Anxious days ahead for divided Thailand

Bangkok: How could have it come to this in the land of smiles?

Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, deemed himself to be too busy leading an uprising to appear in court to face multiple murder charges over allegedly ordering a military crackdown in 2010 that left more than 90 people dead.

The judges agreed on Wednesday and postponed the hearing.

A warrant has been issued for Mr Suthep’s arrest on charges of treason for leading whistle-blowing protesters on Bangkok’s streets, but police have so far ignored it.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra complains her country has become a “state of lawlessness” while pleading for the support of the powerful military.

But military commanders have refused to prevent the storming and occupying of key institutions of her democratically-elected government, claiming they will remain neutral as the country hurtles towards what could be its worst-ever confrontation, notwithstanding 18 coups or attempted coups in Thailand's past.

Ms Yingluck’s elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, whom critics accuse of running the country using Ms Yingluck as a puppet, lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a two-year sentence for corruption.

Opposition Democratic Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has been indicted on the same murder charges as Mr Suthep.

At least he turned up in court last year to be formally indicted ahead of a hearing in March.

Mr Abhisit’s party has declared it intends to boycott elections Ms Yingluck has called for February 2, raising the distinct possibility voters will not be able to sort out the mess.

Bangkok’s judicial system which has in the past thwarted Thaksin and his allies has intervened again at a time of crisis.

Judges on the National Anti-Corruption Commission are seeking to charge 308 politicians, most of them from Ms Yingluck’s party, with abuse of power.

Their alleged "crime" is having voted to change the composition of the upper house of parliament to make it more democratic. This in turn has prompted outcries from government MPs that they were simply doing what they were elected to do.

In another blow to the government, the Constitutional Court ruled on Wednesday that a proposed amendment to a law to give the government almost full authority to pass international agreements was unlawful, opening the way for another investigation by the anti-corruption commission.

The focus of the crisis has now turned back to the streets, where Mr Suthep’s supporters have been staging practice sessions this week for what they call Operation Shutdown.

Beginning 9am on Monday, they plan to occupy major intersections across Bangkok, preventing officials going to work.

They also plan to cut power and electricity to state buildings.

The government is deploying 15,000 security forces, but they have orders not to stop the protest.

"Our goal is to prevent any violence or clashes," said national police spokesman Piya Uthayo.

The aim of the operation is to force Ms Yingluck to dismantle her administration and for her and her relatives, including Thaksin, to quit politics forever.

With Bangkok set to grind to a halt on Monday,  pro-government red shirts say they will rise up in provincial towns and villages to remind people that they too are a force to be reckoned with.

Meanwhile, tanks, armaments and troops are being moved into Bangkok from provincial military bases, supposedly for Sunday’s annual Army Day parade, prompting army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha to hose down rumours of a coup.

“Don’t be scared if you can’t see it,” he said, before adding enigmatically: “Without a reason, nothing will happen.”

This story Anxious days ahead for divided Thailand first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.