Thai protesters seeking to topple PM clash again with police

Reuters

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai protesters took to the streets on Monday to renew their fight to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, prompting riot police to fire teargas and stun grenades for a second day outside her fortified office compound to keep them at bay.

The protesters had set Sunday as "Victory Day" to oust the government but failed to achieve their goal of seizing Government House or any other state agencies in the capital.

The violence is the latest dramatic turn in a conflict pitting Bangkok's urban middle class and royalist elite against the mostly poor, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist former prime minister ousted in a 2006 military coup.

Reuters reporters saw a crowd of around 2,000 gathering near barricades erected by the authorities to stop them approaching Government House. The demonstrators managed to dismantle some on Chaimaruchet Bridge, a main intersection, on Sunday and they were preparing to take down more.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said he met Yingluck late on Sunday but insisted there were no negotiations to end the worst political crisis since bloody unrest in 2010.

"I told Yingluck that if police put down their weapons, we will welcome them as they are also Thai," he told supporters later. "I told Yingluck that this will be our only meeting and we will not meet again until the people win."

The meeting, he said, was arranged by the military, a powerful institution that has publicly taken sides against Thaksin-allied governments in previous political crises but which has expressed neutrality in the current conflict. More than 90 people were killed in 2010 when troops crushed protests by Thaksin's supporters.

There was no immediate comment from the government On the meeting.

Thai financial markets were weak relative to other markets in Asia, and the baht currency slid slightly against the U.S. dollar.

The baht has weakened 3 percent since early November and the benchmark stock index has fallen 5.8 percent in the past month. Bank of Thailand was intervening heavily to stabilize the currency on Monday, traders said, as it has been in the past few weeks.

The cost of insuring financial exposure to Thailand via credit default swaps (CDS) has also crept up in recent weeks. But currency analysts said a lot of the current political uncertainty and risk was already priced in.

Any real capital exodus would begin only when the political situation risked becoming a debilitating factor weighing on tourism, exports and therefore the economy, they said.

Yingluck, Thailand's first female prime minister, had called for talks to end the protests, which have been joined by the opposition Democrats, Thailand's oldest political party.

The Democrats have not won an election in more than two decades and have lost every national vote for the past 13 years to Thaksin or his allies. Suthep, 64, was a deputy prime minister in the Democrat-led government that lost power to Yingluck in a general election in 2011.

Suthep has set a Tuesday deadline for Yingluck, 46, to step aside and repeated his call for civil servants to go on strike on Monday. "Stop working for the Thaksin regime and come out and protest," he said.

It was unclear how many had stayed away from work. The government has urged people in Bangkok, a metropolis of 10 million, to stay indoors from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., and traffic appeared lighter than normal during the rush hour.

Officials at the Commerce Ministry said it would release inflation figures on Monday as planned.

"TOOLS OF THE REGIME"

"Government workers are still tools of the Thaksin regime. Today we have to take care of this so that civil servants will stop serving Thaksin. They can do this by stopping work," Akanat Promphan, Suthep's stepson and a spokesman for the Civil Movement for Democracy protest group, said on Monday.

Protesters went to state television stations on Sunday and got them to agree to broadcast Suthep's speeches live.

"We did not set out to intimidate the media yesterday but we urged them to broadcast the correct news," Akanat said.

Some big shopping malls in Bangkok closed as a precaution on Sunday but were reopening on Monday.

However, several major universities announced they would close on Monday, citing the safety of students.

Three people died at the weekend, including a student and a "red shirt" government supporter. At least 59 people were injured during a night of violence on Saturday in an area to the east of the city where the "red shirts" were rallying in a sports stadium near a university.

Another 54 people were injured on Sunday, mostly through inhaling teargas, but there were no further deaths, according to the government's emergency medical service.

The protesters occupied a government complex and the Finance Ministry last week. Police spokesman Piya Utayo said on Sunday that troops were being sent to retake those buildings but no move had been made by mid-morning on Monday.

Thaksin, who won over poor rural and urban voters with populist policies, was convicted in absentia of graft in 2008. He dismisses the charges as politically motivated and remains in close touch with the government from his self-imposed exile, sometimes holding meetings with Yingluck's cabinet by webcam.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat and Aubrey Belford; Writing by Jason Szep and Alan Raybould; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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