Thai protesters pin hopes on winning support from security forces

As anti-government movement grows, former prime minister is indicted on murder charges for 2010 protest crackdown

A protester at a rally outside Government House, the office of the prime minister, in Bangkok on Wednesday.
Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Anti-government protesters in Thailand pinned their hopes on winning support from the powerful security forces on Thursday to move forward a campaign to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and install an unelected administration. 

A small group of anti-government protesters climbed over the walls into the grounds of the prime minister's office on Thursday, but quickly left after they moved aside internal barricades, a Reuters reporter said. The protesters said they wanted the police to withdraw from Government House. Riot police in the area held their positions, and there was no confrontation.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a firebrand veteran politician, has asked police and military chiefs to meet him by Thursday evening and choose their side in the latest crisis engulfing Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.

The politically powerful army has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years — including the ousting of Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2006 — but has said it does not want to get involved this time, although it may mediate.

The latest crisis in an eight-year on-and-off political conflict again centers on Thaksin, with protesters viewing Yingluck as her brother's puppet. Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile. He was convicted of graft in absentia in 2008, but he dismissed the charges as politically motivated.

Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, courted rural voters to win back-to-back elections in 2001 and 2005 and gain an unassailable mandate that he allegedly used to advance the interests of major companies, including his own.

His opponents are Thailand's royalist elite and establishment, who felt threatened by his rise. Trade unions and academics see him as a corrupt rights abuser, and members of the urban middle class resent, as they see it, their taxes being used as his political war chest.

Yingluck was forced on Monday to call an early election for Feb. 2, as 160,000 protesters massed around her office. But the protesters have rejected the ballot. They want an unelected "people's council" to run the country and say Yingluck and her ministers should step down now.

'Thailand would still go on'

"If a plane crashed with the whole Cabinet in it and they all died, Thailand would still go on," protest leader Suthep told supporters on Wednesday.

Thaksin's supporters have said they would weigh in to defend Yingluck if Suthep seemed poised to overthrow her. On Wednesday, pro-Thaksin leader Jatuporn Promphan promised to mobilize crowds that dwarfed the recent anti-government protests.

Thaksin's "red shirt" supporters brought central Bangkok to a halt for weeks in April and May 2010 in protests aimed at forcing then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call early elections.

Those protests were put down by the military. More than 90 people, mostly Thaksin supporters, died over the two months of protests. Abhisit and Suthep (who was a deputy prime minister in Abhisit's government) have been charged with murder related to those events. Suthep was in charge of a crisis control center that authorized "live fire" zones.

On Thursday, Abhisit was formally indicted on murder charges for the 2010 crackdown. Suthep did not appear at court for the indictment hearing, but his lawyer, according to The Wall Street Journal, was expected to ask the court to postpone his appearance, as he was busy spearheading the current protests.

Suthep's campaign to oust Yingluck has been strong on rhetoric but has failed to stop the government from functioning. Missed deadlines for Yingluck to resign have become the norm for a protest movement that has openly courted anarchy on Bangkok streets in the hope of inducing a military coup or judicial intervention that, as in the past, might disband Thaksin-allied parties or ban their leaders from politics.


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