Deadly protests disrupt early voting in Thailand
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A man identified by police as one of the leaders of anti-government protests in Thailand was shot dead on Sunday when violence erupted as demonstrators in Bangkok tried to block early voting for a disputed election next week.
Piya Utayo, a spokesman for Thailand’s national police, identified the dead man as Suthin Taratin. “At least five other people were injured,” he said.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has called elections for February 2 in an attempt to defuse protests, which have dragged on since November.
But protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, rejected elections, and protestors swarmed polling stations in Bangkok on Sunday, chaining doors shut and halting advance voting in nearly all centres.
A deputy prime minister said 45 of 50 polling stations in the capital had been closed down and advance voting was disrupted in 10 of Thailand’s 76 provinces.
“Protesters blocked voters. In many areas of Bangkok protesters used force to prevent people from voting,” Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, also a deputy prime minister, said in a televised address. “This is a very serious offence indeed.”
Yingluck’s government had warned anyone who tried to stop voting that they would face jail time or fines, or both.
About 49 million voters, out of Thailand’s population of 66 million, are eligible to cast ballots. About 2.16 million registered for advance polling.
Protests may delay elections
On Saturday, a government minister said Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was prepared to discuss cancelling the Feb. 2 election if activists ended the often unruly protests. The government said it was ready to delay the vote if its opponents agreed not to boycott or disrupt a rescheduled poll.
Yingluck called the February 2 election in the hope of cementing her hold on power in the face of the disruption.
Any delay in the poll will do little to quell the resolve of opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, who is unlikely to provide a quick resolution to the current deadlock.
It was already unclear whether the election would go ahead after a Constitutional Court added to the pressure on Yingluck on Friday with a ruling that opened the possibility of a delay. The Election Commission has also called for a delay, saying Thailand is too unsettled for a vote to proceed.
The protesters want an unelected “people’s council” installed to oversee a period of reform before any future vote is held.
The government declared a 60-day state of emergency, in effect from last Wednesday, to try to curtail protests. While mainly peaceful, nine people have been killed and scores wounded in sporadic violence.
The protesters had vowed to shut down Bangkok - the world’s most visited city in 2013 - on January 13 and have since occupied key intersections, disrupting some aspects of daily life.
The protests are the latest eruption in a political conflict that has gripped Thailand for eight years and which is starting to hurt growth and investor confidence in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.
The conflict broadly pits Bangkok’s middle class and elite, and followers in the south, against mainly poor rural backers of Yingluck and her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, in the populous north and northeast.
The protesters accuse Yingluck of being the puppet of her billionaire brother, who lives in self-imposed exile after a 2008 graft conviction he says was politically motivated. He was ousted by the military in 2006 amid charges of corruption and disrespect for Thailand’s revered monarchy.
They say Thaksin’s powerful political machine has subverted Thailand’s fragile democracy by effectively buying the support of rural voters with populist policies such as cheap healthcare and subsidies for rice farmers.
Yingluck’s government had been proceeding relatively smoothly until her Puea Thai Party miscalculated in November and tried to force through an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother to return a free man.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)