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Wednesday 21 March 2018

Thai PM urges protesters to quit

Anti-government protesters wave a banner and Thai national flags as they rally outside the Government complex in Bangkok.
Anti-government protesters wave a banner and Thai national flags as they rally outside the Government complex in Bangkok.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, right, with Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, after the no-confidence vote. (AP)

Thailand's prime minister has begged protesters to call off their anti-government demonstrations and negotiate an end to the nation's latest crisis.

Yingluck Shinawatra issued the plea even as she easily defeated a no-confidence vote pushed by her opponents, who are heavily outnumbered in Parliament but have taken to the streets to demand not only her removal but changes that would make the country less democratic.

"Please call off the protests for the country's peace," said Ms Yingluck, who is facing the biggest challenge to her rule since taking office in 2011. "I'm begging you ... because this doesn't make the situation any better," she said just before the no-confidence vote on Thursday.

Protesters, most sympathetic to the opposition Democrat Party, have taken over or occupied several ministry buildings, which Ms Yingluck said failed to shut down the government but had created the potential for violence.

She has been extremely reluctant to use force to evict the protesters for fear of escalating the conflict and sparking bloodshed, which would harm investor confidence and the lucrative tourism industry.

On Thursday, hordes of demonstrators gathered around police headquarters in the centre of Bangkok, and went so far as to cut off water and power lines to the compound. Lines of helmeted riot police with shields remained holed up inside, but did nothing to stop them.

The protests are led by former Democrat Party MP Suthep Thaugsuban, who has already rejected negotiations.

His followers have vowed to bring down Ms Yingluck's government, accusing her of being a puppet of her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister and billionaire tycoon who was ousted in a 2006 military coup.

They also refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the elections that brought her to power, claiming that her Pheu Thai party won a landslide victory with Mr Thaksin's money power.

Mr Suthep says his goal is to replace Ms Yingluck's government with a non-elected council - an apparent call for less democracy, not more. He says the change is necessary to uproot the Shinawatra political machine from Thai politics.

Mr Thaksin, who lives in Dubai to avoid serving a jail term for a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated, is a highly polarising figure in Thailand. So much so, that an ill-advised bid to push a general amnesty law through parliament - which would have paved the way for his return - sparked the latest wave of protests earlier this month.

On Sunday, more than 100,000 people rallied in Bangkok against the government. The numbers have since dwindled, and a few thousand now occupy the Ministry of Finance and other offices.

Ms Yingluck played down the protests, saying "the seizing of the ministries is symbolic, but in reality, we can still work ... the bureaucracy can still run".

Before Mr Thaksin was toppled in a coup - allegedly for corruption, abuse of power and insulting the nation's revered king - he won over Thailand's rural underclass by introducing populist policies designed to benefit the poor. His political movement grew to become the most successful in modern Thai history.

But his opponents, largely members of the urban middle class and elite, saw him as a threat to democracy and their own privileges, and they have fought back hard.

Since taking office, Ms Yingluck has managed a fragile detente with the same military that toppled her brother, while facing other major crises like the floods that ravaged the country in 2011, the worst in half a century.

Mr Suthep was deputy prime minister in an administration that cracked down on pro-Thaksin demonstrators who flooded Bangkok's most upmarket quarter in 2010 and occupied it for two months. Those protests ended with more than 90 people dead and 2,000 wounded, many of them after a military sweep dispersed the crowds.


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