Desperate to defuse Thailand's deepening political crisis, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said Monday she is dissolving the lower house of parliament and called for early elections. But the moves did nothing to stem a growing tide of more than 150,000 protesters vowing to overthrow her in one of the nation's largest demonstrations in years.
Analysts said the steps come too late and are unlikely to satisfy opponents who want to rid Thailand of her powerful family's influence. The protesters are pushing for a non-elected "people's council" to replace her democratically elected government.
In a speech late Monday, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban lashed out against Yingluck, calling her administration "corrupt" and "illegitimate" as crowds of supporters cheered.
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The protest movement does "not consent to allowing the dictatorial majority … to betray the people, to destroy the balance of democratic power," Suthep said. The people must use "their rights as citizens to take back their power," he said.
Thailand has been plagued by major bouts of upheaval since Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled in a 2006 army coup that laid bare a deeper conflict between the elite and educated middle class against Thaksin's power base in the countryside, which benefited from populist policies designed to win over the rural poor.
An attempt by Yingluck's party last month to pass a bill through parliament that would have granted amnesty to Thaksin and others triggered the latest round of unrest. Thaksin fled overseas in 2008 to avoid a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated.
"After listening to opinions from all sides, I have decided to request a royal decree to dissolve parliament," said Yingluck, her voice shaking as she spoke in a nationally televised address that broke into regular programming. "There will be new elections according to the democratic system."
'We will keep on protesting because we want her family to leave this country.' - Boonlue Mansiri, protester
Yingluck's ruling party won the last vote two years ago in a landslide, and is likely to be victorious in any new ballot.
Government spokesman Teerat Ratanasevi said the cabinet had proposed a new vote be held Feb. 2. The date must be approved by the Election Commission, and electoral officials will meet with the government in the next few days to discuss it, said Jinthong Intarasri, a spokeswoman for the commission.
Yingluck said she will remain in a caretaker capacity until a new prime minister is named.
As Yingluck spoke Monday, long columns of marching protesters paralyzed traffic on major Bangkok boulevards, filling four-lane roads as they converged from nine locations on Yingluck's office at Government House. Suthep spoke on a stage erected nearby.
Many feared the day could end violently and more than 60 Thai and international schools closed as a precaution. But the marches were peaceful and no violence was reported.
Resignation not enough, protesters say
Suthep has repeatedly said that calling new elections and even Yingluck's resignation would not be enough to end the conflict.
"We will keep on protesting because we want her family to leave this country," said Boonlue Mansiri, one of tens of thousands who joined a 20-kilometre march to Yingluck's office.
The sentiment was the same across town, where protesters filled a major four-lane road in the city's central business district, waving flags, blowing whistles and holding a huge banner that said, "Get Out Shinawatra."
Asked about the dissolution of Parliament, one middle-aged woman in the crowd said, "It is too late" and "It's not enough."
"At the end of the day, we are going to win," said the woman, who identified herself as Paew. "What happens now? Don't worry. We will figure it out."
Suthep's supporters on Monday appeared to abandon the two places they had occupied for more than a week — the Finance Ministry and part of a vast government complex.
The country's political standoff deepened Sunday after the main opposition party resigned from the legislature en masse to join the anti-government demonstrations. The minority Democrat Party held 153 of the 500 seats in the legislative body, according to the latest figures on their website.
The Democrats — who are closely allied with the protesters — have not won an election since 1992, and some of their leaders appear to have given up on electoral politics as a result.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrats and a former prime minister, led one of the marches through Bangkok on Monday. He declined to comment on whether the party would participate in the next election.
Since the latest unrest began last month, at least five people have been killed and at least 289 injured. Violence ended suddenly last week as both sides paused to celebrate the birthday of the nation's revered king, who turned 86 Thursday.