BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of anti-government protesters blockaded Thailand’s parliament on Monday, forcing it to postpone an important legislative session in the latest twist to a six-month campaign to unseat the elected administration.
Riot police carrying only shields melted away before 10,000 demonstrators from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), leaving hundreds of youths armed with iron bars, golf clubs and stakes milling around in the streets with nobody to fight.
The marchers, who have stymied government decision-making and raised doubts about the export-driven economy’s ability to cope with global recession, also picketed the Finance Ministry, police HQ and the government’s temporary offices at an old airport.
“May victory be with the people,” PAD leader Somkiat Pongpaiboon said, repeating the group’s mantra that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat is a puppet of his brother-in-law, ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra, and should stand down.
Somchai, who has been working out of the temporary offices since the PAD overran Government House in August, was unfazed.
“We have to talk and try for reconciliation,” he told Reuters at an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru.
His refusal to stand down raises the prospect of a strike by public sector unions on Tuesday although, as with previous calls, the disruption is unlikely to amount to anything like the nationwide industrial action union chiefs are dreaming of.
After the PAD crowds dispersed, parliament speaker Chai Chidchob said international agreements that need to be signed at next month’s regional summit in the northern city of Chiang Mai would be re-tabled for December 8 and 9.
The latest protest flare-up is the last thing the economy needs, with data suggesting it will expand at just 4.5 percent this year, its slowest rate in seven years.
Following the figures indicating slowing growth, the Bank of Thailand on Monday flagged a rate cut while making clear cheaper credit would not solve all the economy’s problems.
The economy has seen stuttering export growth and weakening investment.
Persistent fears of street violence in the last six months of permanent protest by the PAD, an unelected group of royalist businessmen, academics and activists united by their hatred of Thaksin, have also weighed on consumer confidence.
When protesters blocked access to parliament last month police burst through their lines with teargas and baton charges, triggering a day of running street battles in which two people were killed and hundreds, including police, were injured.
The PAD’s Government House protest zone has come under almost daily attack from small bombs or grenades, and on Sunday one of its security guards died from a grenade blast the previous day, the second such death in a week.
However, the movement’s stated intention of peaceful protest is also misleading.
Six PAD security guards were charged with illegal possession of firearms on Monday after hijacking a city bus with a sawn-off shotgun and trying to take it to the rally site, police said. Officers halted the bus by shooting out its tires.
Major bloodshed would raise the chances of a military coup only two years after the army’s removal of Thaksin, who now lives in exile after skipping bail on corruption charges.
Army chief Anupong Paochinda, who has more than 3,000 anti-riot soldiers on standby to help police, has said a putsch would do nothing to resolve the fundamental political rifts.
The PAD enjoys the backing of Bangkok’s urban middle classes and elite, including Queen Sirikit, while Thaksin and the government claim their support from the rural voters who returned the PPP in a December election.
Additional reporting by Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul in Bangkok and Paul Eckert and Carlos Valdez in LIMA; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Jerry Norton