Militant Thai group poses fresh threat

BANGKOK - Blocking traffic and barricading government buildings have become standard practice for protesters in Bangkok, but a militant faction turned up the heat on Monday when it threatened to seize the stock exchange and the state air traffic control agency if Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra did not step down.

The group appears to have backed off on its air traffic threat - for now. But whatever it does next may be the deciding factor in Thailand's political crisis because its actions may escalate tensions beyond control.

The so-called Network of Students and People for the Reform of Thailand (NSPRT) is emerging as one of the most volatile factions of the protest movement. It is led by Ramkhamhaeng University student union leader Uthai Yodmanee as well as lawyer Nititorn Lamlua. Both were involved in protests that preceded the 2006 ouster of Ms Yingluck's brother and then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a military coup.

Thaksin is accused of controlling the government from abroad, where he is in self-exile to evade a graft-related jail sentence.

Last November, on the same day that protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban led a group to occupy the Finance Ministry, the NSPRT unexpectedly invaded the compound of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In the middle of last month, it led a march to the US Embassy in Bangkok, accusing Washington of siding with the government. Mr Nititorn reportedly said: "If (US Ambassador Kristie Kenney) needs to leave the embassy, she will have to go by helicopter."

Later that same month, NSPRT-led protesters tried to invade the election registration centre in Bangkok, leading to clashes with the police, who fired tear gas, rubber bullets and used water cannon. A policeman and one other person died.

So, it was no surprise when the group threatened on Monday to take over the stock exchange and Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (Aerothai), the state enterprise which handles air traffic control communications.

According to Reuters, Mr Nititorn said the stock exchange represented "a wicked capitalist system that provided the path for Thaksin to become a billionaire".

The People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), a network which is coordinating the protests, was quick to do damage control. It said on its Facebook page on Tuesday: "The PDRC is not seizing, nor do we have any plans to seize, the Stock Exchange of Thailand, Aerothai, any method of public transportation, train stations or any airports."

This seeming lack of control over the NSPRT makes its actions unpredictable and dangerous.

IHS-Jane's analyst Anthony Davis said: "They and other smaller groups like that represent the main threat when it comes to things sliding into violence."

tanhy@sph.com.sg


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