Anti-government protesters rally in Bangkok on Monday. Photo: AP
Bangkok: Anti-government protesters have set-up camps that resemble pop concerts in front of huge stages at key intersections in the Thai capital, creating traffic chaos in the city of 12 million people.
“We will be here until the government removes itself,” one of the organisers Nataphol Teepsuwan said amid thousands of protesters at Asoke on Sukhumvit Road, a busy intersection.
Implementing what they are calling “operation shutdown” protesters have set up tents, lighting, kitchens, medical centres and other facilities at protests sites across the city, including outside shopping malls popular with foreign tourists.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban with supporters in Bangkok on Monday. Photo: AP
Many of the protesters, wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with “shutdown”, danced to loud music while others blew whistles, waved flags or dozed in nearby tents in the middle of roads that are packed with 70,000 vehicles on a normal day.
Others marched to government offices, aiming to cripple the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and force her to resign and call off elections scheduled for February 2.
But two shooting attacks at one protest site and another outside the headquarters of the opposition Democrat party early on Monday stoked fears the camps may be targeted during the night.
Only one man was wounded in the latest attack but eight people have been killed and scores injured during two months of political unrest that some analysts fear could escalate into prolonged violence or possibly even civil war.
In a show of power, pro-government red shirts rallied in more than 50 provincial cities and towns as authorities said they are ready to declare a state of emergency if there is fresh unrest.
More than 20,000 security forces did not attempt to prevent the Bangkok protesters blockading intersections on Sunday night and early on Monday, apparently following orders not to intervene unless violence erupts.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, repeated a vow that he will not negotiate with the government to end the crisis that is dragging down the Thai economy.
“In this fight, defeat is defeat and victory is victory. There is no tie,” he said.
“The masses from all walks of life have woken up. They’re aware that we are the owners of Thailand.”
Thai authorities, worried that foreign tourists arriving in Bangkok will be unable to reach their hotels, have issued stickers for taxis carrying travellers from the main Suvarnabhumi airport, hoping protesters will let them pass through the blockades.
But no lanes were kept clear at most of the sites and airport authorities said travellers should take the elevated train to and from the airport.
Ms Yingluck called the snap election in an attempt to defuse the crisis that was prompted by a failed attempt in September to introduce an amnesty bill in parliament that would have allowed her brother Thaksin Shinawatra to return from exile without having to serve a two-year jail sentence for corruption.
The Democrat party, the main opposition, is boycotting the election, and the organising Election Commission has recommended polls should be delayed after protesters in some areas prevented candidates from registering.
The turmoil is the latest in an eight-year conflict that in broad terms pits middle class Thais and those from opposition strongholds in southern provinces against mostly poor rural Shinawatra supporters.
The protesters accuse Ms Yingluck of being a puppet of Thaksin, a former prime minister ousted in a 2006 coup who they accuse of being corrupt.
Australia’s smartraveller.gov.au advises Australians to exercise a high degree of caution while in Thailand and to stay away from protests, while the US embassy in Bangkok has recommended that residents stockpile two weeks of required cash, food and water.