Thai protesters target revenue offices
The unrest escalated this week when demonstrators occupied main intersections of the capital.
BANGKOK - 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."
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 DISTURBED
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.
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.
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 $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.
Yingluck dissolved parliament in December in an attempt to end the protests and she set an election for 2 February.
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.