10:59 am - Wednesday May 29, 2024

Thai protest leader asks for military protection

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Bangkok –  Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has asked for the protection of Thailand’s powerful military after a protest leader was shot dead and the besieged government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra signalled a tougher stand against protesters.

As the government’s hold on power has become increasingly precarious, Ms Yingluck’s fugitive brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, has swung his support behind moves to arrest Mr Suthep and other protest leaders, sources in the ruling Pheu Thai party say.

On Sunday, Mr Suthep’s supporters blocked hundreds of thousands of people casting ballots early for next week’s general elections, including using some violence.

“The rights and freedoms of the people are guaranteed under the constitution so we hope the armed forces see this fighting and will protect us,” said Mr Suthep, a former deputy prime minister in a military-backed government.

Hardline government minister Chalerm Yoobamrung has told Mr Suthep, who has been charged with treason, to surrender or face imminent arrest and warned armed bodyguards surrounding him not to resist.

“If any loss happens do not blame the police,” said Mr Chalerm, a former senior police officer.

But the military opposes the government taking a tougher stand against protesters, leaving Mr Chalerm relying on the police to impose any crackdown, Pheu Thai sources say.

Despite the imposition of a state of emergency last week it is unclear whether the police are willing to carry out Mr Chalerm’s orders without military support.

In a country where symbolic gestures are important, army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha last week refused to shake hands with Mr Chalerm after  he was appointed to lead a unit set up to handle the  official response to the crisis that has crippled the government, shut down parts of Bangkok and is dragging down the country’s economy.

The military has also refused to allow Mr Chalerm’s unit to operate from its bases and often, during more than two months of protests, asked police not to use force against protesters.

Military commanders say publicly that they want to stay neutral in the crisis.  The Thai military has staged 18 coups or attempted coups since the 1930s.

In firebrand speeches across Bangkok, Mr Suthep has often praised the military and said his supporters do not trust the police.

“The armed forces are standing by the Thai people,” Mr Suthep said last Friday night. “We have to give them credit.”

The deadly shooting of Sutin Tharatin, a leader of a faction allied with Mr Suthep, has shaken the protest movement.

Video taken by a local resident captured the clash in which Mr Sutin was killed on Sunday and a dozen people were injured.

One group waving red flags, indicating they are pro-government red shirts, confronted Mr Suthep’s protesters near a polling booth. At least five shots were fired.

About 2 million people registered to cast ballots in advanced polling that took place a week before next Sunday’s general election, which may not go ahead. But 440,000 voters were prevented from casting ballots in Bangkok and southern provinces, which are opposition strongholds. Voting went ahead largely unhindered in other parts of the country.

Ms Yingluck is due to meet on Tuesday with the Election Commission, which organises the vote.

Commission members say they believe the election should be delayed because of the turmoil but government ministers say putting it off would be futile if protesters continue to block voters and the main opposition Democrat Party continues to boycott it.

Critics say the commission, which is supposed to be neutral, is taking sides in the conflict by not wanting the election to go ahead. Its commissioners made no public condemnation of the blocking of voters on Sunday, which angered many.

One photograph which went viral on the internet showed a man wanting to vote being choked by protesters.

Human rights groups condemned the blocking of polling stations as a major blow against the country’s democracy.  The United States said it is “deeply troubled” and urged all sides to refrain from violence.  Australia has not directly criticised the protesters for blocking voters.

“Australia encourages all parties to resolve their political differences through peaceful democratic processes and respect for the rule of rule,” the Foreign Affairs Department said. “We deplore the recent incidents of violence in Bangkok and urge restraint by all parties …Thailand has Australia’s goodwill and support as it tries to find ways to settle its political differences.”

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