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Bangkok Braces for Renewed Conflict

  • Ron Corben
  • VOA News

An anti-government protester waves a national flag in front of riot police officers and soldiers guarding the entrance of the National Broadcast Services of Thailand (NBT) television station in Bangkok, May 9, 2014.

An anti-government protester waves a national flag in front of riot police officers and soldiers guarding the entrance of the National Broadcast Services of Thailand (NBT) television station in Bangkok, May 9, 2014.

Thailand’s anti-government protesters celebrated the court-ordered removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra this week and returned to the capital Friday in a campaign to force the entire government to resign.

In downtown Bangkok, where many are bracing for violence as pro-government supporters prepare to rally on Saturday, anti-government protesters blocked several key roads as they celebrated Yingluck's departure.

Earlier in the day, Thai riot police used tear gas to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters who took to the streets following Wednesday's Thai Constitutional Court ruling to remove Yingluck and nine of her cabinet members from power. Thailand's Anti-Corruption Commission added to Yingluck's woes on Thursday, ruling that there is enough evidence to indict Yingluck in a controversial rice subsidy program that her critics say was riddled with corruption and wasted billions of dollars.

The case will now proceed to the Senate, where Yingluck will face an impeachment vote that could see her receive a five-year ban from politics. She has been replaced as caretaker prime minister by Commerce Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan, who is a close ally of Yingluck and her influential brother, ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The rulings send Thailand deeper into a prolonged political deadlock that pits the mostly rural and poor supporters of Thaksin and Yingluck against the mostly middle class opposition, many of whom are not satisfied with Yingluck's departure alone, since much of her government remains in place. They called for a "final offensive" in the form of Friday's mass protest.

Speaking to supporters in a city park on Friday, opposition protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban urged supporters to rally outside parliament, the prime minister's offices and five television stations, to prevent them from being used by the government.

Lhienthong Thisopha, a 72-year-old retired army officer, says he supports the rallies to end the influence of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin, a billionaire and divisive figure in Thai politics whose parties have won every national election since 2001.

"Even though Ms. Yingluck has been forced from office, the remainder of the government remains, much like a tree," Lhienthong said.

Protesters are still pressing to replace the government with an unelected council that would put in place far-reaching political reforms before the next election, now scheduled for July.

Samarn Lertwongrath, a senior member of the governing Pheu Thai Party member, says even if protesters delay the July vote, elections are likely before the end of the year because of the toll the standoff is taking on the economy.

"I myself believe that maybe they will prolong the election," Samarn said. "But anyhow, there has to be an election within a year — they have no choice because all the businessmen have to push everything to solve the problem and [anti-government protest leader] Suthep Thaugsuban must be responsible for the bad situation in the economy."

Thailand’s economy has faltered since the protests began late last year. The economy grew about 2.9 percent in 2013, but could be worse this year with falling tourist arrivals, an expensive and controversial rice purchasing plan, and reluctance from foreign investors to expand at a time of uncertainty.

According to Thanavath Phonvichai, director of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, the unfolding political circumstances complicate any prevailing economic projections.

"Maybe this year the Thai economy will grow about zero to 2 percent, depending on the political situation," Thanavath said. "Maybe if Red Shirt and Yellow shirt — if we have something [that] gets into a violent situation — it's not good for the Thai economy, for Thai people and businessmen. [It] will slow down their activity and they don't want to invest anything. So it's quite hard to predict."

Thai military and police are reported to be stepping up efforts to prevent outbreaks of violence as pro-government supporters threaten to descend on Bangkok in coming days.

Thai police say a grenade was thrown early Thursday at the home of one of the judges of the country's Constitutional Court.

Police say no one was injured in the early morning attack, though the grenade did cause minor damage to a roof and a vehicle at the judge's Bangkok home. A bank and hospital were also damaged by grenades overnight.

Thailand's power struggle over the past six months has already claimed the lives of more than 20 people and left dozens injured.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.
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