Bangkok shutdown: Thai protesters vow to occupy Bangkok for the 'long haul'

Bangkok shutdown: Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters thronged Bangkok today. Police kept a low profile and the head of the army denied a coup is in the works. 

Sakchai Lalit/AP
Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban speaks to his supporters Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, in Bangkok, Thailand. The protesters seized key intersections across Thailand’s capital on Monday, blockading major roads into the heart of Bangkok’s glitzy downtown districts at the start of a renewed push to derail elections next month and overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets in a so-far peaceful demonstration in Bangkok, the Thai capital, to press for the removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Reuters reports that "police and soldiers kept a low profile" Monday as protesters occupied the streets of Bangkok as part of the opposition's "Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand" movement. The protest movement, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, an opposition leader, has rejected parliamentary elections due on Feb. 2, and is instead demanding a "people's council" seize power and revamp Thailand's democracy. Protesters claim that elections simply entrench the interests of Ms. Yingluck and her family, especially her self-exiled brother, billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was removed in a military coup in 2006.

Reuters writes that "the mood among protesters was festive, with many singing and dancing in the streets" on Monday.

Although major intersections that normally teem with cars and trucks were blockaded, city trains and river ferries were operating, most shops were open and motorbikes plied the roads freely.

But protesters said they were prepared for a long haul to tighten the noose on the capital, suggesting the crisis could drag on for days, if not weeks, threatening to inflict substantial damage on Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.

At the same time, notes the BBC's Jonathan Head, the protests were "wearily familiar," and while certainly charged by strong emotion against the Shinawatras, may not be representative of much more.

Protesters "know about the idea of an 'appointed committee' to fix Thai politics, and they can all mouth the slogans 'Reform Before Election', and 'Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand'," he writes, "But asked what would happen if the prime minister resigned, but her own substantial support base outside Bangkok refused to accept this, no one had an answer."

"Well, it doesn't matter, because we are going to win anyway", was one woman's hopeful answer.

The longer these debilitating protests continue, the more likely a dramatic, perhaps violent, showdown between the two irreconcilable sides of Thai politics. ...

In a conversation with Anchalee Praireerat, one of the more hard-core protest leaders, she would not say exactly what she expected to happen. But she assured me it would all be over in three days, and that the protesters would win.

Despite their strong showing in Bangkok, protesters have far less traction outside the cities, The Christian Science Monitor's Simon Montlake noted recently, highlighting the urban-rural fault lines of the dispute.

The protesters are drawn from Bangkok’s middle classes, Democrat Party strongholds in southern Thailand, and elements of the bureaucracy. They represent a minority voice in Thailand that is used to having its way in how the country is run and where the spoils lie.

The protests have not spread outside the capital, unlike in 2010 when pro-Thaksin activists in northeast Thailand stormed town halls and blocked roads. The campaign has no traction in the north and northeast Thailand, underlining the country’s north-south fault line, as well as the urban-rural divide that has long been a factor in electoral politics.

The 800-pound gorilla in the scenario is the Thai military and the possibility of a coup – an all-to-familiar occurrence in Thai politics. United Press International reports that while the Army's deployment around Bangkok in anticipation of today's protests has heightened worries about a coup's likelihood, Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha denied a coup was in the works and asked the media to stop raising the possibility, according to comments made to The Bangkok Post.

He said posing the question of a coup every time reporters saw him could worsen an already tense situation.

"[A coup] isn't a topic we should be talking about every day," he said. "I don't know what that solution is, but we soldiers will do our best to ensure safety for the people."

Chan-ocha said he was concerned about possible violent confrontations between rival political groups during the rally which is expected to bring widespread disruption to the city.

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