Bangkok braces for political street protests

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By THANYARAT DOKSONE, Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's capital braced Sunday for possible unrest in the week ahead, with street protests expected over moves in parliament that could eventually lead to a pardon for ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

About 1,000 protesters calling themselves the People's Army Against the Thaksin Regime rallied in a Bangkok park on Sunday. But bigger and more militant protests are expected when parliament on Wednesday begins debating an amnesty bill that would cover people arrested for political activities since the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin for alleged corruption and disrespect to the monarchy.

Thaksin was later sentenced to two years in jail on a conflict of interest charge, but escaped punishment by living abroad in self-imposed exile. The amnesty bill would not cover Thaksin, but his opponents fear that if it passes, it would set a precedent and pave the way for another measure pardoning him. The current amnesty bill was proposed by a lawmaker from the ruling Pheu Thai Party, which is headed by Thaksin's sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The unease caused by the specter of protests reflects Thailand's failure to achieve political reconciliation after the coup, with Thaksin's supporters and opponents battling for power since his ouster. In 2010, about 90 people were killed when Thaksin's supporters occupied part of downtown Bangkok for around two months before being swept away by the army. In 2008, Thaksin's opponents occupied the prime minister's offices for about three months and Bangkok's two airports for a week.

Thaksin is a highly polarizing figure who won large majorities in winning office, especially from rural voters who gained from his populist policies. Critics accused him of corruption and abuse of power, charging he was imposing a "parliamentary dictatorship" and trying to usurp King Bhumibol Adulyadej's constitutional authority.

Even though Thaksin's political allies currently lead the government, they have not been able to push through measures allowing for his free return, thanks largely to opposition by royalists and the military.

While it is not clear how many protesters the opposition can muster, Yingluck's government is taking few chances.

This past week, it invoked the Internal Security Act in three Bangkok districts, citing the possibility of protest violence, and readied more than 30,000 police officers to provide safety at key locations, including the prime minister's office compound and parliament.

The act, in effect from Aug. 1-10, authorizes officials to seal off roads, take action against security threats, impose curfews and ban the use of electronic devices in designated areas. Peaceful and unarmed rallies are allowed under the law.

"We will take care of the protesters and will make sure ordinary people can commute and carry on their daily lives," Yingluck said during her weekly television talk show, aired Saturday morning. "I hope under these circumstances, we can get through the situation smoothly."

Sunday's protest, held in a part of Bangkok far from government offices, was low-key. The so-called People's Army is a fringe group, nominally led by former senior military officers with close ties to the country's royalist establishment. It has little of the organizing skill or appeal of the People's Alliance for Democracy, which led large-scale and effective anti-Thaksin protests before the coup in 2006, and again in 2008, when another pro-Thaksin government was in power. The alliance has not committed itself to taking part in the current round of protests.

One of the People's Army co-leaders, Banawit Kengrian, said Sunday that his protesters would stay overnight and remain as long as needed, adding that he wanted matters to end in seven days.

"Our goal is to unroot the so-called Thaksin regime from our country," he told reporters. "We do not aim to topple the government, but we cannot let them push for the bill by ignoring people's opinions and passing it with the parliamentary dictatorship they have."

Banawit would not say what the next move would be, saying he was afraid the protesters would be blocked by the government, and refused to comment on whether his group would march to parliament. He said, however, that the group had a strategy and would announce its plans 12 hours ahead of time.

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