World / 27 November 2013, 4:09pm / Amy Sawitta Lefevre
Bangkok - Thousands of Thai demonstrators massed outside four ministries, a major government office complex and 19 provincial halls on Wednesday in an effort to cripple the administration and oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The Department of Special Investigation, the country's equivalent to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, was evacuated as about 2 000 protesters rallying against Yingluck and her influential brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, surrounded a state-agency centre in a Bangkok suburb.
Thailand's central bank unexpectedly cut interest rates by 25 basis points, a move that extended the baht's loss by 0.3 percent to 32.08 against the dollar. Trade data showed the economy remained weak, with exports falling 0.7 percent in October from a year earlier, against expectation.
The bank slashed 2013 economic growth forecast to 3 percent and said political tension was affecting investor confidence, as shown by foreign selling of Thai stocks and bonds.
The demonstrations have been going on for weeks but are expanding and gaining momentum. Five ministries in the capital were evacuated in the past two days and protesters are occupying the Finance Ministry.
On Wednesday, groups of demonstrators gathered in front of the ministries of labour, energy, health and commerce in Bangkok, and according to a senior Interior Ministry official, local government offices in 19 provinces.
The protests are all-too familiar in Thailand, which has seen eight years of on-off turmoil, from crippling street rallies to controversial judicial rulings and army intervention, each time with Thaksin at the centre of the tumult.
Despite fleeing into exile to dodge a jail sentence for abuse of power in 2008, billionaire former telecommunications mogul Thaksin has loomed large over Thai politics.
He won the support of the rural poor who voted him twice into office, in 2001 and 2005, before he was ousted in a 2006 coup. His supporters remain fiercely loyal to him and swept Yingluck to power in an election landslide in 2011.
The anti-government protesters, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a deputy prime minister in the previous government, chanted abuse at the DSI as scores of riot police scrambled to put on helmets and hold up shields as crowds pushed against a low fence. The DSI shares the compound with important government agencies, including tax, revenue, immigration and land departments.
Some employees were seen leaving their offices and joining the demonstrations.
The DSI recently indicted Suthep, and former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, for murder for their alleged role in the deaths of more than 90 people in 2010 when troops crushed protests by Thaksin's supporters.
“This department is supposed to be an independent organisation, but it has not acted neutrally,” said Chattavorn Sangsuwan, 38, a demonstrator and employee at a car firm.
“We will finish off what the coup-makers started in 2006. Their job was not complete, Thaksin's influence is still everywhere. We are here to finish the job.”
Thaksin's opponents are fewer in number than his supporters but hold considerable power and influence, among them wealthy conservatives, top generals, bureaucrats, royalists and many members of the urban middle class.
Many of them see Thaksin as a corrupt, crony capitalist who manipulates the masses with populist handouts and is a threat to the monarchy, which he denies.
The rallies varied in sizes, but their spread across Bangkok and the provinces is likely to rattle Yingluck's government, which is asserting its mandate to rule.
The anti-government campaign started last month after Yingluck's ruling Puea Thai Party tried to pass an amnesty bill that critics said was designed to absolve Thaksin of his 2008 graft conviction.
On Wednesday, about 3 000 people gathered at the Energy Ministry, 700 at the Commerce Ministry and 200 at the Industry Ministry, police said. Provincial rallies ranged from 20 people in Narathiwat to 4 000 in Surat Thani, Suthep's political base. Interior Ministry Permanent Secretary Wiboon Sagnuanpong told Reuters all ministries were still operating.
Most of the 19 provinces where demonstrators had massed are in the south, a traditional stronghold of the opposition Democrat Party, although four were in the north and northeast, where the Shinawatra family is hugely popular.
The target of Wednesday's rallies was to shut down the bureaucracy to wipe out the “political machine of Thaksin”, according to Suthep
The protests, though peaceful, have raised fears of unrest. Anti-government protest leaders, from all sides, have a tradition in Thailand of trying to provoke a violent crackdown by the government to rob it of legitimacy.
Fearing clashes could erupt and further weaken her government, Yingluck said police would keep the peace.
“My government will not use force. This is not the 'Thaksin regime', this is a democratically elected government,” Yingluck told reporters outside parliament, where she is being grilled by opposition lawmakers in a two-day confidence debate. - Reuters