Northern Red Shirts Converge on Bangkok
BANGKOK – Supporters of Thailand’s beleaguered prime minister are holding a major rally Saturday on the outskirts of Bangkok, a move aimed at countering months of anti-government protests and an increasing spate of legal challenges that could bring down Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration.
The last time pro-government “Red Shirts” gathered en masse at a stadium in the capital in November, shooting broke out nearby and five people were killed.
The Red Shirts have avoided rallying in Bangkok since then to avert bloodshed, and Saturday’s rally is being held dozens of kilometres (miles) from downtown, on the western edge of the sprawling metropolis, for the same reason.
Thailand has been shaken by more than five months of anti-government protests that snowballed after the ruling party tried to ram an amnesty bill through Parliament that would have allowed Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra to return from self-imposed exile and avoid serving a jail sentence for corruption.
Thaksin, a billionaire former prime minister who now lives in Dubai, was overthrown by the army in a 2006 coup after being accused of abuse of power. His ouster triggered a political fight between his supporters and opponents that has continued ever since and is now focused on removing Yingluck, who took office in 2011 after a landslide vote that was deemed free and fair.
Although the number of anti-government protesters in Bangkok has dwindled dramatically in recent weeks, Yingluck and her government remain highly vulnerable to legal threats, which her supporters say have intensified since street protests failed to unseat her.
Most analysts predict her administration will eventually fall in a “judicial coup,” because Thailand’s courts and independent state agencies are widely seen as biased against Thaksin’s political machine. There are fears that if that happens, violence will follow as Yingluck’s backers react.
Earlier this week in the northeastern province of Udon Thani, about 1,000 Red Shirt members took part in a martial arts training that organizers said was intended was aimed at protecting democracy and the elected government.
Since November, 24 people, including three children, have been killed in protest-related violence.
On Wednesday, Thailand’s constitutional Court announced it will hear a case accusing her of misconduct for transferring her National Security Council chief in 2011 to another position in a conflict of interest. The court ordered Yingluck to present her defence within 15 days. If she is found guilty of interfering in state affairs for her personal benefit or that of her political party, Yingluck would have to step down.
Two days earlier in a separate case under consideration by the National Anti-Corruption Commission, Yingluck defended herself against charges of dereliction of duty in overseeing a contentious rice subsidy program. If the case goes forward, it could lead to her suspension and eventual impeachment by the Senate.
Yingluck is currently serving as a caretaker prime minister whose powers were automatically reduced when she called February elections dissolved the lower house of Parliament. That move was meant to ease the political crisis, but it only intensified and although elections were held, the poll was annulled last month by the constitutional Court.
No date has been set for a new vote, and Yingluck’s opponents hope that a failure to form a new government will spark a constitutional crisis, allowing them to invoke vaguely defined clauses in the charter and have an unelected prime minister installed.