Anti-government protesters yesterday seized key intersections across Thailand’s capital, blockading major roads into the heart of Bangkok 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.
However, the protests raise the stakes in a long-running crisis that has seen at least eight people killed in the last two months and fuelled fears of more bloodshed to come.
A possible army coup has been mooted, though the army’s commander-in-chief 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.
However, in a sign of apparent impatience late last month, he refused to rule out the possibility of a military takeover.
The demonstrators, who accuse the government of corruption, are demanding that Ms Yingluck’s administration be replaced by an unelected “people’s council” which would implement reforms they say are needed to end corruption in politics.
The main opposition party is boycotting 2 February elections that Ms Yingluck has called in a bid to ease tension – which she would almost certainly win.
Critics have lashed out at the moves as a power struggle aimed at bringing the Asian nation’s fragile democracy to a halt.
Ms Yingluck said she has offered to meet on 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.
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 … we must cleanse Thailand.”
The International Crisis Group said the “scope for peaceful resolution is narrowing.”
The think-tank said: “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.
“It is a slim reed on which to float hopes, but in Bangkok there is little else available.”
The trigger for the latest protests was an ill-advised move late last year by ruling party MPs to push through a bill under the guise of a reconciliation measure offering a legal amnesty for political offenders. The last-minute inclusion of her brother, exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra led to public outrage and the bill was voted down.
Since then, demonstrators have steadily escalated pressure on Ms Yingluck, attacking her office at Government House and the city’s police headquarters in December with slingshots and home-made rocket-launchers.
Ms Yingluck has dealt softly with the demonstrators in an effort to keep the situation calm. There was no effort by police to stop yesterday’s seizure of major traffic intersections.
The real target of the protesters’ wrath is Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid prison for a corruption conviction but still wields considerable sway over Thai politics.
“I’m here to get rid of Thaksin and his cronies,” said Darunee Suredechakul, 49.
“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.”