Thai protesters force ministry evacuations to oust gov’t

Thai riot police stand guard outside the parliament as a no-confidence debate takes place inside the chamber in Bangkok on November 26, 2013. Thailand's premier appealed for an end to "mob rule" as she prepared to face a no-confidence debate in parliament after protesters occupied key ministries in a bid to topple her government. AFP PHOTO / PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Pairat Temphairojana ,Reuters

BANGKOK — Thousands of protesters surrounded Thailand’s Interior Ministry and forced the evacuation of four others on Tuesday, intensifying their campaign to bring down the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The demonstrators defied a tough security law imposed late on Monday, after they stormed two other ministries, to control rallies against Yingluck and her billionaire brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Yingluck and her ruling Puea Thai Party began a two-day confidence debate in parliament where they hold a commanding majority. The opposition has accused them of corruption and trying to pass laws to whitewash Thaksin of a graft conviction. Civil servants fled as groups of demonstrators surrounded the interior, agriculture, tourism and transport ministries in blockades that have plunged Thailand into its deepest political uncertainty since it was convulsed by the bloodiest unrest in a generation in 2010. “Getting rid of the Thaksin regime is not easy,” said protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister under the previous government, in an interview with Reuters. The demonstration “might be longer” than the three days originally planned, he said. Thaksin is a former telecommunications tycoon who is hugely popular with poor urban and rural voters who have put him, or his party, into power in every election since 2001. He was ousted in a 2006 military coup that was largely welcomed by Bangkok’s middle class. He has hovered ghost-like over Thai politics since fleeing the country in 2008, accused of undermining the powerful monarchy, breaching conflict-of-interest laws and sentenced in absentia to two years in prison. Though Yingluck is expected to prevail in Thursday’s confidence vote, it is unlikely to defuse a crisis fuelled by anger over the electoral and legislative power the Shinawatra family has long held, and is accused of abusing.

Hero and Villain Thaksin remains a populist hero for many but is reviled by much of the traditional Bangkok elite of generals, royal advisers, middle-class bureaucrats and business leaders who all largely back the opposition Democrat Party. It is uncertain how long the confrontation will go on. Yingluck might, analysts say, seek to bolster her legitimacy by calling an election she would likely win, as Thaksin has done before, but that could be risky. “She would first need to be absolutely sure there were no undemocratic forces preparing to fill the power vacuum that would be created,” said Kan Yuenyong, director of the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank. “Right now, it’s brinkmanship. The other side knows an election would only create another Thaksin government … The best scenario for both sides is negotiations, but the problem is, they don’t trust each other.” After forcing their way inside the Finance Ministry on Monday and bursting through the gates of the Foreign Ministry compound, 3,000 protesters circled the Interior Ministry, some wearing plastic bags to protect them from torrential rain. They pushed up against the compound gates, some peering over a metal fence topped with coils of razor wire and urged dozens of security guards to let them in. The crowd at the ministry dispersed by nightfall and returned to their main protest site in Bangkok’s historic heart. Staff were ordered to leave five ministries in all and protesters led a march towards the heavily barricaded Government House, Yingluck’s offices. After a 15-minute standoff with police, they withdrew. The uncertainty is driving foreign investors out of Thai financial markets, making the baht the second-worst performing emerging Asian currency in November having lost 2.7 percent this month. Thai stocks have retreated about 6 percent.