Tensions rise in Thailand ahead of PM’s rally

BANGKOK - Bomb squads were deployed in central Bangkok on Thursday ahead of an election rally by Thailand’s prime minister at the site of clashes between troops and anti-government protesters last year in which dozens of people were killed.

By (Reuters)

Published: Thu 23 Jun 2011, 4:07 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 10:42 PM

The rally by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat Party in the upmarket Ratchaprasong shopping district is seen as the first real test of whether the July 3 election will go smoothly or trigger a new round of unrest in Thailand’s six-year political crisis.

The Democrats’ choice of venue is controversial, especially as Abhisit has promised to use the occasion to give new details on who was responsible for the 91 deaths in April-May clashes last year between Thaksin Shinawatra “red shirt” supporters and the army.

The Democrats are trying to revive their flagging campaign by discrediting the opposition Puea Thai, the party led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, that is racing ahead in opinion polls.

Puea Thai is campaigning for a general amnesty for political offences but critics say that is designed to let Thaksin come home from his self-imposed exile in Dubai, without serving a two-year jail term for graft, and reclaim assets seized by the courts.

Thaksin told Reuters last week he hoped to return by December to attend the wedding of his eldest daughter.

“Clearly, Thaksin has his amnesty in mind, otherwise he cannot return as he has announced,” Abhisit said in a televised debate on Thursday. “I do not agree with the issue of amnesty, an amnesty for fraud and corruption. I will not return the 46 billion Thai baht in confiscated assets.”

Thaksin has retained a huge following among the rural and urban lower classes because of healthcare and other policies that improved their lives when he was in power from 2001-2006.

But the military and royalist establishment are staunchly opposed.

Thailand’s army chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha, warned during a recent televised address of the existence of threats to the revered monarchy and urged voters to elect “good people”, comments widely interpreted as a swipe at Puea Thai.

On Tuesday, the anti-Thaksin “yellow shirt” protest group — best known for seizing Bangkok’s two airports in 2008 — launched its opening salvo against Puea Thai, urging the election watchdog to disband the party for its links to Thaksin.

On the same day, two prominent anti-Thaksin figures linked to the yellow shirts filed a complaint with state investigators claiming Yingluck had committed perjury in testimony she gave in the asset-concealment case involving her brother.

Coordinated attacks

“I suspect these new moves have support from people in high places who cannot allow Thaksin to return,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political analyst at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

“They see from what the opinion polls show that this is becoming more of a reality and separate groups are cooperating in launching these different attacks.”

It is too soon to tell whether the yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), led by a motley collection of businessmen, academics and royalists, has the capacity to hold mass street protests if Puea Thai forms a government.

Although its support has declined significantly since it turned against Prime Minister Abhisit last year, analysts say the Thaksin factor could be enough to fire the movement up.

“The PAD has seen setbacks but it’s premature to write it off as a spent force,” said Varakorn Samakoses, rector of Bangkok’s Dhurakij Pundit University, adding there was still time “for something to happen or for public sentiment to shift”.

The red shirts remain a potent extra-parliamentary force and have designated hundreds of “red villages” in the north and northeast that some believe may help them mobilise quickly if Puea Thai wins most seats but is unable to form a government.

Puea Thai has told its supporters to avoid Ability’s rally, convinced that thugs disguised as red shirts have been hired to cause unrest.

Security forces appear braced for trouble before or after the election. A seminar was held on Wednesday to brief more than 100 police and army commanders on crowd control under a state of emergency and the existence of paramilitary threats.

Citing intelligence reports, a senior police colonel said some 300 militants had received combat training in neighbouring Cambodia and cash rewards had been offered for those carrying out grenade attacks on government installations.

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