Bangkok Shutdown: Suthep says rallies are 'pro-democracy' in letter to Obama

BANGKOK (AFP) - The leader of Thailand's opposition protests, who has vowed to disrupt upcoming elections, has written to US President Barack Obama telling him that the demonstrators' efforts to topple the government are "pro-democracy".

Suthep Thaugsuban, who this week threatened to "close every route" to polling stations in an effort to stop the February 2 vote, said his movement was "not conducting an antidemocratic uprising" in a letter to the United States president posted on his official Facebook page on Saturday.

The demonstrators, who have staged a near-two week "shutdown" of Bangkok, want polls to be postponed for a year or more and a "people's council" installed in power to implement reforms they hope would destroy the enduring electoral might of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr Suthep said reforms would ensure Thailand was free of "unjust and corrupt leaders in the future" in his letter to the American leader, which comes amid international concern over political unrest that has left nine dead and hundreds injured.

There is also mounting uncertainty over whether elections will take place on schedule, after the country's Constitutional Court on Friday ruled that the polls can be delayed because of the crisis.

Embattled premier Yingluck Shinawatra has previously refused to step down or postpone the vote and her party has questioned whether a delay would stop the protests or persuade the opposition Democrat Party to end its boycott of the elections.

The country is on Sunday due to hold advance voting, seen as a litmus test for the possibility of holding the vote without violence.

Protesters have said they will surround polling stations from early morning, but insist their actions will not obstruct voters.

Thailand has been periodically rocked by sometimes bloody rival mass protests since Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 military coup.

The billionaire tycoon-turned-politician, who lives abroad to avoid a jail term for corruption that he maintains is politically motivated, is adored by communities in the north and northeast and the urbanised working class.

But he is loathed among factions of the country's establishment, the Bangkok middles classes and southerners who accuse him of corruption, "vote buying" and see him as a threat to the kingdom's traditional hierarchies.

In his letter to Mr Obama, Mr Suthep said that while he accepted both Mr Thaksin and Ms Yingluck had been elected, "their elections and their governance represent the gravest of violations of democratic principles".

The former Democrat MP, who abandoned parliament to try to topple the government from the streets, said his strategy was one of "non-violent civil disobedience".

Mr Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for watchdog Human Rights Watch, said that the protest leader should be judged on his actions.

"To prove that it is not against democracy, (the protest movement) needs to change course by rejecting violence and abusive acts, respecting people's rights to vote, tolerating critics, and listening to different opinions," he said.

Protesters, who have besieged government buildings and closed major intersections during their weeks long campaign, marched in Bangkok again on Saturday in defiance of a state of emergency that has been declared in the city.

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