Thai PM defies protesters, will not cede power before February elections

Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has defied protesters and said she will not resign ahead of national elections set for February 2.

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BANGKOK // Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said yesterday she would not resign ahead of national elections set for February 2, her voice filling with emotion as he discussed her family’s role in Thai politics.

Ms Yingluck spoke one day after she announced elections – and one day after the main opposition leader ended a massive protest rally of 150,000 people by insisting his movement had now assumed broad political power.

The streets of Bangkok were quiet yesterday, a national holiday, after weeks of sometimes violent political turmoil as protesters demand Ms Yingluck give up power to an unelected “people’s council.”

The protesters accuse Ms Yingluck of serving as a proxy for her billionaire brother, the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction but still wields immense influence in the country.

She became choked up when reporters asked, as they often do, about her family’s position in Thailand’s political scene.

“I’m not without emotion,” she said, her voice quavering. “I’m also Thai. Do you not want me to set foot on Thai soil anymore?

“I have retreated as far as I can. So I ask to be treated fairly,” she said, turning and walking quickly away from the podium.

Her brother Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire, was toppled by a 2006 military coup that laid bare a deeper conflict between Thailand’s elite and largely urban middle class on one side, and Mr Thaksin’s power base in the countryside on the other. That base benefited from his populist policies designed to win over the rural poor.

Ever since, the two sides have been duelling for power, sometimes violently. Since the latest unrest began last month, at least five people have been killed and at least 289 injured.

The latest round of protests started last month when Ms Yingluck’s party tried to pass a bill that would have granted amnesty to Mr Thaksin and others.

Ms Yingluck insisted yesterday that she would remain the interim head of government until February 2. “I must do my duty as caretaker prime minister according to the constitution,” she said.

The protesters were not quieted by Monday’s announcement of new elections, saying they cannot win the polls because of corruption. The opposition Democrat Party, allied with the protest movement, has been defeated by Thaksin-allied parties in every election since 2001.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who faces an arrest warrant on insurrection charges, spoke to more than 150,000 followers Monday at a stage near Ms Yingluck’s offices, challenging authorities to “Come get me.”

He said that his movement was assuming some functions of government, citing a clause in the constitution stating that “the highest power is the sovereign power of the people.”

“This means that from now on the people will appoint the prime minister of the people and appoint the government of the people,” he told a cheering crowd.

Mr Suthep challenged Ms Yingluck to resign to make way for a new prime minister to be appointed outside of normal constitutional procedures.

But there was no sign yesterday that Mr Suthep’s movement had assumed any government powers, or that Ms Yingluck’s administration would cede any to them.

Mr Suthep on Monday called for civil servants to report to the protest group instead of the government, and urged citizens to set up their own neighbourhood peacekeeping forces to take over from police. The protesters have castigated the police for being zealous defenders of the government.

If we lose to the “Thaksin regime,” he said, “we will be their slaves until we die.”

* Associated Press