Feb. 2 polls to go ahead despite protests: Thai PM

AP, Bangkok
Thailand’s prime minister said Wednesday that elections due in less than three weeks will go ahead despite intense pressure by her opponents to postpone the vote. The statement came after an overnight shooting attack on anti-government protesters in Bangkok wounded two people and ratcheted up tensions in the country’s deepening political crisis.
Yingluck Shinawatra had offered to meet with rivals Wednesday to discuss an Election Commission proposal to delay the Feb. 2 ballot. But protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban and the opposition Democrat Party refused to take part, saying reform to get rid of corruption in politics must happen first.
Yingluck told reporters after a meeting with members of her Cabinet, registered candidates and a top electoral official that there was no legal way for the Election Commission to delay it.
“The rights of the people are important,” said Yingluck, who a day earlier rejected calls by demonstrators to resign.
Thailand has been wracked by repeated bouts of unrest since the military ousted Yingluck’s brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2006 amid charges of corruption and alleged disrespect for the monarchy. The crisis boiled over again late last year after a failed ruling party bid to push through an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return from exile. Although that effort was quashed, protests intensified and so far at least eight people have been killed and more than 450 have been injured. Yingluck has tried to ease the crisis by dissolving Parliament and calling for elections. But there are growing doubts next month’s vote will take place because the protest movement, which has vowed to bring down her government, is trying to derail it. The Democrat Party, which would not have been able to win a majority, has also called for a boycott.
There are also growing fears of violence. Although most of Bangkok remains unaffected by the latest wave of rallies that have blocked key roads and overpasses in some parts of the city, gunshots rang out overnight on a street leading to one of the capital’s glitziest shopping districts, which has been occupied since Monday by camping demonstrators.
Bangkok’s emergency services office said one man was hit in the ankle and a woman was hit in the arm in the shooting.
Sompong Pongsattha, a 56-year-old resident who witnessed the attack in the Pathumwan district, said about 30 gunshots were fired intermittently from an unknown location toward a protest barricade over the course of about two hours. He said only a few demonstrators were there at the time, and the wounded woman had to be carried to another intersection to be taken to a hospital.
In another incident overnight, a small explosive device was hurled into a residential compound owned by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, shattering windows and slightly damaging a roof, according to Police Col. Chumpol Phumphuang and Abhisit’s opposition Democrat Party. No injuries were reported, and Abhisit – who resigned from Parliament last month to join protesters – was not home at the time.
In the west of the city, several people poured gasoline on a tour bus that had been used by protesters, setting it ablaze, according to Police Col. Napol Kladkhempetch.
The International Crisis Group think tank said this week that the protests risked sparking violence that could be “designed to instigate a coup.” “There is no clear way out,” the International Crisis Group said. “But there are ways to render a bad situation potentially catastrophic … Thailand needs leadership to generate the truly inclusive national dialogue required to set it on a stable path.”
The country’s army chief has pointedly refused to rule out a military takeover – always a possibility in a country that has suffered 11 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
Protesters accuse Yingluck of being Thaksin’s puppet, and they accuse her government of corruption and misrule. But the majority of rural poor in Thailand’s countryside, particularly in the north, support the Shinawatra family because of the populist policies it has implemented, including virtually free health care.
Suthep, the protest leader, is calling for an unelected “people’s council” to replace the government and amend laws to fight corruption in politics. He called on supporters this week to shut down all government offices and cut water and electricity to the private residences of Yingluck and her Cabinet “in the next two or three days.”
He also threatened to “detain” Yingluck, saying: “if they are still being obstinate, then we will capture them one by one because the people are not interested in fighting for years.”
Suthep has taken to the protest stage nearly every day for weeks, and has become known for hyperbolic rhetoric that few outside his movement take seriously. In late November, he urged supporters to seize “every ministry” and called on civil servants to report to him. But the calls were ignored and protesters were too few in number and only managed to briefly occupy several government offices and the Finance Ministry.