Picture: AFP Photo/Christophe Archambault
Thailand's premier called a snap election Monday to try to defuse the kingdom's political crisis, but protesters kept up their fight to topple the government with an estimated 140,000 demonstrators flooding the streets of Bangkok.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has faced more than a month of sometimes-violent protests by boisterous demonstrators storming key government buildings in a bid to suspend the country's democracy in favour of an unelected "People's Council".
Thai opposition lawmakers resigned en masse from parliament Sunday, deepening the political deadlock.
Yingluck, the sister of ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra, announced in a televised national address Monday that she would dissolve the lower house and hold a general election "as soon as possible".
"The government does not want any loss of life," she said, amid fears the mass rallies could bring fresh violence.
But the leaders of the anti-government movement said they were not satisfied and pledged to rid Thailand of the influence of Thaksin, a tycoon-turned-premier who was ousted by royalist generals in a coup seven years ago and now lives in self-exile in Dubai.
"The movement will keep on fighting. Our goal is to uproot the Thaksin regime," protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who faces an arrest warrant for insurrection, told AFP.
Thaksin -- who once described Yingluck as his "clone" -- is widely considered the de facto leader of the ruling party.
Yingluck's Puea Thai party said she was likely to be its candidate for prime minister again in the upcoming election, which it expects to be held on or around February 2.
The political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite backed by the military against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin.
His overthrow in 2006 by generals loyal to the king ushered in years of political turmoil and rival street protests by the royalist "Yellow Shirts" and Thaksin's supporters, known as the "Red Shirts". AFP
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election in more than a decade while the opposition Democrat Party -- whose MPs resigned en masse Sunday because they could not achieve anything in parliament -- has not won an elected majority in about two decades.
Democrat Party officials said Monday they had not yet decided whether to take part in the upcoming election, which must be held within 60 days of the house's dissolution.
"The anti-government protesters want to take over the government. They do not want to contest for government because they have lost each time," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"If they succeed we will likely have more turmoil in Thailand because the pro-government supporters, the so-called Red Shirts, have not been heard so far and we can presume that they must be very angry at the turn of events."
Dozens of people were killed in a military crackdown on mass pro-Thaksin Red Shirt rallies in Bangkok three years ago.
Around 140,000 people were estimated to have joined the protests by early afternoon, according to the government's Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order, which was set up to deal with the unrest.
Demonstrators marched along several routes through the capital towards the government headquarters -- the main target of the rally -- paralysing traffic in parts of the city.
"We don't want politics any more -- no elections. Only the protesters can choose the next government. We choose, then the king appoints them," said one demonstrator who did not want to be named.
Tensions remain high after several days of street clashes last week when police used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets against rock-throwing demonstrators.
The unrest has left five people dead and more than 200 injured. Authorities have said they would try to avoid fresh confrontation.
"Police are unarmed, with only shields and batons. We will not use tear gas, or if we have no choice, its use will be limited," Interior Minister Jarupong Ruangsuwan said ahead of the rally.
"The government believes we can control the situation. We will focus on negotiation," he added.
The demonstrations were triggered by an amnesty bill, since dropped by Yingluck's ruling party, which opponents feared would have cleared the way for Thaksin's return.
The former premier went into exile in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction which he says was politically motivated. AFP