Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators massed peacefully across Thailand’s capital on Sunday in their latest bid to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra before a February election the main opposition party will boycott.
Yingluck has called a snap poll for Feb 2 to try to cool tension and renew her mandate, but protesters reject any election until the implementation of vague reforms ostensibly aimed at weakening the influence of the Shinawatra family.
Meanwhile, more than twenty people were wounded - four seriously - when a car bomb went off near a hotel in the far south of Thailand, a local governor said Sunday. The blast occurred in front of a hotel in the Sadao district of Songkhla province, an area rarely targeted by insurgents fighting for a level of autonomy for Thailand’s southernmost provinces which have a Malay Muslim majority.
Thailand remains in an all-too-familiar deadlock after eight years of on-off conflict broadly between supporters and opponents of Yingluck’s self-exiled tycoon brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, whose populist political machine has won every election since 2001.
Chanting “Yingluck, get out”, whistle-blowing protesters gathered at locations around the city and set up stages in at least four places, bringing traffic to a halt at three main intersections and in two commercial districts.
“I hate Yingluck and I want to get rid of her because she does everything for her brother, not for Thai people,” said Chaloey Thanapaisan, a 75-year-old protester.
Among the main protagonists in Thailand’s turmoil is a Bangkok establishment with influence among judges and generals and which backs protests against governments controlled by Thaksin, who they see as a tax-dodging crony capitalist who enriches his family and his network of business friends.
Thailand’s near-term future became more uncertain on Saturday when the opposition Democrat Party announced it would boycott the election, saying the democratic system had been distorted by Thaksin and was failing Thais.
The boycott adds to concern that forces allied with the Democrats would try to scuttle an election that is otherwise likely to return Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party to power. Hundreds surrounded Yingluck’s house on Sunday and demanded she quit. Yingluck, now caretaker premier, was not in Bangkok and has been visiting the northeast, her party’s stronghold.
Firebrand protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat heavyweight, was feted like a rock star while he gave speeches on stages across the city, renewing his calls for an appointed “people’s council”. His campaign is less about policies and more about ridding Thailand of both Yingluck and Thaksin.
“Today, we have shut down Bangkok for a half day. If Yingluck remains in office, next time we will shut Bangkok down again for the whole day. We will fight until we win, we will not back down,” Suthep told tens of thousands of demonstrators.
Yingluck had enjoyed a smooth two years in office but that unravelled in November when Puea Thai tried to push through an amnesty bill that would have nullified Thaksin’s 2008 graft conviction, allowing him to return home from Dubai. It proved to be a political miscalculation by her party.
Questions remain about how the protesters can remove Yingluck when the rallies, which have attracted as many as 160,000 people, have remained largely peaceful and have failed to stop her government from functioning.
Sathit Wongnongtoey, a Democrat party member, said the rallies would end by nightfall and demonstrators would return to their base in the city’s historic quarter.
“We just marched to show our strong intention to oust Yingluck,” he told Reuters. “We don’t want to cause violence.”
Suthep has asked for the heavily politicised military that overthrew Thaksin in a 2006 coup to intervene on their behalf, but the top brass has so far refused to step in.
Thailand’s Election Commission had suggested the poll could be delayed, fearing it could be marred by violence, but on Friday it ruled out a postponement. Registration for candidates is due to start on Monday.
The Democrats boycotted an election called during similar protests in 2006, when Thaksin tried to renew his mandate. His party won in a landslide, but the result was annulled on a technicality and he was later overthrown in a coup.