- - Monday, January 13, 2014

BANGKOK — Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators aiming to “shut down” Bangkok blocked major thoroughfares into the center of Thailand’s capital Monday, while Thai authorities did little to stop the campaign to topple the elected government and replace it with a panel of appointed technocrats.

Amid Thailand’s biggest political crisis since 2010, the U.S. Embassy emailed a security alert advising Americans in Bangkok to stockpile a “week’s supply of cash [and a] two-week supply of essential items such as food, water and medicine.”

The embassy’s alert, which was published in local media, fueled some panic-buying in this city of more than 10 million people.

One protester reportedly was shot in the neck before dawn Monday. Since November, at least eight people have been killed in clashes as fears of increased violence or even a military coup run high.

Thailand, a key non-NATO ally of the U.S. in Asia, has had several coups and military dictatorships since its founding as a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The military’s chief has said he doesn’t want to be drawn into the conflict, in which mostly well-off city dwellers seek to bring down caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who enjoys widespread support among poor rural folks.

The demonstrators, who accuse the government of corruption, have vowed to stay in the streets for as long as it takes to achieve their goals. They demand that Ms. Yingluck’s administration be replaced by a “people’s council” that would implement reforms they say are needed to end money politics.

The main opposition party is boycotting Feb. 2 elections that Ms. Yingluck has called in a bid to ease tension — and which she and her Pheu Thai (“For Thais”) party almost certainly would win.

Throughout Monday, festive protesters at seven key intersections and on dozens of main streets blew whistles, waved Thai flags, danced to live music and listened to speeches by leaders atop huge makeshift stages.

Thousands who planned to sleep in the streets laid blankets and woven mats, or pitched small tents. Many joined scattered marches to surround the Finance and Foreign Affairs ministries and other government buildings to try to topple the Yingluck administration. Many government officials retreated to backup offices.

Traffic was snarled throughout downtown Bangkok, but most shops, hotels and offices remained open in the commercial districts, including those on blocked streets. Protesters also blocked the Rama VIII bridge, one of several spanning the Chao Phraya River and linking Bangkok to a suburban area of residences, factories, hotels and other businesses.

Tourism and international investment have taken hits in this Buddhist-majority nation, which also is opposing an Islamic insurgency in its southern region. Police ignored protesters’ violations under Ms. Yingluck’s strategy to avoid a crackdown that could cause bloodshed.

Police also have not arrested protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban on a recently issued warrant charging him with multiple murders in 2010, when he was deputy prime minister in the previous government.

At that time, Mr. Suthep was working with the military to crush pro-democracy demonstrators during nine weeks of street clashes, which resulted in more than 90 deaths — most of them civilians. He also is wanted on a recent warrant for “insurrection,” punishable by life imprisonment or lethal injection, for fomenting the crisis.

Ms. Yingluck, who was elected in 2011 in the aftermath of the 2010 crisis, has dissolved Parliament’s lower house and said she has proposed to meet Wednesday with various groups — including her opponents — to discuss a proposal from the Election Commission to postpone the elections, according to Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana.

There was no immediate response from demonstrators, but Mr. Suthep said: “You cannot mediate with this undertaking, you cannot compromise with this undertaking. In this undertaking, there’s only win or lose. Today, we must cleanse Thailand.”

Mr. Suthep said he will continue the blockades until Jan. 31.

Mr. Suthep wants the Yingluck administration to resign immediately and be replaced by a “people’s council” of 400 appointed technocrats who would rule for 18 months.

The protest leader promotes “the idea of a caretaker government of wise, decent, experienced policy experts, [but] the proposals of the pro-technocrats are themselves deeply undemocratic,” U.S.-based political analyst Rich Garella said Monday in Bangkok.

“What the two sides have in common is a lack of faith that the political system will protect their rights and their assets, so they take their politics outside of the political system.”

The government’s supporters “see themselves as protecting democracy, while the pro-technocracy demonstrators see themselves as promoting good government,” Mr. Garella said.

The protests began Oct. 31, after the Yingluck administration proposed an amnesty bill for hundreds of people who faced judicial action for political activity since a bloodless coup in 2006. Critics saw the legislation as a ruse to allow Ms. Yingluck’s brother — former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — to return to Thailand and national politics.

Thaksin was overthrown in the 2006 coup, convicted of abuse of power, and stripped of $1.2 billion of cash and assets. He has lived in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid a two-year prison sentence for the corruption conviction, which he says was politically motivated.

Thaksin is immensely popular among the rural poor, who benefited from his social outreach policies.

Mr. Suthep insists that Thaksin controls Ms. Yingluck as his “puppet.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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