About 160,000 protesters gather in Bangkok calling for 'people's council' to replace Yingluck Shinawatra's government
Thailand's prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, dissolved parliament on Monday and called a snap election, but anti-government protest leaders pressed ahead with mass demonstrations in Bangkok in an attempt to install an unelected body to run the country.
Police estimated that about 160,000 protesters converged on Yingluck's office at Government House, but there was none of the violence and bloodshed seen before the demonstrations paused last Thursday out of respect for the king's birthday.
The protesters want to oust Yingluck and eradicate the influence of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former premier who was toppled by the military in 2006 and has chosen to live in exile rather than serve a jail term for corruption.
There was a carnival atmosphere as protesters gathered at Government House, with unarmed police and troops inside. In a speech to supporters after nightfall, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said: "From this minute onwards, all Thais have taken power back for the people."
He gave no clues about his next move or how exactly he planned to take over the levers of government. Aware that allies of Yingluck and Thaksin would almost certainly win any election, Suthep has called for a "people's council" of appointed "good people" to replace the government. As such, he dismissed the early election. "The dissolving of parliament is not our aim," he said.
Opposition Democrat party politicians resigned en masse from parliament on Sunday, declaring they were unable to work with Yingluck. The Democrat leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, sidestepped a question on whether his party would take part in the election. "House dissolution is the first step towards solving the problem," he said as he marched with thousands of flag-waving protesters in Bangkok's central business district. "Today, we march. I will walk with the people to Government House."
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, of Kyoto University's centre for south-east Asian studies, said an election in which the main opposition party did not take part would not end the deadlock. "This is only a short-term solution because there is no guarantee that the Democrats will come back and play by the rules," he said. "It seems like Thailand is going nowhere."
In April 2006, amid mass protests, the Democrats refused to contest a snap election called by Thaksin, who was deposed by the military five months later.
Yingluck announced the election in a televised statement. "At this stage, when there are many people opposed to the government from many groups, the best way is to give back the power to the Thai people and hold an election. So the Thai people will decide," she said. The government said the vote would be held on 2 February.
Suthep's campaign opens up the prospect of a minority of people in Thailand dislodging a democratically elected leader, this time without help from the military. The politically powerful army, which has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years, has said it does not want to get involved, although it has tried to mediate.
The protests follow nearly a decade of rivalry between forces aligned with the Bangkok-based establishment and those who support Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon who won huge support in the countryside with pro-poor policies. Thaksin fled Thailand in 2008 to avoid the corruption conviction but is seen as the power behind his sister's government. The protests were sparked last month by the government's attempt to introduce an amnesty that would have expunged his conviction.
The pro-establishment Democrat party has not won an election since 1992. Yingluck's Puea Thai party won the last election, in 2011, by a landslide, enjoying widespread support in the north and north-east, Thailand's poorest regions.
Jarupong Ruangsuwan, the head of Puea Thai, said Thailand's first female prime minister would stand again. "We want the Democrat party to take part in elections and not to play street games," he said.
Somchai Kasemporn, 51, a practitioner of traditional medicine from Bangkok and one of the protesters who marched to Government House, dismissed Yingluck as a lame duck. "The question is: does she even have the legitimacy to dissolve parliament? This is all about a crooked man, Thaksin, who rules for profit and thinks that because he has votes, he is the winner," he said.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said he was concerned that the Democrats had thrown in their lot with the extra-parliamentary movement, and predicted pandemonium if Suthep won the battle.
He also worried about the reaction of the pro-Thaksin redshirts, whose lengthy protests against the Abhisit government in 2010 were put down by the military at the cost of more than 90 lives on both sides. "When they [the government] unleash the wrath of the redshirts, that could signal dark days ahead for Thailand," Thitinan said.
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The protesters, however, vow to carry on protesting until the People’s Council proposed by Suthep Thaugsuban, the former deputy prime minister and protest leader in Bangkok, is set up.
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Democrat party MPs to resign saying legislature is 'no longer accepted by the people' as anti-government protests grow
Thailand's main opposition party has announced that its members are resigning en masse from parliament to protest against a government they claim is illegitimate, a move set to deepen the country's latest political crisis.
Democrat party spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut said his party could not work in the legislature any longer because the body was "no longer accepted by the people".
The Democrats are aligned with anti-government protesters who have staged the country's biggest rallies in years, vowing to overthrow the administration of the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
The Democrats have not won an election since 1992, and protesters are demanding a non-elected people's council lead the country.
Shinawatra's government came to power in a landslide vote in 2011, a ballot that observers said was free and fair.
Thailand has been plagued by political turmoil since Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former premier, was toppled in a 2006 military coup.
At least five people have been killed and 289 injured since the protests began last month.