BANGKOK (AP) — The battle for who holds Thailand’s seat of power took on a new twist Monday as the leader of anti-government protests planned to set up his office at the vacated Government House while the country’s new caretaker leader worked from a makeshift, suburban outpost.
The development was the latest to highlight the government’s lack of power as Thailand’s political crisis grinds into its seventh month. One newspaper compared the political situation to a sinking ship that it called the “Thaitanic.”
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who has led the movement for six months, has called for a “final push” to install an unelected new prime minister – a goal that critics call undemocratic but supporters say is a necessary step for implementing anti-corruption reforms before a new election can take place.
Suthep planned to end a months-long occupation of the city’s main park Monday and march his followers across Bangkok to the prime minister’s office compound, called Government House, which has been vacant for months due to violent clashes between protesters and police nearby.
Suthep says he will not occupy the actual prime minister’s office inside the compound’s stately Gothic-style main building but will base himself in the adjacent Santi Maitree Building traditionally used for state visits. In more stable times, the building was used for meetings with dignitaries such as President Barack Obama and Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
There was no apparent resistance to Suthep’s plan. The military that provides security at Government House said over the weekend he would be allowed in to avoid further clashes in a crisis that has left more than 20 dead and hundreds injured since November.
Protesters achieved one of their goals last week when the Constitutional Court dismissed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for nepotism in a case that many viewed as politically motivated.
Analysts, protesters and Thai media agree that the ruling did little to resolve the country’s political turmoil.
“Every so often, the stewards of the nation rearrange the deck chairs, as `Thaitanic’ continues to plough relentlessly further into uncharted territory, without a captain,” The Bangkok Post newspaper said in a Sunday editorial. “The ship is still heading right for that iceberg.”
Protesters had been calling for Yingluck’s ouster but say her removal is not enough, and they want to set up an unelected “people’s council” to implement still-undefined reforms to combat corruption and money politics. They oppose elections scheduled for July, which the current ruling party would likely win.
Yingluck’s Cabinet has named deputy premier Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan as acting prime minister, but protesters say he doesn’t hold the authority and status to be the head of the government.
Like Yingluck, he is forced to work out of the Office to the Permanent Secretary for Defense in the unfashionable suburb of Muang Thong Thani. Niwattumrong was to hold his first news conference with the foreign media later Monday as the crisis continues to batter the country’s image, its tourism industry and overall economy.
Yingluck’s supporters have warned that any attempt to install an unelected prime minister would be a disaster for the nation that could spark “civil war.”
Both supporters and opponents are holding large rallies in the Thai capital, which have raised concerns of violence.
The Senate was also holding a meeting Monday to discuss the crisis following a controversial proposal by Suthep for the presidents of the top courts and the Election Commission to work together to appoint a new leader.
Thailand’s long-running political crisis began in 2006, when Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire, remains highly popular among the rural poor in Thailand’s north and northeast, and parties controlled by him have won every national election since 2001. The anti-government protesters, aligned with the opposition Democrat Party, say they want to remove all traces of his political machine from politics.