Thailand’s government stuck to a plan for a February election on Wednesday despite mounting pressure from protesters who have brought parts of Bangkok to a near standstill, and said it believed support for the leader of the agitation was waning.
Some hardline protesters have threatened to blockade the stock exchange and an air traffic control facility if Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra does not step down by a deadline media said had been set for 8 p.m. (1300 GMT).
The unrest, which flared in early November and escalated this week when demonstrators occupied main intersections of the capital, is the latest chapter in an eight year conflict.
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The country’s political fault line pits the Bangkok-based middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former premier ousted by the military in 2006 who is seen as the power behind her government. Yingluck invited protest leaders and political parties to discuss a proposal to delay the general election, which she has called for Feb. 2, but her opponents snubbed her invitation.
After the meeting, the government said the poll would go ahead as scheduled, and it derided the leader of the protest movement, Suthep Thaugsuban.
“We believe the election will bring the situation back to normal,” Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana told reporters. “We can see that the support of Mr Suthep is declining. When he is doing something against the law, most people do not support that.”
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL ASSURED
Protest leaders say demonstrators will occupy the city’s main arteries until an unelected “people’s council” replaces Yingluck’s administration, which they accuse of corruption and nepotism.
Thaksin’s rural and working-class support has ensured he or his allies have won every election since 2001 and Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party seems certain to win any vote held under present arrangements.
The protesters want to suspend what they say is a democracy commandeered by the self-exiled billionaire Thaksin, whom they accuse of nepotism and corruption, and eradicate the political influence of his family by altering electoral arrangements.
There were no signs of trouble at the two targets named by hardliners in the protest movement – the stock exchange and the central Bangkok offices of AeroThai, which is in charge of air traffic control communication for planes using Thai air space.
AeroThai said it had back-up operations to ensure no disruption to air travel if its control centre was shut down.
“For en-route services AeroThai has set up a back-up centre working parallel to our primary system,” company president Prajak Sajjasophon told Reuters. “We can assure you services will not be affected if protesters force our headquarters to shut down operations.”
Suthep’s supporters have blockaded at least seven big Bangkok intersections and are also trying to stop ministries from functioning, forcing many to remain closed, with civil servants working from back-up facilities or from home.
Yingluck herself has been unable to work from her offices in Government House since late November.
The protests could cost the economy as much as 1 billion baht ($30 million) a day, according to a survey by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.
Demonstrators marched to the home of Energy Minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisal on Wednesday, carrying a coffin with his name on it, ASTV news reported. They handed one of his aides a note demanding that he cut LPG prices and resign, it said.
According to the official Twitter account of National Police spokesman Piya Utayo, an off-duty policeman dressed in civilian clothes was attacked and had his gun taken off him by about 10 protesters at a rally near the Energy Ministry.
“RED SHIRTS” TO STAY OUT OF BANGKOK
The latest protests have been less violent than a spasm of unrest in 2010, when troops were sent in to end a two-month protest in central Bangkok by “red shirt” Thaksin supporters. More than 90 people died during those protests.
Thaksin, who turned to politics after making a fortune in telecommunications, redrew Thailand’s political map by courting rural voters. He now lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence handed down in 2008 for abuse of power.
In this upsurge of unrest there have been relatively few factional clashes. Government supporters said they held protests on Monday and Tuesday in provinces neighbouring Bangkok but had no plans to demonstrate in the city.
“All we ask is that Prime Minister Yingluck does not resign,” said Worawut Wichaidit, spokesman for the pro-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship.
“If (Suthep) and his group achieve their goal … the outcome would be similar to a coup, and we all saw what happened the last time there was a coup,” Worawut said, referring to instability and factional strife in the years that followed the last army takeover.
It is widely thought that, if the agitation grinds on, the judiciary or the military may step in. The military has staged or attempted 18 coups in 81 years of on-off democracy, although it has tried to stay neutral this time and army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has publicly refused to take sides.