Thai protesters retreat but crisis 'not over'

2014-03-01 13:12
(Indranil Mukherjee, AFP)

(Indranil Mukherjee, AFP)

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Bangkok - Tensions eased in Thailand's strife-hit capital Saturday after protesters abandoned their attempted "shutdown" of Bangkok, but the move was seen as only a temporary reprieve for the kingdom's embattled premier.

The surprise retreat by the opposition demonstrators, who will dismantle many of their barricades, raised hopes of a decline in street violence that has left 23 people dead and hundreds wounded in recent weeks.

There have been increasingly frequent gunfire and grenade attacks targeting the protest sites, mostly at night.

The anti-government movement vowed to keep up its wider campaign, while experts said Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's position remained precarious.

An anti-corruption panel is pressing negligence charges against Yingluck that could lead to her removal from office and a five-year ban from politics.

"The protesters themselves could never oust Yingluck from office. Only the courts or a military coup could do that," said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University.

"Most probably judicial intervention will fell the Yingluck government and it is likely to happen in March," he said, adding that a military coup remains another possibility.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban announced on stage late Friday that the anti-government movement would abandon its blockade of key road intersections in Bangkok after nearly seven weeks of traffic chaos.

The movement denied the retreat marked a defeat, saying it would keep up its struggle to overthrow a government that it sees as corrupt.

"Our Bangkok shutdown campaign has succeeded. The government is now in disarray and we have got support from the masses," rally spokesman Akanat Promphan told AFP.

From Monday the protesters will consolidate into a single base in the city's Lumpini Park.

The move "does not necessarily spell the end of the protests or represent a setback for the [demonstrators] as long as they continue on their ways and objectives of overthrowing and taking over government", said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"At the same time, they would be hard pressed to generate again the kind of numbers that they had previously," he added.

The retreat follows a recent warning from army commander-in-chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha that the country could sink into civil war unless the two sides pull back.

Military on sidelines

"The government is weakened but the protesters did not achieve their core goals," said Thailand-based author and scholar David Streckfuss.

"From the beginning they had two strategies - either a general uprising or a coup d'etat that would somehow give them a say in the military government that followed. But the military didn't take the bait."

In contrast to the peak of the rallies , when tens or even hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Bangkok, most sites are now nearly deserted for much of the day with a few thousand people attending in the evenings.

"I don't know how long the protests will last but we will try to convince them to negotiate," National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabut told AFP.

The anti-government movement wants Yingluck to step aside in favour of an unelected "people's council" to introduce vaguely defined reforms such as tackling alleged corruption.

The protesters obstructed voting in a general election on 2 February, plunging the country into political limbo. Election re-runs are due to be held on Sunday in five of the affected provinces.

Some experts believe that behind the scenes a fight is playing out to decide who will be in charge of the country when 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej's more than six-decade reign eventually ends.

The backdrop is a nearly decade-long struggle between a royalist establishment - backed by the judiciary and the military - and Yingluck's billionaire family, which has traditionally enjoyed strong support in the northern half of Thailand.

It is the "last gasp" of a political system that has traditionally favoured the country's privileged establishment, said Streckfuss.

"The elite can continue but if they tie their wagons to this system, which many people feel does need to change, is this the way they want to go down? I wouldn't think so," he said.

The government's Red Shirt supporters, whose own street protests in 2010 triggered a deadly military crackdown that left dozens dead, has warned they are ready to rise up if Yingluck's administration is toppled by the military or the judiciary.

"Any of the scenarios that remove the caretaker government will be opposed in principle by millions and actively by hundreds of thousands I think," Streckfuss said.

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