World Bulletin / News Desk
Thailand's army chief appealed for calm on Thursday ahead of a long holiday weekend during which organisers of anti-government protests that have paralysed politics have called for thousands to take to the streets.
Protesters have been trying since November to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whom they see as a proxy for her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former premier who clashed with the establishment and was ousted by the army 2006.
"Every side must tread carefully and refrain from using violence," General Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters after a meeting with the prime minister at which he reiterated that the coup-prone military was resolved to stay neutral in the crisis.
"If any side uses weapons and the other side reacts, violence will increase and security forces will have to intervene."
Eleven people have been killed and hundreds hurt in sporadic flare-ups since the protests began, although the last week has been calm with numbers at demonstrations dwindling.
Protest leaders have urged supporters to come out in force over the weekend, however, and plan "Love Thailand and Break-up with the Thaksin Regime" events in Bangkok on Friday, Valentine's Day, which coincides with a Buddhist public holiday.
The protesters, who are mainly drawn from Bangkok and the south and are backed by the royalist establishment, say former telecoms tycoon Thaksin has hijacked a fragile democracy with populist policies to woo poorer voters in rural areas, ensuring victory for his parties in every election since 2001.
In a bid to end the demonstrations, Yingluck called a general election on Feb. 2, but protesters disrupted the vote in about a fifth of constituencies, meaning there is not yet a quorum to open parliament and install a new government.
Yingluck, whose administration has been reduced to caretaker status with limited powers until a new government can be formed, said after Thursday's meeting that an election was the only way to resolve the country's problems.
"We want an election to take place as soon as possible so that a new government can come in and resolve the country's problems," she told reporters.
On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court rejected a case brought by the opposition Democrat Partyalleging that the Feb. 2 election was unconstitutional and should be declared invalid. The opposition had boycotted the poll, and further court challenges are likely.
Voting will be rerun on April 20 and 27 in areas where the election was scrapped or halted early because of the protests.
But there is still no date for polling in 28 southern constituencies - Democrat strongholds - where the protesters have prevented candidates from registering.
The protesters, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, are still blocking big intersections in Bangkok and preventing civil servants from going to work in many ministries, even if numbers have fallen.
The protest camps are sparsely populated during the day and the body overseeing a state of emergency in place since mid-January said that little more than 4,000 people were present at the five main sites on Tuesday during the evening, normally the high point, when crowds gather to hear speeches and music.
Suthep was due to meet state prosecutors on Thursday in relation to murder charges he faces over a 2010 crackdown on pro-Thaksin protesters. A warrant will be sought for his arrest, adding to a slew of warrants issued against him.
Suthep was then deputy prime minister in an unelected government installed after a previous pro-Thaksin ruling party was disbanded by the courts. He authorised a crackdown by security forces that killed scores of red-shirt supporters of the tycoon.
TROUBLED RICE SCHEME
Farmers are protesting separately in Bangkok and elsewhere because of the government's failure to pay them for rice bought under a subsidy scheme that has run into funding problems.
Yingluck's Puea Thai Party is strong in the populous, rural regions of the north and northeast, whose voters propelled her to power in the 2011 general election on a platform that included a programme offering farmers a price way above the market for rice.
There was some rare good news for Yingluck on this front on Thursday, when the Commerce Ministrysaid an auction for 400,000 tonnes of rice from stockpiles attracted good demand this week, so it would offer another 500,000 tonnes next week.
That should raise funds to help pay more than a million farmers owed money for rice pledged under the troubled scheme.
In a further potential financial lifeline, state-run KTB Bank, the country's second largest lender, said it planned to offer short-term loan to rice millers and exporters to buy rice paddy. A bank statement gave no details.
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