Thai protesters claim authority over government
The head of Thailand's protest movement on Tuesday extended his extraordinary claims to holding power over government activities, issuing orders to officials over whom he has no legal or actual authority.
Suthep Thaugsuban's latest move was bold, but bizarre. He turned the tables on his nemesis, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, saying his opposition group was ordering the prosecution of her on a charge of insurrection - a capital crime for which he himself has been charged for leading temporary occupations of government offices and urging civil servants to refuse to go to work.
The orders from Thaugsuban gave no clue as to how the deadlock over Thailand's political crisis may be resolved, but were likely to keep tensions high after violent clashes early last week between protesters and police.
There is widespread speculation that the military, which has staged about a dozen coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, may be the ultimate arbiter of power, but it insists it is neutral in the political struggle.
Yingluck said earlier Tuesday that she would not resign ahead of national elections set for Feb. 2. Her opponents scorned her declaration and claimed they would appoint their own government in her place.
Yingluck spoke one day after she announced the elections - and one day after Suthep told his followers to stay in the streets and insisted his movement had more right to power than the elected government.
The brazen claim - unbacked by law or control of any state institutions - has nonetheless been taken seriously by protesters and some Thai media.
The protesters want to oust Yingluck, accusing her of serving as a proxy for her billionaire brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction but still wields immense influence in the country.
In addition to calling for Yingluck be prosecuted for insurrection for allegedly trying to overthrow the constitution, Suthep in a speech late Tuesday night told the police chief to order all his men to withdraw from their posts in 12 hours and said soldiers should take responsibility for protecting government offices.
In what he called the second "order" of his "People's Democratic Reform Committee," he also called on people to "monitor" the movements of the Shinawatra family and their allies, and express their feelings toward them in a "non-violent way." Although couched in legalistic language, it was an obvious appeal for his supporters to harass their targets.
On Monday, Suthep called for civil servants to report to the protest group instead of the government, and urged citizens to set up their own neighborhood peacekeeping forces to take over from police. The protesters have castigated the police for being zealous defenders of the government.
Suthep said Tuesday evening that his "People's Democratic Reform Committee" would name a prime minister who is "acceptable to the people" as a stepping stone for installation of a temporary non-elected reform administration.
He sidestepped questions about the proposal's constitutionality. He has said the ultimate goal is to hold free and fair elections and purge Thailand of corruption and money politics.
The streets of Bangkok were quiet Tuesday, a national holiday, after weeks of sometimes violent political turmoil.
Yingluck insisted Tuesday that she would remain the interim head of government until the elections. "I must do my duty as caretaker prime minister according to the constitution," she said.
"I have retreated as far as I can. So I ask to be treated fairly," she said.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, was toppled by a 2006 military coup that laid bare a deeper conflict between Thailand's elite and largely urban middle class on one side, and Thaksin's power base in the countryside on the other. That base benefited from his populist policies designed to win over the rural poor.
Ever since, the two sides have been dueling for power, sometimes violently. Since the latest unrest began last month, at least five people have been killed and at least 289 injured.
The protesters were not satisfied by Monday's announcement of new elections, saying they cannot win the polls because of corruption. The opposition Democrat Party, allied with the protest movement, has been defeated by Thaksin-allied parties in every election since 2001.
A newly formed group of more than 150 academics and intellectuals calling themselves the Assembly for the Defense of Democracy criticized the protesters' claims of having a legal basis for taking over the government, describing them Tuesday as "neither constitutional nor democratic."
"They destroy the process of building political will through peaceful means in a democracy and they will lead the country to violent crisis," the group's founding statement said.
"What Suthep (and his group) are trying to do is launch a coup, but they have not succeeded," said Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a lecturer in law at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "What is clear is that they want a transition to a fascist system."
Associated Press writers Papitchaya Boonngok, Tim Sullivan, Todd Pitman, and Jinda Wedel contributed to this report.