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January 12, 2014

Thai Protesters Begin 'Shutdown' of Bangkok

by Ron Corben

Thai opposition protesters have begun their attempted shutdown of the capital city of Bangkok, occupying key intersections in the downtown area and bringing in sandbags, tents and food in preparation for a prolonged standoff. Police estimated the the turnout in the morning at 31,300, but that number is likely to grow in the evening.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban spent most of the afternoon marching from one protest site to another, collecting donations and posing for pictures with demonstrators.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has called on security forces to exercise restraint as anti-government protesters converge on the capital city. The so-called "Bangkok shutdown" is aimed at forcing the prime minister from office and delaying elections set for February 2. Authorities are deploying 18,000 troops and police to protect government buildings and keep demonstrations peaceful. Police are expected to allow protesters to shut down key roads in the city of 10 million people.

Thai Foreign Minister and a deputy government leader, Surapong Tovichakchaikul, told a news conference Sunday that the prime minister wanted security forces to keep the situation calm while trying to limit the impact on business and tourism. In the afternoon, Surapong confirmed that the government would not be declaring a state of emergency in resoponse to the protests.

Prime Minister Yingluck has ordered all police and military personnel to exercise utmost restraint and not to use all kinds of weapons in handling the protesters - the police and military personnel will use only shields and batons and perform their duties according to international standards, said Surapong.

Since demonstrations erupted late last year, at least nine people have died and hundreds have been injured in protest related violence. Police have used tear gas and water cannons to keep protesters from occupying some government buildings. On Saturday, Thailand's army chief expressed concern about possible violence and urged all sides to avoid conflict.

The situation has also drawn the attention of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who called for dialogue.

Suthep rejected appeals for talks in an interview published Sunday, but said he would back down if the standoff grew into a confrontation that threatened civil war. Speaking to The Nation newspaper, the former lawmaker also said he does not want a military coup.

The situation has led to fears of a repeat of Bangkok's violence in 2010, when more than 90 people died and hundreds were injured in the country's worst political violence in decades.

The latest protests were triggered when Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party passed an amnesty bill that would have cleared former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives overseas, of corruption charges. The bill was later annulled by the Senate but protests continued. In a bid to stem the political pressure Yingluck dissolved the government and called for general elections for February 2.

The Election Commission has repeatedly expressed concern over the upcoming polls, warning that instability and the success of protesters in blocking candidates from registering in 28 districts threatens the vote.

On Sunday the Election Commission proposed to the government that it postpone the vote until May 4. But Commerce Minister Niwatthumrong Boonsonpaison said by law it was the election commission's responsibility to oversee the elections, not the government.

"We have no choice. We have to do things according to the law and in an election it is not the duty of the government, the election commission has that duty by law -- so if they want to delay or something they would have to initiate," he said.

People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has rejected even a postponed election, instead calling for formation of a non-elected council to oversee political reforms before holding new polls.

Business leader and economists are warning the prolonged siege could cost the economy $1.3 billion with consumption falling sharply and concerns over investment and tourism.

More than 40 embassies have issued travel warnings to their nationals over concerns the impact the protests will have on foreign residents and travelers.

In downtown Sukhumvit Road, which is a focal point of the protests, visitor Jonathan Caskey from the United States said the concerns over Monday's protests led him to change his travel plans.

"There's just uncertainty and so we've asked people and it seems things have been peaceful but there's no way of knowing the future and so we thought - why not just go down to the beach where we know things will be fine down there, whereas it could be uncertain in Bangkok," he said.

Thailand's army has launched 18 coups or attempted coups since the end of absolute monarchy rule in 1932, but generals have largely stayed on the sidelines of the current conflict.