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Bangkok braces for protest shutdown as election looms (+video)

Protesters marched in Bangkok in preparation for a anti-government shutdown. Security forces are mobilizing to prevent clashes in the run-up to a controversial election. 

By Chelsea SheasleyStaff writer / January 9, 2014

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban greets his supporters as he leads thousands of anti-government demonstrators marching in Bangkok today. Protesters trying to topple Thailand's prime minister marched in Bangkok again, testing support for a planned "shutdown" of the capital next week, and a survey showed consumer confidence slumped last month because of the crisis.

Damir Sagolj / Reuters

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Chelsea Sheasley is the Monitor's Asia Editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine.

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Anti-government protesters in Thailand are getting ready for a day of action next week that they say will see the Thai capital shut down. But what are they doing and can they really bring Bangkok to its knees?

Thai protesters marched in Bangkok today to rally support for a planned citywide shutdown that the government says it will counter with the deployment of nearly 15,000 police and soldiers. 

Protesters, who have been trying to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government since November, plan to block main intersections and cut power and water to state buildings in a mass rally starting Jan. 13. Protest leaders say they will occupy Bangkok until the government falls, Agence France-Presse reports. 

In response, the national police spokesman announced today that 14,800 police and soldiers would be in the capital on Monday to “to prevent any violence or clashes,” according to the AFP. The Transport Ministry also published plans for five parking zones around Bangkok where commuters can leave their cars and take public transport to the city center. 

Adding to the political drama, a court is investigating pro-government lawmakers over a failed attempt to reform the upper house of parliament. The anti-corruption court has the power to impeach the 308 lawmakers, casting a shadow over their political future, the BBC reports. 

Political unrest has rocked Thailand since November, when Ms. Yingluck’s ruling party tried to pass a wide-ranging amnesty bill that would have paved the way for Thailand’s former prime minister, and Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra to return from exile. 

Although the government dropped the amnesty bill, the attempt provided the trigger that revived a deep divide between Bangkok’s middle class and opposition-party strongholds in the South and the mainly rural, northern supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin, who was toppled in a military coup in 2006.

Opposition leaders gatherered as many as 200,000 people for massive street protests in Bangkok that led Yingluck to call for early elections on Feb. 2. 

But protest leaders are not satisfied with the offer of a new election since Thaksin-financed parties have won every election held since 2001. Opponents accuse the Shinawatra clan of taxpayer-funded policies – such as a government rice-buying program that pays above the market price – that amount to vote buying. 

Instead, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has called for an unelected “people’s council” that would establish electoral reforms. The political party of Mr. Thaugsuban, who resigned his seat in parliament in order to lead the street protests, has not won an election since 1992.

The Christian Science Monitor explained last month why the Shinawatra family is such a lightning rod in Thai politics: 

Thaksin, a former police colonel, made a fortune in telecommunications in the 1990s. He parlayed his fortune into building a political party that swept the polls in 2001 and became the first prime minister to serve a full parliamentary term in Thailand, where unstable coalitions were the norm.

As Thaksin amassed more influence, old-money families and royalist elites pushed back. His premiership was tainted by several corruption scandals and brutal tactics for drug suppression, but his policies proved popular with many Thais, including in the northeast, where one in three voters live.

Amid protests, the military seized power in 2006 and a constitutional court dissolved Thaksin’s party, but his allies have contested and won all subsequent elections. By contrast, Suthep’s Democrat Party, which has not registered for the upcoming poll, has not won an election since 1992. 

In 2011, Yingluck campaigned on a platform that explicitly linked her leadership to her brother’s. Critics say the family has created a corrupt, nepotistic dynasty.

As for whether the protest movement is likely to bring significant change, the Monitor's Simon Montlake reports:

The movement’s anti-democratic arguments are unpalatable to a majority of people, so any move to suspend democratic rule could tip Thailand into chaos. Many protesters would welcome a coup that removes Yingluck and drives out her family and allies.

Notwithstanding the ambiguous comment by Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military is reluctant to wade into the political conflict.

A more sustained focus on corruption and good governance that goes beyond the fixation on the Shinawatra family may emerge and become a more potent force, but not under the movement’s current leadership.

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