BANGKOK (TIP): Thousands of royalist protesters fanned out across Thailand’s capital on May 9 to try to bring down a caretaker government after a court threw Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra out of office and an anti-graft agency indicted her for negligence. The interim government is hoping to organise a July 20 election that it would probably win, but the protesters want the government out, the election postponed and reforms to end the influence of Yingluck’s brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, speaking to supporters in a city park, urged them to rally outside parliament, the prime minister’s offices and five television stations to prevent them being used by the government.
“We will sweep the debris of the Thaksin regime out of the country,” said Suthep, a former deputy premier in a government run by the proestablishment Democrat party. Thaksin is vilified by his enemies as a corrupt crony capitalist. But he won the unswerving loyalty of legions of rural and urban poor with populist polices when he was prime minister from 2001 until he was ousted in a 2006 coup. He lives in exile to avoid a 2008 jail sentence for abuse of power but has been the guiding hand behind his sister’s government.
Tens of thousands of his “red shirt” supporters, angered by Yingluck’s ousting, are also on their way to Bangkok for a rally on Saturday. They are clinging to the hope that the interim government will win the July election and bring the Shinawatras’ party back to power.
The prospect of rival protesters in the capital over the weekend has raised fears of trouble. Both sides have armed activists in their ranks. Twenty-five people have been killed since the anti-government protests began in November and more turmoil could further unsettle Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.
Thailand is already teetering on the brink of recession amid weak exports, a year-long slump in industrial output and a drop in tourism, presided over by a caretaker government with curtailed powers. Consumer confidence fell to its lowest level in more than 12 years in April as the crisis took its toll. The anti-graft agency indicted Yingluck for negligence on Thursday – a day after the Constitutional Court threw her out of office – in connection with a rice-subsidy scheme under which the state paid farmers way above market prices for their crops.
The scheme, a flagship policy of Yingluck’s administration, was aimed at helping her rural supporters. But the government could not sell much of the rice it quickly stockpiled and was unable to pay many farmers. “Thaksin’s lackeys have exploited populist policies to win over voters before betraying them,” Suthep told his supporters late on Thursday. “The rice scheme is a clear example of this.”
If Yingluck is found guilty of negligence by the Senate, she could be banned from politics for five years. Several other members of the family and about 150 of Thaksin’s other political allies have been banned for five-year terms since 2007. Yingluck dissolved parliament in December and called a snap election but the main opposition party boycotted it and antigovernment activists disrupted it so much it was declared void.
Yingluck and the Election Commission agreed last week a new ballot should be held on July 20, but the date has not been formally approved. Thaksin or his loyalists have won every election since 2001. The anti-government protesters say Thaksin buys elections. They want to change the electoral rules before new polls to try to stop his party winning again.