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Bangkok's Shut Down and Coup Fears Cripple Thailand

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Security forces and six million residents are worriedly preparing to survive a 19-day "shutdown Bangkok" protest beginning on Monday (Jan. 13), designed to topple the elected government amid fears that the military may help the urban insurrection by staging a coup.

Street clashes have killed at least eight people during the past two months of protests leading to the shutdown which plans to cripple Thailand's government and economy until the end of January.

Tens of thousands of anti-election protesters plan to erect huge stages and makeshift defensive structures at several key intersections, congesting the heart of Bangkok.

"Even demonstrations that are meant to be peaceful can turn confrontational, and can escalate into violence without warning," the American Embassy said on Tuesday (Jan. 7) in an e-mailed "security message for U.S. citizens" describing the upcoming shutdown.

Thousands of people staged a fresh "practice" march in Bangkok on Thursday (Jan. 9), cheering the stocky protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, thrusting cash into his hands, and begging for his autograph.

"Bring your clothes and food with you, because we will fight for months until we achieve victory," Mr. Suthep earlier told 150,000 supporters.

The protesters are denounced by their enemies as "sore losers," "fascists," and "pro-dictatorship."

In turn, the protesters describe the government as "vote buyers" who are imposing a "tyranny of the majority."

A front-page headline in the royalist English-language Bangkok Post on Tuesday (Jan. 7) described a "Coup Panic" within the government because "the military has emerged as the key player".

"The military does not shut, nor open, the door to a coup," Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said in a recent Bangkok Post interview.

"Anything can happen, depending on the situation," said Gen. Prayuth who played a role in a bloodless 2006 coup.

Academics, politicians, and local media warn that this major non-NATO U.S. treaty ally could implode into "civil war" if a coup is launched, because the U.S.-trained military suffers dangerous political divisions.

A post-coup civil war could also erupt because tens of thousands of pro-democracy Red Shirt activists would likely mobilize to fight for their right to vote and protect the government they helped to elect.

The protest includes elements of a class war waged by monarchists and traditional elites who have convinced Bangkok's middle class and some southerners that their urban insurrection is the only way to achieve power.

They are ballot box losers because their poorly led opposition Democrat party candidates have been unable to produce a prime minister through nationwide elections since 1992.

Many protesters despise the prime ministers that poorer northerners, urban laborers, and wealthy "new money" business interests are able to elect.

Today, the Democrat party is allied with protesters boycotting the nationwide Feb. 2 election which would replace a dissolved House of Representatives in the bicameral Parliament.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's popular Pheu Thai ("For Thais") party and their coalition are expected to easily win.

Many urban protesters also discriminate against Thailand's north and northeastern rural ethnic Lao-Thais, perceiving them as uneducated, easily corrupted, and unqualified for equal voting rights.

Some analysts warn that Thailand could become regionally split, with protesters controlling Bangkok and the south, while pro-democracy Red Shirts and others dominate the north and northeast.

Protest leader Mr. Suthep is dodging an arrest warrant for multiple murders allegedly committed in 2010 when he was deputy prime minister in the previous government.

Mr. Suthep allegedly acted in concert with the military to crush a pro-democracy uprising in Bangkok's streets which tried to oust Mr.

Suthep and then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

More than 90 people died in 2010, most of them Reds and other civilians, including at least two innocent people who now comprise the alleged multiple murder case against Mr. Suthep and Mr. Abhisit.

Despite forming a military-backed government through an internal Parliamentary vote in 2008, Mr. Abhisit's Democrat Party lost the next nationwide election in 2011 which brought Ms. Yingluck to power.

The murder charges may be one element prompting Mr. Suthep's protest which is fueled by hate-filled, demagogic rants.

If Mr. Suthep's protest -- or a coup supporting him -- ousts Ms.

Yingluck, it could hamper the murder investigation and court proceedings against Mr. Suthep.

"We have never called for a military coup," Mr. Suthep declared on Sunday (Jan. 5). "We are going to stage our own people's coup."

Authorities recently issued an additional arrest warrant for Mr.

Suthep for leading thousands of people to forcibly occupy government buildings and commit other violations in an "insurrection," which is punishable by life imprisonment or lethal injection.

Police appear unable or unwilling to arrest Mr. Suthep amid fears it could spark widespread violence by his supporters.

During the past two weeks, protesters blocked 29 candidates from registering in the south for the election, amid clashes which left at least three people dead.

Ms. Yingluck's fugitive billionaire brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is meanwhile criticized for his "war on drugs" during his 2001-2006 administration which left more than 2,500 people dead.

Those extrajudicial killings were never fully investigated, and no charges have been laid.

After the 2006 coup toppled the popular Mr. Thaksin, he was convicted of abuse of power and sentenced to two years in jail -- which he is dodging by living abroad -- and $1.2 billion of his assets were seized.

Mr. Thaksin has been heavily involved in helping his sister run the government, and is a target of protesters' anger.

Mr. Suthep, Mr. Abhisit, Mr. Thaksin and the military deny every allegation of wrongdoing, and said they acted within the law.

ENDS

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