Thai protesters retreat but crisis not over

March 02, 2014 - 6:54:15 am

As tensions eased, a Buddhist monk reads newspapers inside Lumpini Park in Bangkok yesterday.

BANGKOK:  Tensions eased in Thailand’s strife-hit capital yesterday after protesters abandoned their attempted “shutdown” of Bangkok, but the move was seen as only a temporary reprieve for the kingdom’s embattled premier.

The surprise retreat by the opposition demonstrators, who will dismantle many of their barricades, raised hopes of a decline in street violence that has left 23 people dead and hundreds wounded in recent weeks.

There have been increasingly frequent gunfire and grenade attacks targeting the protest sites, mostly at night.

The anti-government movement vowed to keep up its wider campaign, while experts said Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s position remained precarious.

An anti-corruption panel is pressing negligence charges against Yingluck that could lead to her removal from office and a five-year ban from politics.

“The protesters themselves could never oust Yingluck from office. Only the courts or a military coup could do that,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban announced on stage late Friday that the anti-government movement would abandon its blockade of key road intersections in Bangkok after nearly seven weeks of traffic chaos.

The movement denied the retreat marked a defeat, saying it would keep up its struggle to overthrow a government that it sees as corrupt.

“Our Bangkok shutdown campaign has succeeded. The government is now in disarray and we have got support from the masses,” rally spokesman Akanat Promphan said.

From Monday the protesters will consolidate into a single base in the city’s Lumpini Park.

The move “does not necessarily spell the end of the protests or represent a setback for the (demonstrators) as long as they continue on their ways and objectives of overthrowing and taking over government,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“At the same time, they would be hard pressed to generate again the kind of numbers that they had previously,” he added.

The retreat follows a recent warning from army commander-in-chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha that the country could sink into civil war unless the two sides pull back.

“The government is weakened but the protesters did not achieve their core goals,” said Thailand-based author and scholar David Streckfuss.

“From the beginning they had two strategies -- either a general uprising or a coup d’etat that would somehow give them a say in the military government that followed. But the military didn’t take the bait.”