Tear gas and water cannon in Bangkok as anti-government protesters refuse to back down

Asia Correspondent

Police in Thailand have used tear gas and water canons to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters days after the country’s prime minister was ousted by a controversial court decision.

The authorities in Bangkok pushed back protesters who were trying to force their way into a government compound and demanding the immediate resignation of the new, caretaker prime minister. The protesters’ leader said he would give the government three days to resign before his supporters forced it out.

The clashes came just days after a court in Thailand ordered that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and nine members of her cabinet stand down immediately after they were found guilty of improperly transferring a bureaucrat. 

On Thursday, things got worse for Ms Yingluck when she was found guilty by another tribunal, the National Anti-Corruption Commission, of dereliction of duty in relation to a rice subsidy scheme. If that matter is taken up by the upper house of Thailand’s parliament she could be banned from parliament for five years.

While five people were reported to have been injured and Bangkok’s notoriously bad traffic was snarled even more, Friday’s still-ongoing protests created less chaos than some had anticipated.

But the prospect for further problems has not gone away. On Saturday, Red Shirt supporters of Ms Yingluck and her brother are planning to hold their own rally in Bangkok. Ms Yingluck may be invited to address them.

The clashes are merely the latest developments in years of political turmoil that date back to the ousting of Mr Thaksin by a military coup in 2006.

Since then, three governments led by people close to the former telecommunications tycoon have been forced out by the country’s Constitutional Court. The body was set up by the military-led administration that took over following Mr Thaksin’s ousting.

The clashes underscore the gaping divide between supporters of Mr Thaksin and whose who believe he and his family should play no further role in Thai politics.

It is difficult to pigeonhole either side, but Mr Thaksin has huge support among poorer rural Thais, especially from the north and north-east, who benefited from many of his welfare schemes. On the other side are upper-middle class residents of Bangkok, farmers from the south, elements of the military and parts of the establishment surrounding Thailand’s royal family.

The Bangkok Post reported that Red Shirt leaders had warned their supporters to remain calm and to not to be provoked by the ousting of Ms Yingluck.

Meanwhile, the leader of the protesters, Suthep Thaugsuban delivered a speech to supporters in which he demanded that the Supreme Court president, the Senate speaker and the Election Commission, along with other state agencies, jointly work to oust the current government.

“We want the change of government to be smooth. But if you cannot do it smoothly within three days, we the people will do it in our own way,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “Hand power back to the people.”

The man appointed as the new, interim premier, Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, is a close ally of both Mr Thaksin and his sister. He is supposed to run the country until an election scheduled to take place in July but many observers question whether the poll will go ahead.

Having lost every election since 2001, the opponents of Mr Thaksin have since invested their efforts in non-electoral means to try and ensure he and his family are forced from office.

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