BANGKOK– Thailand will deploy thousands of police officers and has invoked a special security law for an anti-government rally Saturday that is expected to be the largest since Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took office in 2011 and that officials fear could turn violent.
Authorities expect tens of thousands of protesters, a turnout that would serve as a sharp reminder of the deep political divisions in the country despite two years of relative calm.
Yingluck on Friday accused the protesters of seeking to overthrow her elected government.
The demonstration is being organized by a royalist group calling itself “Pitak Siam” — or “Protect Thailand” — at Bangkok’s Royal Plaza, a public space near Parliament that has been used by protesters in the past.
While the group is a newcomer to Thailand’s protest scene, it is linked to the well-known “Yellow Shirt” protesters, whose rallies led to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s overthrow. The same movement later toppled a Thaksin-allied elected government after occupying and shutting down Bangkok’s two airports for a week in 2008.
Thaksin, who is the brother of current prime minister Yingluck, remains a divisive figure in Thai politics. The Yellow Shirts and their allies say he is personally corrupt and accuse him of seeking to undermine the popular constitutional monarch — a charge Thaksin denies.
Yingluck is taking Saturday’s rally seriously. Her Cabinet invoked the Internal Security Act on Thursday in three Bangkok districts around the protest site, and she later addressed the nation to explain the move, citing concerns of violence.
In a nationally televised address, Yingluck said protest leaders “seek to overthrow an elected government and democratic rule … and there is evidence that violence may be used to achieve those ends.”
The security act allows authorities to close roads, impose curfews and ban use of electronic devices in designated areas. Measures began taking effect Thursday night, with police closing roads around Yingluck’s office, the Government House, and placing extra security at the homes of senior officials, including the prime minister.
National police chief spokesman Maj. Gen. Piya Uthayo said Friday that nearly 17,000 police officers had been called in from around the country to provide security for the rally.
The new protest group’s leader is retired army Gen. Boonlert Kaewprasit, who is best known for his role as president of the Thailand Boxing Association. His name is unfamiliar in the anti-Thaksin protest movement but his message appears to have resonated with Yellow Shirt supporters who have laid low in recent years after Yingluck’s party won the last elections.
Analysts said they did not view the protest as an immediate threat to Yingluck’s government but were watching it closely.
“Anytime you have tens of thousands of people converging, assembling in a central Bangkok location, it becomes a government stability concern,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
But, he added: “I think it’s a serious concern more than a serious threat.”
Thailand has been gripped by bouts of political instability since 2006, with Thaksin’s supporters and opponents taking turns to spar over who has the right to rule the country.
The most violent episode came in 2010, when Thaksin’s “Red Shirt” supporters led a two-month occupation of central Bangkok to demand the resignation of an anti-Thaksin government. The protests sparked a military crackdown that left at least 91 people dead and more than 1,700 injured.
Thaksin has lived in self-imposed exile since 2008 when he jumped bail to evade a corruption conviction and two-year jail term. He retains huge popularity among the rural poor, who want to see him pardoned and returned to power. But he is reviled by the urban elite and educated middle class, who see him as authoritarian and a threat to the monarchy.
Buoyed by Thaksin’s political machine, Yingluck was elected by a landslide victory in August 2011. She initially was criticized for her lack of political experience — she was an executive in Shinawatra family businesses — but has won praise for leading the country through one of its longest peaceful periods in recent years.
Following is the official text of the televised speech to the nation by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra Thursday night on invoking the Internal Security Act. The text was provided by Government House.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s Public Announcement on Thailand
My fellow Thai citizens,
I wish to inform you of the reasons behind the Government’s decision to announce the use of the Internal Security Act BE 2551 (2008) (ISA) in three districts of Bangkok, namely Phra Nakorn, Pomprab Sattrupai, and Dusit, and the setting up of. the “Law and Order Administrative Centre” under the command of the Commissioner-General of the Royal Thai Police. The ISA will be effective from 22 to 30 November 2012.
I would like to emphasise that the Government fully adhere to the democratic system of government with the monarchy as Head of State. The Government believes in freedom of expression and is convinced that the Parliament is the place for the people’s representatives to settle differences in viewpoints and resolve political conflicts. This is the appropriate channel in accordance with democratic rule. The Parliament also has the duty of monitoring the work of the Government, as demonstrated by the no-confidence motion that will take place in the next few days. On my part, I stand ready to listen to the diversity of view and offer my explanations in accordance with the democratic parliamentary system.
I became Prime Minister through free and fair elections by the people, under the democratic process with the monarchy as Head of State. I maintain that all the decisions that I and the Government have made, have been and will be in the best interests of the Thai people. It is my duty to protect the revered institutions of the nation, religion, and the monarchy.
Being a democracy nevertheless, is not only about exercising ones’ freedoms. The rule of law must also be observed and obeyed. Our society can co-exist only if there are rules and boundaries for the exercise of rights and freedoms. By exercising these rights and freedom, it must not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others. Indeed, it is our common duty to protect our democracy so that it is not threatened by those who prefer otherwise.
Public gatherings and protests, especially those arising from public grievances, is provided for and protected by the Constitution. But such public gatherings must be peaceful, without the use of weapons, and within the boundaries of the law. I am ready to listen to any ideas and proposals, and to work together to solve any problems.
But if a large number of people is mobilized by incitement, led by those who seek to overthrow an elected government and democratic rule – which is against the Constitution – and there is evidence that violence may be used to achieve those ends, then this is a case of national security. It is the government’s duty to preserve law and order, protect the lives and property of everyone – including those who are protesting and those who are not involved.
But most importantly, the government must protect the democratic system under the constitutional monarchy. This is the reason behind today’s Cabinet decision.
The measures that have been put in place in accordance with the law are to pre-empt and prevent any situations in a most timely and effective manner. The operations center is set up to ensure an integrated and coordinated approach among all agencies involved, should there arise any incidents that may threaten the wellbeing of civilians in any particular area. The measures and mechanisms to control the exercise of authorities will reflect the intensity of the situation. These measures are to be discontinued as soon as the situation improves.
Lastly, I wish to reiterate that, since I have been elected and inaugurated as the Prime Minister last year, I have remained committed to restoring peace and stability in Thailand. It is my firm belief that reducing political conflicts and promoting national reconciliation are vital to economic development and to enhance the lives of all Thais, regardless of their race, religion, social status, or political stance.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for the opportunity that you have given me over the past year. I am also grateful for all the support and encouragement that has been provided to me. I would like to pledge that I will not be discouraged and will continue to work to the best of my ability, as I intended and promised to all my fellow citizens.