Thai PM announces date for general election The PM sets July 3 for the crucial polls after King Bhumibol Adulyadej approved the dissolution decree.

Red Shirts staged the first major demonstration since the military crackdown on protests in May [Reuters]

Thai anti-government protesters have defied an ongoing state of emergency to stage a major demonstration in central Bangkok to mark the anniversary of the 2006 military coup.
Thousands of so-called Red Shirts massed in the capital city on Sunday, the first such gathering since their street protests earlier this year were ended by a deadly military crackdown.
Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister, supported by the red shirt protesters, was toppled in the September 2006 coup.
The protesters gathered at the Ratchaprasong intersection, an upmarket shopping district they had occupied earlier this year, and paid tribute to those who died during the May crackdown.
Police said about 6,000 red shirts gathered in the city’s commercial centre, closely monitored by hundreds of security forces.
“This showed that a large number of red shirt people, despite the emergency decree being in effect, are still passionate and want to express their feelings,” said Sombat Boonngamanong, a protest organiser.
“We have learned our lessons and we must bring ourselves out of this shadow,” said Sombat, referring to the violence that marred the earlier protests.
Violent protests
Anti-government protests earlier this year demanding that Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister, call for early elections escalated into violence that paralysed Bangkok turning the capital into a virtual war zone.
More than 90 people were killed with another 1,400 mostly demonstrators wounded in clashes between protesters and security forces.

“I want everyone to look to the future. I want to see the healing of people who suffered from the conflict. I want to see people forgive each other”
Thaksin Shinawatra, former Thai PM, via Twitter

When troops moved in with live ammunition to clear the demonstrators on May 19 hardcore protesters set fire to almost three dozen buildings around the city, including Thailand’s biggest luxury shopping mall and the stock exchange.
Most top Red Shirt leaders have been detained.
On Sunday protesters shouted “People died here” and “Abhisit, get out” before the demonstration culminated in a candlelight vigil and the release of 10,000 balloons to honour those who died in the earlier protests.
A smaller crowd turned out at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, a traditional gathering point for demonstrations which was also the site of a clash between the red shirts and soldiers in April.
Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire who lives abroad in self-exile to avoid a jail term for corruption, called on his followers via Twitter to avoid further violence ahead of the double anniversary.
“I want everyone to look to the future. I want to see the healing of people who suffered from the conflict. I want to see people forgive each other,” he said, adding that he was currently in Lebanon.
Thaksin is detested by the Yellow Shirts, who are backed by the Bangkok-based elites.
Rallies by the so-called Yellow Shirts in 2006 helped trigger the coup that toppled Thaksin, whom they accuse of being corrupt, dictatorial and a threat to Thailand’s widely revered monarchy.
The Thai capital remains under a state of emergency imposed in April that gives the military broad powers, and soldiers have been deployed at key locations over the past two weeks as the government warned of possible violence around the coup anniversary.

Thailand has been gripped by political unrest since Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, was forced out of power in a military coup in 2006.

Last year his supporters, known as the red shirt movement, launched mass protests against the government.

At least 90 people were killed and many more went missing in the government crackdown that followed.

The government promised to investigate the entire issue but little progress has been made. Many of the family members of those missing are still awaiting information one year after the protests.

Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay reports from the Thai capital, Bangkok.watch Thailand still divided year after protests – Asia – Al Jazeera English

May 19 marked the first anniversary of a bloody showdown, when Thai troops moved in on the Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok, taken over by Red Shirts weeks previously [GALLO/GETTY]

Thailand faces a new phenomenon on the road leading to the July 3 polls: an informal union between a strong opposition political party and a formidable street protest movement that may reshape this year’s political campaign.

“This is a first in Thai history,” said Pitch Pongsawat, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “We have not seen such a fusion of a street protest movement and mainstream politics during an election campaign.

“They have grown larger and stronger and more determined,” Pitch said, describing the anti-government “Red Shirt” protesters who have been challenging this south-east Asian kingdom’s conservative political establishment since they made their presence felt in 2008. “These people will never give up their fight for truth and justice.”

Signs of this new alliance were visible on May 19. The day began with 26 political parties registering their candidates for the poll, yet ended in the evening on a different note: the return to the streets of the Red Shirts, who enjoy wide support among the country’s urban and rural working class.

It was more than a coincidence that thousands of protesters, wearing their signature red shirts, held a rally at a junction in the heart of an upscale shopping area in Bangkok that night.

May 19 marked the first year anniversary of a bloody showdown, when Thai troops moved in to reclaim the streets at the Ratchaprasong intersection that the Red Shirts had taken over in mid-April 2010. This ritzy neighbourhood, boasting five-star hotels and shopping malls with designer clothing shops, had been converted into a Red Shirt protest site for weeks.

The Red Shirts had attracted over 150,000 supporters at the height of their round-the-clock April rallies in Ratchaprasong, and weeks before, since mid-March, near the Democracy Monument in a historic neighbourhood of the Thai capital. But they took a heavy beating when the heavily armed Thai troops moved in.

Human rights groups said 84 civilians were among the 91 people killed during the crackdown in April and May. The military, which ran gun battles with armed men firing from behind Red Shirt lines, reportedly lost seven men.

Supharat Kongkuwee is still pained by the loss of her husband, Buntha, during last year’s crackdown, Thailand’s worst in nearly two decades. “He was killed on April 10,” the 39-year-old mother of two said. “The gunshot hit his forehead.”

“The government has done little to answer the questions we have: Who killed him? How is the inquiry going?” said the rice farmer from the north-eastern province of Chaiyaphum, who stood out in the sea of Red Shirts at Thursday’s rally. She was cradling in her arms a framed picture of her 47-year-old husband wearing a red shirt, with the words “Brave Hero” written in white text on top.

Her search for answers is not an isolated one. Other women, some of them wives and sisters who also came for the Red Shirt memorial rally at Ratchaprasong, shared similar sentiments. This longing for justice was featured prominently in the messages scrawled on white boards and red sheets unveiled around the many small shrines, with lit red candles, that dotted the streets around the main stage.

“In plain view, government forces shot protesters and armed militants shot soldiers, but no one has been held responsible,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), when the global rights lobby released a report this month on the crackdown in Bangkok. “Those who were killed and wounded deserve better than this. The government should ensure that all those who committed violence and abuses, on both sides, are investigated and prosecuted.”

The Red Shirts’ rage is directed at the administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose Democrat Party faces a tough challenge from the opposition Phue Thai party. The latter is expected to profit from this anger, given the strong ties that have bound some Phue Thai politicians with the Red Shirts’ movement.

It is a link also stemming from the political patron behind both: the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been living in exile to avoid a jail term for corruption charges slapped on him after he was deposed in a September 2006 military coup, the country’s 18th putsch since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Thaksin’s popularity among Red Shirts grew out of his innovative pro-poor policies to ease debt, provide universal health care and improve the grassroots economy during the five years he was premier, beginning in 2001. The Phue Thai party has pledged to implement similar policies.

Red Shirts supporters like Nawarat Bangsrabunwit, who was at Thursday night’s rally, is typical of others gearing up for the polls as an avenue to take on the country’s anti-democracy pillars – the powerful military, the aristocracy, and the conservative bureaucratic and political elite.

Other Red Shirt protesters are looking to the July election, described by some analysts as a watershed moment at a time of political acrimony, as an occasion to reclaim political power after being disenfranchised twice. Two pro-Thaksin political parties that many Red Shirts had supported in the 2005 and 2007 polls were dissolved.

The incumbent Democrat Party, which formed a coalition government in December 2008 with the backing of the country’s powerful military, is expected to face the brunt of the unprecedented twin challenges.

“The Red Shirts and the Phue Thai party are two legs of one movement,” says Weng Tojirakarn, a Red Shirt leader, who will be contesting – under the Phue Thai banner – for a seat in the 500-member legislature. “One will fight for change inside parliament and the other will do so outside parliament, but legitimately.”

The election may heal political divisions but some fear it could also push Thailand back to the brink of chaos [EPA]

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister, has announced that he is dissolving the lower house of Parliament to hold early general elections on July 3.
The prime minister spoke on nationwide TV on Monday night after King Bhumibol Adulyadej approved the dissolution decree earlier in the day.
Monday’s decision sets in motion a new political battle between supporters of Abhisit and followers of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006.
The dissolution was announced after a court ruled earlier on Monday that three recently passed electoral laws, needed for holding the polls, are constitutional. If Parliament had been dissolved without the ruling, the elections could have been open to legal challenges.
High stakes
The stakes are higher than at any time since the 2006 coup that plunged Thailand into a crisis broadly pitting the rural and urban poor supporters of Thaksin against the establishment elite.
The elections are expected to be fiercely contested between Abhisit’s ruling Democrat Party and the main opposition Puea Thai Party associated with Thaksin.
The Democrats held 172 seats in the outgoing lower house compared to 186 for Puea Thai, which won the most seats in the last elections in 2007 and formed a government that ruled for about a year.
“Results will be hard to predict this time,” Siripan Noksuan, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said.
“Most surveys are predicting close polls and the lack of a clear decisive win is making everybody uneasy. The end of the crisis is difficult to foresee.”
Abhisit’s Democrat Party has not won an election in two decades, though analysts said the odds were in its favour because of new electoral rules and disarray inside the Puea Thai party, which still needs to settle on a new leader and line up candidates.
The poll will be the first time Abhisit will put his popularity to a democratic test since his coalition government came to power in late 2008.
‘Opposition to respect poll results’
The opposition says the parliamentary vote that brought him to power was arranged in the army barracks.
A court dissolved the previous pro-Thaksin ruling party for electoral fraud, which coincided with an eight-day blockade of Bangkok’s main airports by an anti-Thaksin group.
The election may heal political divisions, but some fear it could also push Thailand back to the brink of chaos following violent anti-government protests last year in which 91 people died.
The pro-Thaksin “red shirts” who battled the military in central Bangkok in April and May last year had said they would respect the results of the poll as long as there was no blatant, heavy-handed intervention by “unelected powers”.
Thailand’s economy, Southeast Asia’s second largest, is performing strongly and Abhisit has launched economic populist policies and subsidies targeting the poor, the vast majority of voters.
But the Puea Thai remains popular in the vote-rich north and northeast, strengthened by a sense of alienation and resentment among the red shirts, particularly after the violent end to the protest last year.
In a recent survey of 2,143 eligible voters by Assumption University, 36.4 per cent of respondents said they would vote for Puea Thai and 34.1 per cent for Abhisit’s Democrats.
Puea Thai had better scores than the Democrats on almost all categories, including policies, vision and administrative efficiency. The Democrats led in just one, “integrity and transparency”.
The polls will elect 500 members of the lower house, an increase of 20 from the outgoing chamber.

Yingluck, centre, is viewed as a political novice but analysts say she could boost the party’s electoral chances [Reuters]

Thailand’s biggest opposition party has chosen the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister, as its prime ministerial candidate in July’s general elections.
Yingluck Shinawatra, 43, is expected to boost the electoral chances of the Puea Thai party and return power to allies of Thaksin, who won two election landslides before his overthrow in a 2006 military coup, analysts said.
The election is expected to be a close contest between Abhist Vejjajiva, the incumbent prime minister from the ruling Democrat Party, and Yingluck, who is said to have limited political experience.
The nomination of Yingluck comes days after Abhist announced the dissolution of parliament to pave the way for the vote.
But analysts and commentators are split on whether the decision to run with Yingluck will benefit Puea Thai, or backfire.
Andrew Walker, an expert on Thai politics at the Australia National University, said she could prove to be instrumental in uniting a party in disarray by attracting the rural poor who were wooed by Thaksin’s populist policies.
“It’s a bold move, but given the power of the Shinawatra brand in Thai politics, it’s a pretty good move,” he said.
“It’s a risk, but Puea Thai see that it’s outweighed by Thaksin’s galvanising appeal and the affection that exists among the electorate for him and his policies. What the Democrats and their allies most fear is an electoral runoff with Thaksin.”

‘Proxy for Thaksin’
Yingluck, who was educated in the United States and keeps a low profile, has had no official role in Thai politics.
If elected, she would become Thailand’s first female prime minister, but would be regarded as a proxy for Thaksin.
Thailand has been gripped by political unrest since Thaksin’s ouster by a military coup.
The former premier faced accusations of corruption and disrespect for the monarchy. He fled Thailand to escape a prison sentence and is barred from running for office, but remains highly popular among voters in the countryside.
Echoing Thaksin’s most recent comments, Yingluck said she would pursue reconciliation in the deeply divided country and would not seek payback for the 2006 coup, which sent Thailand into a spiral of instability.
“All the parties have to turn to each other and know that Puea Thai is not here for revenge but to solve [Thailand’s] problems,” she said in a speech on Monday to Puea Thai members, who voted overwhelmingly in her favour.
“People still think of my brother and his policies of the past and many still have had mercy for our family until today,” she said, adding that seeking Thaksin’s return from exile a free man was “not the priority”.
Thaksin has a history of using family members in politics. While prime minister in 2003, he appointed his cousin Chaisit Shinawatra to serve in the influential post of army commander.
In 2007, he manoeuvred to have his brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat become prime minister. Somchai was forced out of office by a court ruling and was succeeded by Abhisit, whose critics charge he came to power with the connivance of the military.
Last year, Thaksin’s supporters, the “Red Shirts”, held two months of anti-government protests in the capital that deteriorated into violence, leaving at least 91 people dead and 1,400 wounded. They demanded that Abhisit call early elections.

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