Thai protesters fight on despite state of emergency

BANGKOK- Defiant Thai opposition protesters vowed to ignore a state of emergency that came into force across the tense capital on Wednesday, refusing to abandon their fight to bring down the government.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is under intense pressure to step down after more than two months of street rallies aimed at ousting her elected government and installing an unelected "people's council".

"We're not taking any notice of the state of emergency and are continuing our protest as usual," rally spokesman Akanat Promphan told AFP.

"It shows that the government is getting desperate because the momentum is with us."

The backdrop to the protests is a years-long political struggle pitting the kingdom's royalist establishment against fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's older brother who was ousted by the military seven years ago.

The 60-day state of emergency enables authorities to impose a curfew, ban public gatherings of more than five people, detain suspects for 30 days without charge and censor media in Bangkok and surrounding areas.

The government has not yet used any of those measures and has said police will keep the leading security role, unlike during pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" rallies in 2010 when the military was ordered onto the streets by the previous government.

Yingluck has called an election for February 2 but the main opposition party is boycotting the vote.

The Election Commission on Wednesday asked the Constitutional Court to delay the polls due to the unrest, its Secretary-General Puchong Nutrawong told AFP, after the government rejected its call for a postponement.

Nine people have been killed and hundreds injured in grenade attacks, drive-by shootings and street clashes since the latest protests began at the end of October.

In an incident likely to fan anger among his supporters, a prominent Red Shirt leader, Kwanchai Praipana, was shot and wounded on Wednesday by an unknown gunman at his house in northeast Thailand.

The demonstrators have staged a self-styled "shutdown" of Bangkok since January 13, erecting roadblocks and rally stages at several main intersections.

The number of protesters on the streets has steadily fallen in recent days, with some rally sites almost deserted during the daytime, although turnout tends to swell in the evening when people leave work.

The Metropolitan Police Bureau estimated there were about 5,000 protesters spread across seven rally sites at around midday on Wednesday.

When the state of emergency was last imposed in 2010 by the previous government more than 90 people were killed and nearly 1,900 injured in a crackdown by soldiers firing live rounds and backed by armoured vehicles.

The imposition of the emergency decree this time appears to be "an exercise intended most immediately to dispel the perception that the government have got their heads down in a bunker somewhere," said Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based security analyst at IHS-Jane's.

"This says that they are focused and serious about taking the situation in hand in the run-up to the election date," he told AFP.

"There's not going to be a crackdown at this stage," he added. "The police frankly don't have what it takes unless they know the army is behind them. And the army isn't behind them."

The military, traditionally a staunch supporter of the anti-Thaksin establishment, has said it wants to remain neutral during the current standoff, although the army chief has refused to rule out another coup to seize power from Yingluck.

The demonstrators accuse the premier of being a puppet for her older brother Thaksin, a controversial tycoon-turned-politician who was ousted as premier in a military coup in 2006 and who lives in Dubai to avoid jail for a corruption conviction.

The protesters see Thaksin as a threat to the monarchy, at a time of disquiet among many Thais about what will happen when revered but ailing 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej's more than six-decade reign comes to an end.

Thaksin still has strong electoral support in northern Thailand thanks to his policies to help the rural poor, and many experts believe Yingluck will win next month's election if it goes ahead.