under the reform forum."

Army spokesman Winthai Suwaree said some troops had been deployed from Wednesday, patrolling protest areas or helping at medical tents.

The security forces have largely kept out of sight since the blockades began this week, with the government keen to avoid any confrontation with the protesters.

TOURISM, EXPORTS DISRUPTED

Many ministries and state agencies have been closed for the same reason, but the government says operations and services are being maintained by civil servants working at home or from back-up offices.

The protesters have set up one camp at a huge government administrative complex in the north of the capital.

Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said the issue of passports had been affected.

"In the past, the Consular Department at the Government Complex was able to issue 4,000 passports a day but now that protesters have closed the office for four days, 16,000 people have been unable to collect their new passports," he said.

The unrest is also having an effect on the economy. Finance Minister Kittirat Na Ranong said it might only grow 3 percent this year rather than the forecast 4.5 percent because of disruption to manufacturing, exports, consumption and tourism.

On Thursday, a sub-committee of the National Anti-Corruption Commission is due to deliver an opinion on the government's rice intervention scheme.

If corruption is suspected and the panel recommends legal action, there could 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, Puea Thai promised farmers a price for their grain that was way above the market price. That made their rice so expensive Thailand lost its position as the world's top 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 state stockpiles.

Some hardline activists had threatened to blockade the stock exchange and an air traffic control facility if Yingluck had not stepped down by Wednesday, but they have made no move.

The executive vice-president of the bourse, Bordin Unakul, said many employees were working from home or in back-up offices as a precaution, with less than 100 out of about 700 working in the headquarters to look after trading systems.

The stock market was operating normally and the main index was up 1.53 percent at 0738 GMT.

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

On Wednesday she invited protest leaders and political parties to discuss a proposal to push back election day, but her opponents stayed away. The date has been maintained.

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