BANGKOK: Anti-government protesters in Thailand have retreated to a central Bangkok park, freeing up traffic after blocking big intersections for more than a month, but Thailand’s four-month political crisis looks no closer to a solution.
The protesters, who moved to Lumpini Park on the weekend after orders from their leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, are banking on judicial intervention from courts widely seen as hostile to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to bring down her government.
“Bangkokians are able to go to work more easily but the state of play in Thailand has not changed since protesters scaled back,” said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “He (Suthep) realises that the fate of the government won’t be determined by his group but lies in the hands of independent organisations - the anti-corruption body and the courts.”
Demonstrators seeking to overthrow Yingluck took to the streets in November and have since blockaded ministries, occupied government offices and, in January, set up camp at major traffic intersections in Bangkok.
They want Yingluck to resign to make way for an appointed “people’s council” to overhaul a political system they say has been taken hostage by her billionaire brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Although tension has eased on the streets, there was a reminder of the danger when two grenades were thrown at a Bangkok criminal court on Monday, although only one exploded and no injuries were reported, police said.
Critics have accused the criminal court of siding with demonstrators after it rejected several government requests for arrest warrants to be issued for certain protest leaders.
Yingluck faces several legal challenges, the most significant being negligence charges for mishandling a disastrous rice subsidy scheme. The scheme paid farmers above the market price and has run out of funds, prompting farmers - normally the prime minister’s biggest supporters - to demonstrate in Bangkok.
Hundreds of farmers joined anti-government protesters led by Buddhist monk Luang Pu Buddha Issara in a rally at the Finance Ministry on Monday to demand payment but they dispersed later.
Yingluck has been given until March 14 by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to defend herself. It will then decide whether there is a case to pursue. “It seems likely she will be found guilty,” said Kan Yuenyong, an analyst at the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank.
“At that point, she will have to suspend her duties if the case goes to court. The endgame that protesters are hoping for is a way to suspend the whole cabinet so that an interim, so-called neutral, prime minister can be elected,” Kan said. The confrontation broadly pits Bangkok’s middle-class and southern Thais against supporters of Thaksin and Yingluck who mostly hail from the poorer, rural north and northeast. The protesters rejected and disrupted a snap election called by Yingluck for Feb. 2, when her party almost certainly won the most votes. Fresh elections were held in five provinces on Sunday and passed off peacefully.
But there is still no date set for elections in nine southern provinces where there was no voting on Feb. 2, meaning it is still impossible to get a quorum to open parliament, elect a prime minister and get a government with full powers. Yingluck heads a caretaker administration with only limited spending and borrowing powers, which has complicated the rice scheme problems and other aspects of government business. She has kept away from the capital for much of the past two weeks but on Monday she went to the Centre for Maintaining Peace and Order, the body set up to oversee a state of emergency imposed in January.
She spent several days last week in the north, a stronghold of the “red shirt” movement loyal to her brother Thaksin.
Thousands of Thaksin’s supporters have gathered in Nakhon Ratchasima, northeast of the capital, and some of their leaders have threatened to come to Bangkok if Yingluck is removed from power, adding to fears of civil strife.
“The red shirt mobilisation is extremely worrying. They really see this situation as the work of the elite who are trying to undermine their democratic rights,” analyst Kan said.
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