BANGKOK — Caretaker Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra returned to the capital, Bangkok, on Wednesday for traditional New Year celebrations in a display of unity alongside military chiefs before a looming showdown with anti-government protesters.
Demonstrators who accuse Yingluck of being the puppet of her self-exiled brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, have vowed to occupy government ministries and other key sites in Bangkok in their bid to scuttle a snap Feb. 2 election.
The protests since late November have pitted the brother and sister’s political machine with its base among the rural poor in the north against Bangkok’s conservative elite.
It has flared into sporadic violence, and army chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha refused to rule out a coup after wild clashes outside an election registration center a week ago. Three people have been killed since Thursday.
Yingluck, who is caretaker leader after calling the snap poll in a bid to defuse the crisis, had spent more than a week outside Bangkok shoring up support in the north but returned to the capital early on Wednesday.
She joined Prayuth and other senior military leaders in paying their respects to retired general Prem Tinsulanonda, the president of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Privy Council. Prayuth’s warning last week was a sobering reminder that the military has staged or attempted 18 coups in 81 years.
In a New Year message aired overnight, Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol urged peace, prosperity and unity among Thais.
“Everyone’s wishes do not seem to be very different, either for their own sake or for the peace of the country,” he said.
Wednesday’s largely ceremonial duties were a prelude to what are shaping as rougher days ahead for Yingluck, whose Puea Thai Party normally would be expected to win the election.
The demonstrators, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, have vowed to derail the ballot and demand instead an appointed “people’s council” before a future vote.
Suthep has vowed to seize ministries and other sites across the capital, Protesters in Bangkok are hoping to “shut down” the city from January 13 in order to scupper plans for a general election, the main opposition Democrat Party has also declared it will boycott the election.
Paradorn Pattanatabut, national security council chief, told Reuters: “The situation has intensified. We may need to call for tougher measures and security agencies have planned for that.”
The shut down may last anything from five to 20 days and will be round the clock. Targets of the shut down are rally sites such as road intersections and the Victory Monument, one of the city’s main transport hubs, as demonstrators attempt to bring gridlock to the centre.
“On Jan 13, no government affairs will be carried out from that day on,” said protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban in a speech reported in the Bangkok Post. He also vowed that victory over the government would be achieved this month.
Thailand’s Electoral Commission has offered to act as a mediator between Puea Thai, the Democrats and the protesters. Commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn said the commission would meet senior members of Puea Thai and the Democrats on Thursday, although he said the protesters had rejected a similar offer.
“I believe that something positive will come out of the meeting and the situation will ease up,” Thai media quoted Somchai as saying.
Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has asked the military to help police enforce law and order if protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban carries out his threat to “shut down” Bangkok.
A Defence Ministry source said the prime minister is worried by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)’s threat and wants the military to intervene.
“It seems the country is in a state of lawlessness. People can do what they want,” the source quoted Ms Yingluck as telling the armed forces leaders at a meeting on Wednesday.
She also asked the army chief to hold talks with Mr Suthep or to help broker another meeting between her and the protest leader, the source added.
Army Commander Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha appeared uneasy about using soldiers to help police, the source said. The army was heavily criticised over its role in the 2010 political violence.
“What can the military do? We can’t disperse the protesters like we did in 2010. Soldiers became the bad guys and ended up being charged,” he was quoted as saying.
The source said Ms Yingluck also asked military leaders if they would be interested in joining a proposed political reform assembly.
While the protests have mainly been in Bangkok, election registration has also been blocked in at least seven provinces in the south, where the protesters and Democrats draw support.
The Prime Minister is clinging on, asserting her democratic mandate from an election landslide in 2011, but protesters backed by Bangkok’s royalist establishment, the opposition Democrat Party and old-money families are demanding she resigns to allow an appointed “people’s council” to take over.