Thai anti-Thaksin protests to hit Bangkok malls
BANGKOK, Mar 29: Protesters trying to oust Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra shift their focus to Bangkok's shopping district today, threatening gridlock in a city of traffic jams and erosion of public support for their cause.
The planned three-day demonstration is a last throw of the dice before Sunday's general election for the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the ad hoc metropolitan coalition bent on removing the billionaire telecoms tycoon from office.
The strategy of targeting top-end consumers could backfire.
Polls suggest that only 20 per cent of people in and around the capital support rallies against Thaksin, whom critics accuse of corruption, cronyism and abuse of power.
''The very people who the PAD is trying to attract are the prospective victims of the disruptive downtown demonstrations,'' Chulalongkorn University lecturer Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote in the Bangkok Post today.
In its latest ABAC poll, conducted on Monday, Assumption University said only 26 per cent of Bangkok residents thought Thaksin should quit, compared to 27 per cent two days previously and 48 per cent three weeks previously.
The poll had 42 per cent of 1,116 respondents saying Thaksin should stay, compared to a low of 26 per cent on March 6.
Government spokesman Surapong Suebwonglee said the protest could cost businesses up to 300 million baht (8 million dollars) a day.
With traffic chaos predicted on the city's already notoriously clogged roads, police were urging commuters to use public transport, in particular the Metro or elevated Skytrain.
MALLS CLOSE Three of the glitziest malls, including the newly opened Siam Paragon which claims to be southeast Asia's largest shopping centre, have said they will have to close because the protest will block access for deliveries and customers.
''To help ease Bangkok traffic woes, please leave your cars at home and take the Skytrain,'' traffic police chief Panu Gerdlabpol announced on Bangkok radio.
His advice seemed to have some effect, with park-and-ride commuters complaining of congestion in outlying districts. ''It took me longer than usual to find a space because there were so many more cars today,'' said one software engineer who arrived 30 minutes late for work. ''Even if Siam Paragon opened their midnight sale promotion tonight, I would shop somewhere else,'' said one fund manager.
Barricades were erected along the 100-metre (yard) walkway in front of three malls as 100 security guards stood by.
Just blocks away, more than 1,000 farmers besieged the offices of state-run Krung Thai Bank demanding a halving of their debts.
The farmers said they would block traffic outside the bank if their demand was not met by today, adding to the problem.
On Sunday, 10,000 protesters marched through the same central shopping district, past Siam Paragon and along Sukhumvit road, the location for several other malls.
Motorists and shoppers caught in the congestion were furious, with some saying they supported the campaign against Thaksin but thought disrupting ordinary lives was too much.
Thaksin himself, on a Buddhist pilgrimage in his northern hometown of Chiang Mai as the election nears, appeared unperturbed and said the government would use restraint in dealing with the protesters.
''We won't use force because we don't want violence, but everyone has to abide by the rules,'' he said.
His Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, which won 377 of 500 seats in parliament in a February 2005 general election, is expected to win another thumping majority in the April 2 poll.
However, an opposition boycott means the result is likely to be constitutionally invalid, since unopposed TRT candidates in staunchly anti-Thaksin seats will struggle to win a 20 percent threshold of eligible votes.