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The Star Online: World Updates

Seven injured in Thai protest shooting, military chief fears escalating violence

Posted: 10 Jan 2014 10:00 PM PST

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Seven people were wounded, one seriously, after gunmen opened fire on anti-government protesters in Bangkok early on Saturday, heightening fears of more violence when protesters try to "shutdown" the capital next week in their long-running bid to overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

"Two shootouts occurred in the early hours of this morning at an intersection near the Khao San Road tourist area. Altogether seven people were injured, most of them anti-government protesters. We are still investigating who the gunmen were," said national police chief Adul Saengsingkaew.

One of the injured protesters remains in a critical condition, according to the Erawan Medical Center which monitors Bangkok hospitals.

The incident follows clashes between government supporters and protesters on Friday outside Bangkok that left at least six people injured.

At a celebration to mark national Children's Day on Saturday Thailand's army chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha, said he feared an escalation in violence next week.

"I am concerned about security because there will be many people. The violence is increasing...," said Prayuth.

"We can think differently but we cannot kill each other. Please don't use violence."

The turmoil is the latest episode in an eight-year conflict that pits Bangkok's middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a military coup in 2006.

The protesters accuse the Shinawatra family of corruption and nepotism. Yingluck called a snap election for February 2, but this failed to placate protesters, who want her government to resign to make way for an unelected people's council to oversee political reform.


Many Thais believe the military will soon step in to break the political deadlock, especially if the protests turn violent, and rumours of an impending coup have intensified.

The army has staged or attempted 18 coups in 81 years, but it has tried to remain neutral this time.

The authorities say they will deploy more than 14,000 troops and police on Monday, including police at the main airport, to maintain order in the streets.

Protesters led by former opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban aim to paralyse Bangkok starting Monday for between 15 and 20 days. They plan to block seven main intersections, causing gridlock in a city clogged with traffic at the best of times, and say they could block other areas as part of their prolonged siege of the city.

Paralysing Bangkok is the latest bid in a two-month attempt by protesters to topple Yingluck.

Eight people, including two officers, have been killed and scores injured in violence between protesters, police and government supporters in recent weeks.

The government has repeatedly played down talk of a military intervention but officials said on Friday it had a plan to counter a coup if there was one.

"I don't think any coup will happen... this Monday the army and the police will take care of the (security) situation," Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told foreign media on Friday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a news conference in New York on Friday urged all sides to show restraint as Thailand's latest round of protests gathered pace.

"I am very concerned that the situation could escalate in the days ahead, particularly next Monday... when protesters said they will shut down Bangkok," Ban said.

"I urge all involved to show restraint, avoid provocative acts and settle their differences peacefully, through dialogue."

(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Michael Perry)

Coup-prone Thailand looks to army chief to break deadlock

Posted: 10 Jan 2014 07:00 PM PST

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Standing inside one of Bangkok's many military bases is a giant poster of Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha in full dress uniform, along with a list of attributes. "Intelligent," reads the poster. "Knowledgeable. Modern. Visionary."

As Bangkok braces for a "shut down" by anti-government protesters on Monday, and rumours multiply that yet another military coup is imminent, another adjective for General Prayuth springs to mind: opaque.

Paralysing Bangkok is the latest bid in a two-month attempt by protesters to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose brother, Thaksin, was overthrown in the last military coup in 2006.

Yingluck called a snap election for February 2, but this failed to mollify protesters, who want her government to resign in favour of an unelected people's council to oversee political reform.

Many Thais believe the military will soon step in again to break the political deadlock, especially if next week's citywide protests turn violent.

But Prayuth, 59, has remained noncommittal, brushing aside rumours of a military coup while deftly side-stepping an outright denial.

It wasn't always so. Famous for irascible exchanges with the media, Prayuth once suggested coups were obsolete and slammed rumour-mongers for damaging the country.

As Thailand's latest round of protests gathered pace, however, his public statements have fuelled rather than scotched the rumours.

"I cannot confirm whether there will or will not be a coup," he said on January 7.

Two weeks earlier, Prayuth likened the unrest between pro- and anti-government protesters to an intersection where he had the power to "turn the lights red" to stop traffic from left and right colliding.

"The odds of an all-out military coup remain lower for now but will increase as instability drags on," said Christian Lewis, a Southeast Asia specialist at political risk consultants Eurasia Group. "Prayuth and the military will most likely intervene only if the police lose control of an eroding security situation."


Thousands of protesters have taken to Bangkok's streets since November, accusing the Shinawatra family of corruption and nepotism.

The protests, which have drawn 200,000 people at their peak, have been mostly peaceful.

Four people, including two police officers, died of gunshot wounds and scores were injured after protesters clashed with police outside a stadium on December 26 while candidates registered for the election.

In broad terms, the current crisis pits the Thai elite, including military generals and royalists, and the educated middle-classes against supporters of twice-elected former prime minister Thaksin, who now lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail for a graft conviction he says was politically motivated.

But with Yingluck clinging onto power and protesters refusing to back down, analysts say protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, can only win with Prayuth's backing.

That has sparked fears that protagonists might instigate an attack on protesters during next week's rallies in hopes of provoking army intervention.

But senior officers told Reuters the military is reluctant to see a repeat of the September 2006 coup, which Prayuth helped execute as a deputy regional commander and plunged the country into years of turmoil.

"Prayuth is aware that dealing with the problem by staging a coup is not constructive and, after a while, the same problems will come back again," said army spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukhondhadhpatipak.

Born in northeast Thailand, now a stronghold for Thaksin supporters, Prayuth has a reputation for "hard-headed decisiveness", wrote Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based analyst at security consulting firm IHS-Jane's, after Prayuth was appointed in October 2010.

"An officer of polished social skills, he has become a regular visitor to the palace, suggesting that in royal circles he is seen as a vital figure to ensure the future stability of both the nation and the monarchy," said Davis.

Prayuth also established a cordial relationship with Yingluck after her election the following year. He has repeatedly said he wants the military to remain politically neutral.

Yet Prayuth, who is a few months shy of mandatory retirement, commands a highly politicised army. It has played a pivotal role in a country that has seen 18 successful or attempted coups in the past 81 years.

"Prayuth was involved in a coup once before and knows that after a coup come many obstacles," said Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political analyst at Ramkamhaeng University in Bangkok.

"He has shown no political ambitions but even if he did, staging a coup today is much more difficult than in 2006. Thailand is a different country and he risks upsetting the politically awakened masses," he said, referring to Thaksin's supporters who would be outraged if his sister's government was overthrown.


Prayuth faces another dilemma from some rank-and-file soldiers in green uniforms dubbed "watermelons" - green on the outside with red, pro-Thaksin, sympathies on the inside.

Fissures within the army were evident during a bloody April and May 2010 crackdown on pro-Thaksin red shirts in Bangkok who were demanding fresh elections and the resignation of pro-establishment Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Some soldiers openly sympathised with red-shirted protesters, tipping off the group's leaders ahead of a planned army operation, unnerving the top brass and sapping troop morale. Ensuing clashes between soldiers and anti-government protesters killed 91 people. More than 2,000 were wounded.

"Last time the objective was to protect the Abhisit government which many soldiers disliked. But this time any decision by the generals will be made carefully and to protect national interests and all sides," said army spokesman Werachon.

"Of course, there are some 'watermelon' soldiers but they know that, as an army, we have to present a united front."

Compounding the situation is the complex web of loyalties within the army establishment.

Prayuth belongs to a powerful clique that includes retired former defence minister General Prawit Wongsuwan and former army chief General Anupong Paochinda, who both despise Thaksin.

A December 13 Reuters report revealed both men secretly back protest leader Suthep and his ambitions to eradicate Thaksin's influence from Thailand. Prayuth is pulled between his loyalty to Anupong and Prawit, and his desire to restore the army's image after the 2010 clashes.

When Thailand was hit by its worst floods in decades in 2011 he went on a media blitz to promote the army by sending soldiers to help civilians.

(This version of the story corrects Prayuth's 2006 rank to deputy regional commander in paragraph 18.)

(Editing by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Robert Birsel)

Spain's Sacyr sees progress in talks with Panama Canal

Posted: 10 Jan 2014 05:20 PM PST

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Sacyr, the Spanish building company leading a consortium to expand the Panama Canal, said on Friday it was making progress in talks with the waterway's operator over financing to avoid a damaging work stoppage on the multi-billion dollar project.

Visiting Panama, Sacyr Chairman Manuel Manrique played down an acrimonious spat over cost overruns, in which the group demanded more money from the canal administrator to continue work on a third set of locks for the canal.

"We are advancing day by day, and I am optimistic and hope we will soon have a happy ending," Manrique told Reuters in an interview in the Panamanian capital.

Manrique said the consortium, which includes Italian builder Salini Impregilo, would process its claim for $1.6 billion in cost overruns via arbitration.

Earlier this month, the consortium threatened to halt work from January 20 unless the Panama Canal Authority footed the bill.

"We are going to continue with the project and we are going to follow what the contract says," Manrique said. "The trouble is that arbitration takes longer than the project. There is a lack of cashflow which we have to solve."

The Sacyr chief said he hoped work would not stop, and expected to return to Panama in the middle of next week for further talks.

The canal authority and consortium have both floated financing proposals. But it was not immediately clear how they would ensure cashflow in the short term to keep afloat the plan to expand one of the world's most important cargo routes.

The Panama Canal Authority said this week it was ready to bring in a third party to finish the expansion if no deal was reached with the consortium on financing.

Halting construction on the project would be a setback for companies eager to move larger vessels through the century-old waterway such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) producers who want to ship exports from the U.S. Gulf coast to Asian markets.


The Panama Canal on Wednesday rejected a consortium proposal that it pay $1 billion to continue work on expanding the waterway. Under a separate plan, the consortium has proposed that the canal authority pay out a $400 million cash advance.

The canal has suggested it and the consortium each provide $100 million to keep work going, and said it would also delay repayment of a previously disbursed $83 million advance.

Work began on the expansion in 2007 to create a new lane of traffic along the canal and double its capacity. The overall project is 72 percent complete.

Last week, the consortium, which also features Belgium's Jan De Nul and Panama's Constructora Urbana, said it had faced the added costs due to unforeseen setbacks in the $3.2 billion section of the project to build the new locks.

The group said flawed geological studies carried out by the authority had caused the cost overruns.

U.S. diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks showed the government of Panama President Ricardo Martinelli was worried about progress before six months had passed.

Sacyr won the canal contract in 2009 with an offer considerably below the main rival bids and also below the $3.48 billion reference set by the canal authority.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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