| BANGKOK, March 25
BANGKOK, March 25 Anti-government protesters
marched in Bangkok on Tuesday to drum up support for a rally at
the weekend, just before Thailand holds elections for the
Senate, which will play a central role in their aim of removing
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The demonstrators led by Suthep Thaugsuban disrupted a
general election for the lower house in February, which was
annulled by the Constitutional Court on Friday, but they have no
problem with Sunday's vote for the upper house.
"We will not block Sunday's Senate election, because we need
to reform the executive and legislative branches and the Senate
is key to our reform plans," Wittaya Kaewparadai, a protest
leader, told Reuters.
Thailand has been in crisis since former premier Thaksin
Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, was ousted in a 2006 coup. The
conflict broadly pits the Bangkok-based middle class and
royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural
supporters of the Shinawatras.
The turmoil entered a fresh phase in November, when
anti-government protesters first took to the streets, with 23
people killed during the political violence over the following
Sunday's vote is to elect 77 senators for the 150-seat
Senate. The rest are appointed, and a government attempt to make
it a fully elected body was one of the sparks that set off the
latest unrest in November.
The non-elected Senators are picked by judges and senior
officials from agencies such as the National Anti-Corruption
Commission (NACC), members of an establishment whom government
supporters see as viscerally anti-Thaksin.
The protesters appear confident that Sunday's vote will
deliver a Senate majority likely to impeach Yingluck after an
investigation under way by the NACC.
Yingluck has until the end of the month to answer a charge
of dereliction of duty over a ruinous rice-buying scheme that
has run up huge losses and left hundreds of thousands of farmers
unpaid. The prime minister is unlikey to attend the NACC
hearing, and Yingluck's lawyers will probably present her
"The NACC can't put a timeframe on how long it will take to
decide whether or not to charge the premier. We have to wait
until March 31 to hear how she defends herself," Vicha Mahakun,
a commissioner and the agency's spokesman, told Reuters.
"We can't rush these decisions," he added.
The NACC is one of seven nominally independent agencies that
belong to the executive branch but function outside the
cabinet's authority. It has the power to investigate and impeach
senior civil servants.
SETBACK FOR YINGLUCK
The impeachment process for Yingluck could take many weeks.
Any decision to remove her would require the votes of
three-fifths of the senators.
In a setback for the prime minister, Senate Speaker Nikom
Wairatpanich, whom protesters accuse of siding with the
government, was suspended from his post last week pending a
Senate decision over whether to impeach him for cutting short a
debate on amendments to the constitution.
His deputy, Surachai Liengboonlertchai, is looked upon more
favourably by the anti-government side.
His role could be crucial if there is a power vacuum and he
is asked to nominate an interim prime minister - a scenario that
looks increasingly likely.
Yingluck has headed a caretaker government since dissolving
parliament and calling a snap election in December. Now the Feb.
2 election has been annulled, it could be many months before a
new vote is held and a full government installed.
The protests in Bangkok appeared to be fading this month as
the focus switched to the courts but, waving flags and tooting
whistles, Suthep's supporters appear to have been re-energized
by the Constitutional Court decision on Friday.
They plan a big rally in Bangkok on Saturday to press for
political and electoral reforms before a new general election.
"We don't see any other way to improve Thailand except to
set in motion reforms. We urgently need change before a new
vote," Suthep told reporters on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Editing by Alan
Raybould and Simon Cameron-Moore)