Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said Tuesday she would not resign ahead of national elections set for Feb. 2, despite opposition demands she step down as the caretaker head of government.
Yingluck spoke one day after she announced elections — and one day after the main opposition leader ended a massive protest rally of 150,000 people by insisting his movement had now assumed broad political power.
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The streets of Bangkok were quiet Tuesday, a national holiday, after weeks of sometimes violent political turmoil as the protesters demand Yingluck give up power to an unelected "people's council."
The protesters accuse Yingluck of serving as a proxy for her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction. They want to keep the politically powerful Shinawatra family from wielding influence in the country.
'My duty' to be caretaker PM
Yingluck told reporters Tuesday that "I must do my duty as caretaker prime minister according to the constitution ... After the parliament is dissolved there must be elections according to the constitution. Then, the newly elected prime minister can assume his or her position."
She grew teary eyed when asked about her family's role in Thai politics, saying she did not understand why her family had become an issue.
Her brother, Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire, was toppled by a 2006 military coup that laid bare a deeper conflict between Thailand's elite and largely urban middle class on one side, and Thaksin's power base in the countryside on the other. That base benefited from his populist policies designed to win over the rural poor.
Ever since, the two sides have been duelling for power, sometimes violently. Since the latest unrest began last month, at least five people have been killed and at least 289 injured.
The latest round of protests started last month when Yingluck's party tried to pass a bill that would have granted amnesty to Thaksin and others.
Protesters unhappy with new elections
The protesters were not quieted by Monday's announcement of new elections, saying they cannot win the polls because of corruption. The opposition Democrat Party, allied with the protest movement, has been defeated by Thaksin-allied parties in every election since 2001.
A decree from King Bhumibol Adulyadej scheduled the elections on Feb. 2 and named Yingluck as interim prime minister until then.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who faces an arrest warrant on insurrection charges, spoke to more than 150,000 followers Monday at a stage near Yingluck's offices, challenging authorities to "Come get me!"
He claimed that his movement was assuming some functions of government, citing a clause in the constitution stating that "the highest power is the sovereign power of the people."
"This means that from now on the people will appoint the prime minister of the people and appoint the government of the people," he told the cheering crowd.
He said a new prime minister and an unelected "people's council" — which has no basis in the constitution — would work to end corruption in politics and keep Yingluck and her brother from returning to power.
But there was no sign Tuesday that Suthep's movement had assumed any government powers, or that Yingluck's administration would cede any to them.
Suthep on Monday called for civil servants to report to the protest group instead of the government, and urging citizens to set up their own neighbourhood peacekeeping forces to take over from police. The protesters have castigated the police for being zealous defenders of the government.
If we lose to the "Thaksin regime," he said, "we will be their slaves until we die."
Tuesday was a national holiday in Thailand, so few civil servants went to work.