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Thai army to bolster security ahead of polls

A Thai pro-election activist holds candles as activists rally in support of an upcoming election at a park in downtown Bangkok on January 30, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/Christophe ARCHAMBAULT)

BANGKOK: Thailand’s army will increase the number of troops in the capital ahead of Sunday’s elections, it said Thursday, as the government warned it might not be able to contain violence if anti-government protesters try to stop people voting.

The protesters, members of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, say they will disrupt the ballot as part of their campaign to overthrow premier Yingluck Shinawatra.

The government’s decision to press ahead with the elections has inflamed tension in the capital, Bangkok, where the protesters have blockaded main intersections and forced many ministries to close their doors this month.

“In addition to the 5,000 soldiers we have already deployed in and around Bangkok to help monitor security, we will be increasing troops around protest sites as there are people trying to instigate violence,” army spokesman Winthai Suvaree told Reuters.

About 10,000 police personnel would be responsible for Bangkok security Sunday and the troops would be on standby.

Labor Minister Chalerm Yoombamrung, in charge of a state of emergency imposed last week, urged the protesters not to disrupt the vote.

“If the PDRC do that, people will beat each other to a pulp and nobody can control a situation like that,” he told reporters. “The police and soldiers don’t have enough manpower to take care of [security] at every polling station.”

Demonstrators took to the streets in November in the latest chapter of an eight-year political conflict that pits Bangkok’s middle class and southern Thais against the mostly poor, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the army in 2006.

The protesters accuse Yingluck of being a puppet of former telecoms tycoon Thaksin, a man they say is a corrupt crony capitalist who has bought elections over the past decade with costly populist giveaways.

Thaksin went into self-exile in 2008, shortly before he was sentenced to jail on graft charges he says were politically motivated.

Ten people have been killed and at least 577 have been injured in politically related violence since Nov. 30 according to the Erawan Medical Center, which monitors Bangkok hospitals.

A protest leader was killed and about a dozen people were injured in a clash near a polling station during advance voting Sunday in Bangkok. The protesters prevented early voting in many parts of the capital and the south.

The violence is the worst since 2010 when current protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, at the time a deputy prime minister, sent in troops to end demonstrations by pro-Thaksin activists.

Suthep faces murder charges related to his role in that crackdown, when more than 90 people were killed,and for insurrection in leading the latest protests which are also taking their toll on Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.

Consumer confidence fell for the ninth month in December, hitting a two-year low and the central bank said last week the economy may grow only 3 percent this year rather than the 4 percent it had forecast.

Tourist arrivals have been hit in the peak season and huge infrastructure projects have been put on hold.

“If the political crisis is prolonged, it’s likely that cement demand from public investments will be negative. This should drag down overall growth,” Kan Trakulhoon, chief executive at Siam Cement Pcl, said Thursday.

Thailand’s top cement producer said demand had grown only 2 percent since the beginning of the year compared with growth of 6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013.

Toyota Motor Corp., one of Thailand’s biggest foreign investors, said it hoped for a quick solution to the political crisis.

“The region is like the Detroit of Asia and many makers are exporting from there too,” Toyota President Akio Toyoda told reporters. “We hope that the situation will be resolved as soon as possible so that the global impact will be limited.”

Thailand is the region’s biggest car-making hub.

Suthep led a march in the capital under a blazing tropical sun Thursday, the start of a three-day push to demonstrate opposition to the vote and rustle up support for its cause.

He wants political reforms before elections are held, with the aim of eradicating the influence of Thaksin and his family. They have not said how they would do this.

Shop and office workers cheered on the marchers, numbering between 2,000 and 3,000 according to a Reuters estimate, offering food, drinks and money.

Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party is expected to win the election comfortably with the main opposition Democrat Party boycotting the vote.

However, not enough candidates have been able to register to provide a quorum for parliament to elect a new government after the elections.

By-elections will have to be held to fill the vacant seats, which could leave the country without a properly functioning government for months.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 31, 2014, on page 10.

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