Thai protesters vow to seize state offices nationwide, escalating political crisis

26 November 2013 2:01 PM

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BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra fought a two-front political war Tuesday, fending off attacks during a parliamentary no-confidence debate while protesters besieged and occupied several ministries in their attempt to topple her from power.

Protest leaders threatened to extend the battlefield to government offices in provincial areas, while police issued an arrest warrant for protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former opposition lawmaker who led the storming of the Finance Ministry a day earlier.

Police said Suthep would not be arrested at the rally as part of a pledge to avoid clashes with demonstrators. A spokesman for the protesters promised that they would not seize Bangkok's airports, which anti-Thaksin activists did in 2008, shutting down air travel to the capital for a week.

But the situation remained volatile, as thousands of demonstrators fanned out to new targets in Bangkok, emboldened by their takeover of the Finance Ministry, where Suthep and hundreds of protesters camped overnight. The transport, agriculture and tourism ministries were also closed Tuesday because of their proximity to protests.

Demonstrators surrounded the Interior Ministry and then cut electricity and water to pressure people inside to leave. Security personnel locked themselves behind the ministry's gates, with employees still inside.

Protesters say they want Yingluck, who took office in 2011, to step down amid claims her government is controlled by her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006.

Thaksin has lived in self-imposed exile for the past five years to avoid a two-year prison sentence on a corruption conviction.

On Sunday, more than 100,000 demonstrators took to Bangkok's streets, uniting against what they call the "Thaksin regime."

What started a month ago as a campaign against a political amnesty bill has morphed into a wider anti-government movement. Protest leaders now say their ultimate goal is to uproot the Shinawatra network from Thai politics, with no explanation of what that means.

The occupation of the ministry offices has raised fears of violence and worries that Thailand is entering a new period of political instability. They also recall previous protests against Thaksin and his allies in 2008, when demonstrators occupied and shut down the prime minister's offices for three months.

The protesters appeared to have converted the Finance Ministry into a headquarters, and declared Tuesday a "rest day" as they erected tents in the parking lot.

"Tomorrow there will be a nationwide movement," Akanat Promphan, a protest spokesman, told reporters inside the emptied ministry. He said the aim is to paralyze government operations by seizing offices and state agencies so they cannot be "used as a mechanism for the Thaksin regime."

There was no immediate sign the call would be heeded. The anti-Thaksin movement is strongest in Bangkok and the country's south, and Thaksin's many supporters might well challenge actions in other areas, raising another prospect for violence.

Separately on Tuesday, the opposition Democrat Party, which is spearheading the protests, launched a parliamentary no-confidence debate against Yingluck. They accused her administration of corruption and called her an incompetent puppet whose brother pulled the strings. The vote has no chance of unseating Yingluck as her ruling Pheu Thai party controls the House of Representatives.

Yingluck has vowed not to use violence to stop the protests but expanded special security laws late Monday to cover the entire capital. The Internal Security Act was already in place for three districts of Bangkok since August, when there were early signs of political unrest. It authorizes officials to impose curfews, seal off roads, restrict access to buildings and ban the use of electronic devices in designated areas.

The anti-government campaign started last month after the ruling party tried to pass an amnesty bill that critics said was designed to absolve Thaksin and others of politically related offences. The Senate rejected the bill in a bid to end the protests, but the rallies have gained momentum.

Thaksin's supporters and opponents have battled for power since he was toppled in 2006 following street protests accusing him of corruption and disrespect for the country's constitutional monarch.

The battle for power has sometimes led to bloodshed. About 90 people were killed in 2010 when Thaksin's "Red Shirt" supporters occupied parts of central Bangkok for weeks before the government, led then by the current opposition, sent the military to crack down.

The protesters' takeover of government offices has drawn criticism from the European Union, which issued a statement on Tuesday calling upon "all concerned to avoid escalation and to resolve differences through peaceful means."


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