Thai protesters hunker down for long battle
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Leaning on a fence in a makeshift open-air office in the heart of a three-week opposition street rally in Bangkok, protest leader Nattawut Saikua pauses when asked how long he's willing to keep the protests going.
"However long it takes. We'll stay here until we get the job done."
That job is to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament within 15 days and call snap elections his government would almost certainly lose.
While Abhisit, backed by Thailand's powerful military and establishment elite, still has the edge in the impasse, interviews with rally leaders suggest no end in sight to increasingly confrontational protests drawing tens of thousands of rural and urban poor onto the streets in their trademark red shirts.
"It's difficult to win quickly if we are going to stick to non-violence which we plan to," said Jatuporn Prompan, another "red shirts" leader, noting they want to avoid a repeat of a failed protest a year ago that deteriorated into Thailand's worst street violence in 17 years, killing two people.
"Last year, we tried to wrap it up quickly and we were taken advantage of and crushed," he said.
Interviews with rank-and-file protesters also show the movement coalescing around a strident theme of forcing elections regardless of how long it takes and with no sign of bowing to government demands to abandon their de facto leader -- twice-elected and now fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
"Thaksin was better for us, better for the economy," said Mongkon Kansorn, 35, selling slices of watermelon and other fruit from a cart at the protest, near glossy posters calling for Thaksin's return to power.
The immediate risks for investors look minimal, say economists. About $1.6 billion of foreign money has flowed over the past five weeks into Thai stocks, which have climbed 81 percent over the past 12 months, Asia's third-best performer, after lagging emerging markets in previous years.
Markets have priced in much of the political crisis that erupted in Thailand four years ago when former telecoms tycoon Thaksin was accused of graft and cronyism, ousted in a coup, fled into exile and was later sentenced in absentia to prison.
But economists say Thailand faces longer-term political uncertainties highlighted by the clamor of protesters who say Abhisit came to power illegitimately, heading a coalition the military cobbled together after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin party that led the previous coalition government.
The protesters chafe against what they see as a political system dominated by royalists, Bangkok's wealthy establishment and the military who now back Abhisit.
"Dissolution of parliament is just the first step of getting rid of behind-the-scenes power which interferes in politics at the expense of the public," said Jatuporn, a vocal member of parliament for the Thaksin-allied Puea Thai Party.
He insisted, however, his movement is not republicanism.
"We want real victory, real democracy under the constitution which upholds the monarchy."
With their messages of class warfare and social injustice, the "red shirts" are making a mark on Bangkok. Posters calling for elections are festooned across the city. They have turned an old district of the city into a makeshift protest village with rows of food stalls and air-conditioned buses used for meetings.
While they have yet to turn out a million people as promised, they massed up to 150,000 on March 14, made headlines emptying bottles of their own blood outside Abhisit's home, and appear to be building support among Bangkok's working classes.
Abhisit, a British-born, Oxford-educated economist, has returned to his office after working from a military compound for most of the protests. But his 15-month-old, military-backed government is under pressure to compromise on new elections.
The protesters say will step up their rallies from Saturday and keep going through Thailand's April 13-15 Songkran holidays and possibly beyond unless Abhisit meets their demands.
"The 'red shirts' are in a pretty good position now to continue for quite some time. A large part of their support is now coming from Bangkok and close by, which is significant. It's easier to sustain these protests," said Chris Baker, a political analyst who has written several books on Thai politics.
Abhisit has said a peaceful poll now would be difficult. Two rounds of televised negotiations ended on Monday with the "red shirts" rejecting a concession offered by Abhisit to call elections within nine months, a year ahead of deadline.
That's still not enough. Both sides want to be in power in October for two events -- an annual military reshuffle and the passing of the national budget.
The budget gives the government room to roll out welfare policies to court rural voters whose discontent is at the heart of the protests and who now back the Thaksin-allied opposition Puea Thai Party. It also gives whoever is in power a chance to allocate money to the powerful military and ministries.
The military reshuffle is even more crucial, allowing the government to strengthen its hold on power by promoting allies in the powerful security forces. It's also a sensitive time when internal military power struggles can ripple into politics.
Abhisit has said his Democrat Party can win the next election, citing the effects on voters from two years of aggressive government spending in rural communities -- from free health care to new roads and low-income housing, policies similar to those that helped Thaksin build rural support.
But most analysts doubt he can win over the vote-rich north and northeast, a Thaksin stronghold home to just over half of Thailand's 67 million people, in time for elections, even with a promise this week to cancel $1.3 billion of farmers' debts.
"Going forward, the concerns about Thailand are still very valid," said Joseph Tan, chief Asia economist at Credit Suisse.
While not reflected in stock prices, the political crisis shows up in foreign direct investment, which cuts into long-term economic growth. Thailand's Board of Investment, for instance, expects investment pledges this year to fall 15 percent.
Chief among Tan's concerns is the timing of the protests coinciding with the hospitalization of 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, admitted on September 19 suffering from fever, fatigue and loss of appetite. TV footage suggests his health has improved, but his hospitalization focuses attention on royal succession.
His son and presumed heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, does not yet command the same popular support as his father. Many Thais and analysts fear if the crown passes to Vajiralongkorn while political divisions remain unresolved, opposing factions will intensify their struggle, with destabilizing consequences.
Strict lese majeste laws restrict discussion of the monarchy.
"It is not clear to me how this is going to pan out should the king pass on," said Tan.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)