Thai economy at risk as political rivals vow mass rallies

Thai economy at risk as political rivals vow mass rallies
Anti-government protesters said Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been a puppet of his brother, self-exiled former PM Thaksin Shinawatra.

BANGKOK - Thailand's finance minister expressed concern about a weak currency and damage to the economy on Friday as supporters and opponents of the government prepared for big rallies this month that risk pushing the divided country to the brink of chaos.

Planned infrastructure projects worth US$65 billion intended to boost an economy blighted by political tension and sagging exports would be postponed until the end of the year, Kittirat Na Ranong said, while the baht's slide against the US dollar could hurt imports and raise energy prices.

Protesters intent on toppling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government want to suspend Thailand's fragile democracy by thwarting a February election and installing a "people's council" to reform the political system.

They are planning a "shutdown" of Bangkok from January 13, deepening uncertainty about a poll Yingluck's Puea Thai Party would otherwise be almost certain to win. Protesters have yet to reveal exactly what they will target, or for how long.

The crisis is similar to previous years, with the country polarised over the political dominance of Yingluck's brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, 64, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail sentence.

Many of Bangkok's middle classes, old-money elites and royalists are angered by the influence of a man they say is a corrupt crony capitalist who manipulated the poor with giveaways designed to win votes and entrench the power of his billionaire family and business friends.

However, millions of poor in the north and northeast who benefited from cheap healthcare, micro-loans and generous subsidies hail Thaksin as a hero and are willing to take to the streets to defend his governments.

Those supporters, better known as the "red shirts", held mass rallies in support of Thaksin in 2010, which ended with the deaths of more than 90 people in military offensives to retake occupied sites in Bangkok.

The red shirts, who were instrumental in bringing Yingluck to power in 2011, announced on Friday they would enter the fray by holding rallies of their own outside the capital to protect democracy and counter those staged by the anti-government group.

 

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