Thailand to stage elections despite anti-poll protests
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand will stage elections on Feb. 2 despite anti-poll protests, but the government retreated to safer buildings and emergency systems to protect U.S. and other international, domestic and military flights after threats to knockout the nation's air traffic telecommunications, officials said on Wednesday (Jan. 15).
The American Embassy meanwhile is telling Thais how to solve the worsening crisis in this vital non-NATO ally of the U.S. in Asia.
"We've been urging them all to find a peaceful dialogue, a democratic solution forward, and there are some signs that there are people on all sides who are willing and ready to look for some sort of peaceful solution," U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on Wednesday (Jan. 15).
"I think our focus right now needs to stay on encouraging all sides, not just pro- and anti-government, but civil society, business leaders, academics to find a way toward a peaceful dialogue and keep the focus on the democratic processes and the democratic solutions," Ms. Kenney told BBC TV.
A hard-line faction of demonstrators marched to the U.S. Embassy in December, denouncing Ms. Kenney "because she bad-mouthed the protesters" after the U.S. State Department said it supported Thailand's democratic process instead of the government's immediate overthrow.
That same hard-line faction said if Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra does not resign by Wednesday (Jan. 15), they will shut down the Aeronautical Radio of Thailand -- known as Aerothai -- which controls all air traffic above Thailand.
Those flights include all U.S. and other international and domestic passenger, military, cargo and private planes flying above, into, and from this Southeast Asian country.
"I do not want to challenge the protesters, but I am asking them not to lay siege to the Aerothai center, because it will affect the country's image and international confidence in our air traffic control operations," Aerothai's president Squadron Leader Prachak Sajjasophon said on Tuesday (Jan. 14).
Aerothai is in a small military base behind gates guarded by troops armed with assault rifles, in a leafy residential area walking distance to protesters' barricades.
Ms. Yingluck, the police, and military have refused to use deadly force against protesters because officials do not want to be responsible for killing people or escalating the confrontation.
To protect the flights, Sqn. Ldr. Prachak said Aerothai has booted up an emergency system to use if the main facility is attacked.
"The backup system has been turned on. We just pushed a button and it is now operational," he told reporters.
"With our backup system, air traffic control will not be affected even if operations at the [main Bangkok] center are shut down."
About 2,000 international and domestic flights cross the sky above Thailand each day, including 1,400 landing in Bangkok, he said.
If Aerothai is shut, "jumbo jets would fly blind, and several could crash into each other or into the ground," and the assault would be a "terrorist" act, the Bangkok Post's editorial warned on Wednesday (Jan. 15).
Aerothai is Thailand's overall system, different from control towers which handle aircraft at each airport.
Thousands of protesters reinforced blockades on several downtown streets on Wednesday (Jan. 15), the third day of their "shut down Bangkok" campaign to install appointed technocrats to replace the popularly elected government.
Ms. Yingluck confirmed on Wednesday (Jan. 15) a nationwide election for Parliament's dissolved House of Representatives would go ahead on Feb. 2 as scheduled.
She considered postponing the polls, but advisers said it would not resolve the crisis because protesters refuse to allow the election whenever it is held.
Led by career politician Suthep Thaugsuban, the protesters want a 400-man "people's council" of appointed technocrats to spend 18 months slashing the governing system so Thailand has less democracy.
Their new system would limit the number and power of elected politicians, and stack the government with other appointees.
Mr. Suthep hopes that will stop the majority of voters repeatedly electing politicians loyal to Ms. Yingluck's popular billionaire brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 military coup.
Faced with thousands of protesters barricading streets, jeering at government officials, and threatening to occupy government buildings, Ms. Yingluck and her cabinet now run the country from alternative fortified locations.
These include security forces' facilities, convention centers, private offices, and elsewhere in the government's asymmetrical mouse-and-cat game to avoid protesters besieging their offices.
Protesters include wealthy and middle-class Bangkok residents, businesses, royalists and their supporters among a polarized military, Buddhist clergy and southern voters.
Ms. Yingluck and her brother Mr. Thaksin draw their support from northern rural and urban areas neglected by Bangkok's elite, plus rich investors competing with the protesters' industrial backers.
At least eight people have been killed in street clashes since Mr.
Suthep's rallies began on Oct. 31.
Fights continued during the past few nights with shootings, small explosions, and arson attacks injuring several people before dawn on Wednesday (Jan. 15).
Much of sprawling Bangkok appears normal with most residents avoiding protesters' road blocks and marches.
Shopping malls, businesses and other facilities remained opened.
Ms. Yingluck's biggest threat appears to be from courts appointed after the 2006 coup designed to impeach, ban, fine or imprison politicians for constitutional violations or corruption.