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Published: Tuesday January 7, 2014 MYT 8:15:13 PM
Updated: Tuesday January 7, 2014 MYT 8:15:13 PM

Thai anti-government protesters march to support Bangkok 'shutdown'

A riot police officer fires a rubber bullet during a demonstration for the media at the Royal Thai Police Sport Club in Bangkok January 7, 2014. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

A riot police officer fires a rubber bullet during a demonstration for the media at the Royal Thai Police Sport Club in Bangkok January 7, 2014. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Protesters trying to topple Thailand's prime minister marched in Bangkok on Tuesday to drum up support for their plans to bring the capital to a halt next week by blockading major roads and preventing the government from functioning.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has called an election for February 2 but the protesters, aware she would probably win on the back of support in the rural north and northeast, want her to step down and be replaced by an appointed "people's council" to push through electoral reforms.

The protesters accuse Yingluck of being a puppet of her self-exiled brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, a man they say is a corrupt crony capitalist who used taxpayers' money to buy electoral support with costly populist giveaways.

The anti-government push is intended to block an election that looks increasingly uncertain. The government's supporters fear that if protests fail to halt the poll, chaos or violence could be instigated to trigger intervention by either the military or the judiciary.

That prospect became more of a possibility on Tuesday when the National Counter-Corruption Commission decided to press charges against 308 former lawmakers, mostly from Yingluck's Puea Thai Party, for trying to change the constitution to make the Senate a fully elected chamber.

The Constitutional Court in November ruled such an amendment illegal.

The impact of a court ruling against those politicians, who do not include Yingluck, is not clear, but it could complicate the election, either before or after it takes place.

Puea Thai adviser Prompong Nopparit shrugged off the charges but questioned the timing of the NCCC's decision to pursue them.

"I'm very curious to know why older legal cases concerning opposition lawmakers still haven't moved forward, but charges against the government side have been rushed," he told Reuters.

The refusal by the army's top general to rule out military intervention also puts Yingluck in a precarious position, aware the top brass is close to the royalist establishment that backs the protests and engineered the overthrow of Thaksin in a 2006 coup, one of 18 successful or attempted overthrows in the past 81 years.

Fears of another coup were compounded this week when tanks and other military equipment were moved into Bangkok ahead of an Army Day parade on January 18.

AMBIGUOUS ARMY

Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha says he wants to keep the military above the fray but some of his recent comments have been ambiguous, including those he made on Tuesday.

"Don't be afraid of things that haven't yet happened," he said when asked about a coup. "But if they happen, don't be frightened. There are rumours like this every year."

Yingluck said military intervention would be a big mistake.

"We've learned from the past that no good comes from coups," she told reporters. "I'd prefer to see a long-term solution ... one that is accepted by the international community."

Yingluck is refusing to postpone the poll, a move she says that would be unconstitutional. Any delay would not only expose her to more attacks, but make it hard to run the country as her caretaker administration is not supposed to make policy decisions that commit the next government.

Several thousand demonstrators are determined to undermine her legitimacy and marched from Bangkok's historic quarter across the river and back, avoiding the centre of the city.

The protests have drawn 200,000 people at their peak and have been mostly peaceful, although clashes between police and demonstrators outside an election registration venue on December 26 saw scores of people wounded and several shot by mystery gunmen. Four people, including two police, died from the shootings.

The authorities are expecting big crowds and say 20,000 police, backed up by troops, will be deployed in the streets on the first day of the planned "shutdown" on Monday to secure government buildings and prevent attempts to create unrest.

"We're concerned about the likelihood of violence ... especially third parties trying to instigate violence," National Security Council Chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr told Reuters. He did not specify which third parties.

Thai markets have felt the pressure. The baht is around a four-year low at 33.10 per dollar, while the stock market has been hit by selling. It rose 2.6 percent on Tuesday, however, a second day of gains, bouncing from the oversold mark for the first time since December 27.

The benchmark index has fallen nearly 14 percent since the beginning of November, when the protests took off as a result of a miscalculation by Puea Thai, which tried to force through an unpopular amnesty bill that would have nullified a 2008 graft conviction against Thaksin and allowed him to return a free man.

The bill was pulled, but it was enough to trigger the latest episode in eight years of political turmoil that pits Bangkok's middle class, southerners and an old-money oligarchy of royalists, conservatives and generals threatened by Thaksin's rise against his mostly poor supporters and tycoons who prospered under his rule.

(Additional reporting by Vorasit Satienlerk, Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Pracha Hariraksapitak; Writing by Alan Raybould and Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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