Thai PM under siege, lengthy protests take toll on economy

Tuesday, 18 February 2014 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Thailand (Reuters): Protesters seeking to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra surrounded Thai government headquarters on Monday in response to police efforts to clear them from the streets, as farmers besieged her temporary office to demand payment for rice. Thailand has been in crisis since November, when Bangkok’s middle class and the royalist establishment started a protest aimed at eradicating the influence of Yingluck’s brother Thaksin, a populist former premier ousted by the army in 2006 who is seen as the power behind her government. Data published on Monday showed the economy grew just 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter from the third and, with the country likely to be without a fully functioning government for months, the state planning board slashed its forecast for 2014. About 10,000 anti-government demonstrators surrounded Government House in Bangkok, taking back control of a road the police had cleared them from on Friday in the first real sign of a pushback by the authorities after months of protests. These protesters view Yingluck as a proxy for Thaksin, who has chosen to live in exile since 2008 rather than face a jail term for abuse of power handed down in absentia that year. We will use quick-dry cement to close the gates of Government House so that the cabinet cannot go in to work, said Nittitorn Lamrue of the Network of Students and People for Thailand’s Reform, aligned with the main protest movement. It was a symbolic gesture, Yingluck having been forced to work elsewhere since January. Rice farmers helped sweep Yingluck to power in 2011, when her Puea Thai Party pledged to pay them way above market prices for their harvest, but the program has run into funding problems and some farmers have not been paid for months. Television showed farmers climbing over barbed wire fences and barriers at a Defence Ministry compound where Yingluck has set up temporary offices. They pushed back riot police, who retreated from confrontation, but did not enter the building. The prime minister is well off but we are not. How are we going to feed our children I want her to think about us, said one protesting farmer. Farmers are tough people, they wouldn’t normally speak out but they are at the end of their tether. The country’s anti-corruption agency is investigating allegations that Yingluck, who is head of the national rice committee, was negligent in her role overseeing the program. Bluesky TV, the anti-government protest movement’s own channel, also showed demonstrators spilling into the grounds of the Ministry of Education near Government House. Many other ministries and state bodies have been forced to vacate their offices, adding to the dysfunction in government. Yingluck called a snap election in December and has since led a caretaker administration with only limited authority. The election took place on February 2 but it was disrupted in parts of Bangkok and the south and it may be many months before there is a quorum in parliament to elect a new prime minister. The Election Commission has set April 27 as the date to rerun voting that was disrupted but the government said on Monday it wanted the much earlier date of March 2. According to the law, the House of Representatives must convene 30 days after a general election ... This is why we propose that elections take place on March 2, Pongthep Thepkanjana, a deputy prime minister, said after a meeting between the commission and government representatives. That date seems improbable, especially as the commission and government can’t agree on the proper procedures for the fresh voting and the Constitutional Court may be asked to rule. The anti-government protesters, who are aligned with the main opposition Democrat Party, have rejected the vote, which Yingluck’s party looks set to win. They want electoral arrangements changed to limit Thaksin’s influence before an election is held, although more than three months into their campaign their demands remain vague. They accuse Thaksin of nepotism and corruption and say he used taxpayers’ money for generous subsidies and easy loans that have bought him the loyalty of millions of poorer voters in the north and northeast. Led by firebrand former deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban, the protesters say they will remain on the streets until Yingluck is gone. The government, haunted by memories of a bloody crackdown by a previous administration in 2010 that killed dozens of pro-Thaksin red shirt activists, has shunned confrontation. Despite that cautious approach, 11 people have been killed and more than 600 hurt in sporadic violence between protesters, security forces and government supporters. Consumer confidence sank in January to its lowest level in more than two years and, with big infrastructure projects on hold because of the political vacuum, the planning agency cut its forecast for economic growth in 2014 to between 3.0 and 4.0 percent from 4.0-5.0 percent seen in November. Confidence is low and private sector demand in the domestic economy remains weak given the political deadlock, said Gundy Cahyadi, an economist with DBS Bank in Singapore. There are downside risks to growth momentum this year, despite the fact that Thailand should benefit from the slightly stronger pick-up in global growth.