Thais seen lifting state of emergency as business suffers

BANGKOK Tue Mar 11, 2014 2:47pm IST

Anti-government protesters gather during a rally at the Shinawatra building in central Bangkok March 7, 2014. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Anti-government protesters gather during a rally at the Shinawatra building in central Bangkok March 7, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand is expected to lift a state of emergency in Bangkok, almost two months after it was imposed to quell anti-government protests, because of pressure from businesses and in light of improving security, a top official said on Tuesday.

Protesters trying to bring down Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and end what they see as the pervasive influence of her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, have been on the streets for four months.

The political conflict is unnerving consumers, with confidence at a 12-year low, and automakers, property firms and hotels in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy are feeling the pinch.

Twenty-three people have been killed, most of them in shootings and grenade blasts, since late November and the bloodshed is scaring tourists away from Bangkok.

National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr said there was a "very high chance" the emergency in Bangkok and some surrounding areas would be lifted soon.

"Business organisations have asked that it be lifted and the overall situation is easing," Paradorn told reporters.

The protests are the latest turmoil to rattle a country broadly divided between urban, middle-class supporters of the royalist establishment and the rural supporters of former telecoms tycoon Thaksin, mostly in the north and northeast.

Thaksin's supporters say he was the first Thai political leader to keep campaign promises to help the poor.

His critics, who say he is the real power behind his sister's government, say he used his wealth and taxpayers' money on wasteful populist policies that have allowed him to commandeer a fragile democracy.

In their bid to bring Yingluck down, the demonstrators tried to occupy ministries and other state offices and they later blocked major Bangkok intersections. Early this month, with numbers dwindling, they withdrew to a city centre park.

BLASTS

Despite the easing tension, the violence has not ended.

Three people were injured on Tuesday when an explosive device was thrown into Lumpini Park, where the protesters have set up camp. On Monday night, a grenade was thrown near a protest site in north Bangkok. No one was hurt.

With the army not intervening to oust Yingluck, as it did in 2006 with a coup against Thaksin, the protesters are hoping the courts, widely seen as supportive of the anti-Thaksin establishment, will eventually bring her down.

Yingluck faces various legal challenges, with one of the potentially most serious being a charge of dereliction of duty brought against her by the anti-corruption agency over a financially ruinous rice-subsidy scheme that has left hundreds of thousands of farmers unpaid.

A Bangkok civil court sharply limited the government's powers on February 19, prohibiting the use of force to crack down on protesters and stopping authorities from banning gatherings.

Paradorn said that the ruling had removed a reason for maintaining the emergency as it limited what the government could do under it anyway.

A February 2 election, disrupted by protesters and boycotted by the main opposition Democrat Party, failed to resolve the impasse and left Yingluck, whose party is likely win the vote, head of a caretaker government with limited spending power.

The government is waiting for a Constitutional Court ruling on when it can hold voting in districts where the polling on February 2 was disrupted.

Speaking to reporters, Yingluck said the sooner voting was completed the faster the country could move on.

"I want every side to wait for the Constitutional Court ruling. If it comes quickly we can move toward elections quickly," said Yingluck.

"We have wasted enough time and opportunities."

(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Robert Birsel & Kim COghill)

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