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Bangkok - Protesters trying to topple Thailand's government moved to tighten the blockade around ministries on Tuesday and a hardline faction threatened to storm the stock exchange, while major intersections in the capital Bangkok remained blocked.
The turmoil is the latest chapter in an eight-year conflict pitting the Bangkok-based middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former premier ousted by the military in 2006.
Many ministries and the central bank were forced to work from back-up offices on Monday after protesters led by Suthep Thaugsuban stopped civil servants getting to work.
“We must surround government buildings, closing them in the morning and leaving in the afternoon,” Suthep told supporters late on Monday, urging them to do that every day until Yingluck steps down.
Groups of demonstrators marched peacefully from their seven big protest camps to ministries, the customs office, the planning agency and other state bodies on Tuesday, aiming to paralyse the workings of government.
A student group allied to Suthep's People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has threatened to attack the stock exchange, with faction leader Nitithorn Lamlua telling supporters on Monday it represented “a wicked capitalist system that provided the path for Thaksin to become a billionaire”.
A PDRC spokesman said the bourse was not one its targets.
“We will not lay siege to places that provide services for the general public, including airports, the stock exchange and trains. However, we will block government offices to stop them from functioning,” Akanat Promphan told supporters at a rally.
Jarumporn Chotikasathien, president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand, told Reuters emergency measures had been prepared to secure the premises and trading systems. Trading was normal during the morning, with the index up slightly.
There was no special security visible at the exchange. A Reuters photographer said one group of protesters marched past on their way to the customs department but did not stop.
Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told a televised news conference that the business of government was going ahead, if not in the usual places.
Any disruption to government services would compound the problems faced by Yingluck, who dissolved parliament in December and called a snap election for February. She now heads a caretaker administration that has a limited remit and cannot initiate policies that commit the next government.
Yingluck has worked since Monday from Defence Ministry facilities on the outskirts of Bangkok. Officials said that Tuesday's regular cabinet meeting had been cancelled.
Yingluck invited protest leaders and political parties to a meeting on Wednesday to discuss an Election Commission proposal to postpone the election until May.
However, Suthep has repeatedly said he is not interested in any election. He wants the government to be replaced by an unelected “people's council” that will change the electoral system as part of reforms that will weaken Thaksin's sway.
Thaksin turned to politics after making a fortune in telecommunications. He redrew Thailand's political map by courting rural voters and won back-to-back elections in 2001 and 2005.
He now lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence handed down in 2008 for abuse of power, but he is seen as the power behind Yingluck's government. Their Puea Thai Party seems likely to win any election held under present arrangements.
Seven big intersections remained blocked by the protesters and other roads were blocked off, but no big snarl-ups were reported on roads that were open.
Many schools have been closed from Monday to Wednesday as a precaution in case of trouble, but shops and most private offices were open, even if many shoppers and commuters appeared to be avoiding the city centre for now.
Siam Paragon, a huge upmarket shopping mall near the protesters' main camp, was doing little business.
The government has deployed 10 000 police to maintain law and order, along with 8 000 soldiers at government offices, but they are keeping out of sight.
Ministers have said they want to avoid confrontation, hoping the protest movement will eventually run out of steam. It flared up at the start of November when the government tried to force through a political amnesty that would have allowed Thaksin to return home a free man. - Reuters