By Thanyarat Doksone And Todd Pitman Associated Press
BANGKOK — Anti-government protesters seized key intersections across Thailand’s capital on Monday, blockading major roads into the heart of Bangkok’s downtown districts at the start of a renewed push to derail elections next month and overthrow the prime minister.
The protesters vowed to “shut down” the city of 12 million people, but life continued normally in most places, with the majority of businesses and shops open.
The intensified protests were peaceful and even festive, as vast swarms of people blew whistles, waved Thai flags and spread out tents and picnic mats at seven key crossroads where demonstrators wearing bandanas and sunglasses turned cars back.
Still, the protests raise the stakes in a long-running crisis that has killed at least eight people in the last two months and fueled fears of more bloodshed to come and a possible army coup. The army commander has said he doesn’t want to be drawn into the conflict, which broadly pits the urban middle and upper class opponents of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra against her supporters in the poorer northern countryside.
The demonstrators, who accuse the government of corruption, have vowed to stay in the streets for as long as it takes to achieve their goals. They are demanding that Yingluck’s administration be replaced by a non-elected “people’s council” which would implement reforms they say are needed to end corruption and money politics. The main opposition party is boycotting Feb. 2 elections that Yingluck has called in a bid to ease tension — and which she would almost certainly win.
Critics have lashed out at the moves as a power struggle aimed at bringing the Southeast Asian nation’s fragile democracy to a halt. Candlelight vigils have been held to counter the shutdown and urge the election be held.
Yingluck said she has proposed to meet Wednesday with various groups — including her opponents — to discuss a proposal from the Election Commission to postpone the elections, according to Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana.
There was no immediate response from demonstrators, but protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said, “you cannot mediate with this undertaking, you cannot compromise with this undertaking. In this undertaking, there’s only win or lose … today, we must cleanse Thailand.”
The International Crisis Group think tank said the “scope for peaceful resolution is narrowing.”
“If the sides can agree on the need to avoid violence and for a national dialogue built on a shared agenda, a solution might just possibly be found,” the group said. “It is a slim reed on which to float hopes, but in Bangkok there is little else available.”
The United States said Monday its ambassador and officials are engaged with “the full range of interested parties to encourage dialogue and a peaceful, democratic, political resolution.” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. is urging all sides to refrain from violence, and applauds the restraint shown so far by government authorities.
Since Yingluck assumed the premiership after 2011 elections, she has walked a careful tightrope with the army and her opponents that succeeded in maintaining political calm. The trigger for the latest protests was an ill-advised move late last year by ruling party lawmakers to push through a bill under the guise of a reconciliation measure offering a legal amnesty for political offenders. The last-minute inclusion of Thaksin led to public outrage and the bill was voted down.
Since then, demonstrators have steadily escalated pressure on Yingluck, attacking her office at Government House and the city’s police headquarters for several days in December with slingshots and homemade rocket launchers.
There are fears the protesters are trying to incite violence to prompt the military to intervene, and Yingluck has dealt softly with the demonstrators in a bid to keep the situation calm. There was no effort by police to stop Monday’s seizure of major traffic intersections.
The country’s powerful army commander has repeatedly said he wants to stay out of the conflict, but in a sign of apparent impatience late last month, he refused to rule out the possibility of a military takeover.
The real target of the protesters’ wrath is Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction but still wields considerable sway over Thai politics. They accuse Yingluck of being Thaksin’s puppet, but the rural poor like him for the populist policies he implemented, including virtually free health care.
“I’m here to get rid of Thaksin and his cronies,” said Darunee Suredechakul, a 49-year-old Bangkok native and resort owner who is staying in a hotel so she and her daughter can join the protests. “The government has to go. Reforms must be carried out. This is mainly because we don’t want to see the same old corrupted politicians returning to power over and over again.”
While she acknowledged the street blockades must be creating some headaches for people, “Bangkok residents must be patient until we move past this point so that our children will not have to suffer like we do. Trust me. It’s worth it,” she said.
Most Thai and international schools in Bangkok were closed Monday, as was at least one major shopping mall.
Enterprising residents set up makeshift booths to sell drinks, skewers of chicken and bowls of noodles, while others hawked whistles, caps and T-shirts.
But van operator Wanida Jantawong complained that she was getting only a fourth of her normal business due to the shutdown.
“There’s one lane that remained open for our vans to run, but there are no customers,” she said.
Overnight, one demonstrator was shot in the neck at a protest site in unclear circumstances that appeared to have started with a brawl, according to the city’s emergency medical services, said police Col. Wittaya Khongthong.
In a separate incident early Monday, a gunman fired about 10 shots at the headquarters of the opposition Democrat Party, shattering several windows but causing no casualties, said Police Maj. Nartnarit Rattanaburi.