Thai protesters look to courts

While protesters have retreated, Thailand’s four-month political crisis looks no closer to a solution.

FILE: Thailand’s four-month political crisis looks no closer to a solution. Picture: AFP.

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 over the weekend after orders from protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, are now banking on judicial intervention from courts 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.

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, demanding faster payments.

Yingluck has been given until 14 March 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 middle-class Bangkokians 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 2 February. 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 2 February, 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. On Monday morning, Yingluck 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 "red shirts" have gathered in Nakhon Ratchasima, northeast of the capital, and some of their leaders have threatened to come down to Bangkok if Yingluck was 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.

Twenty people have been killed in protest-related violence in Bangkok since 30 November and three in eastern Trat province.