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Thai PM protests innocence amid sacking threat

A woman and her pets drive near a blockade in Bangkok on February 19, 2014 as a convoy of trucks carrying anti-government protesters set off for a defence ministry complex where Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been holding meetings/AFP

A woman and her pets drive near a blockade in Bangkok on February 19, 2014 as a convoy of trucks carrying anti-government protesters set off for a defence ministry complex where Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been holding meetings/AFP

BANGKOK, Feb 20 – Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra protested her innocence on Thursday after an anti-corruption panel filed charges of neglect of duty that could lead to her removal from office.

The embattled premier is under intense pressure from various legal challenges and almost four months of mass street protests demanding her resignation.

Yingluck questioned why the investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) into an expensive rice subsidy scheme had apparently been fast tracked.

“I reaffirm that I am innocent of the accusations by the NACC,” Yingluck said on her official Facebook page.

“Even though I am accused of criminal charges and face removal (from office), which were the wishes of people who want to overthrow the government, I am willing to cooperate to establish the facts,” she added.

The NACC says Yingluck ignored warnings that the rice scheme was fostering corruption and causing financial losses. She has been summoned to hear the charges on February 27.

Yingluck urged the panel not to rush to deliver a ruling “which may be criticised by society as benefiting people who want to overthrow the government”. She noted that similar complaints against the previous administration were still under investigation.

Her critics say the controversial scheme, which guarantees farmers above-market rates for rice, has encouraged corruption, drained the public coffers and left the country with a mountain of unsold stock.

Yingluck said she was simply trying to improve the lives of farmers, some of whom have staged protests because they have not been paid for months under the scheme a delay the government has blamed on the demonstrations.

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Hundreds of farmers driving trucks and tractors were heading towards the capital in a slow moving convoy, with some local media reports suggesting they plan to go to Bangkok’s main airport on Friday to voice their demands for payment.

Suvarnabhumi Airport director Rawewan Netrakavesna said they would be allowed to gather in a designated area but added that more than 1,000 soldiers and police were on standby to provide security.

“I think they (the farmers) will come to stage a symbolic protest but they cannot shut the airport,” she said.

Thailand’s tourist industry still has painful memories of 2008 when opposition protesters paralysed Bangkok’s main airports, stranding thousands of travellers.

In another setback to Yingluck, a Civil Court on Wednesday ordered the government not to use force against peaceful protests, limiting the authorities’ scope to deal with opposition rallies that have descended into violence on several occasions.

Authorities announced they would swiftly appeal the decision, saying it has crippled their ability to keep order and uphold the law.

“Protesters can lay seige to government offices and obstruct elections as the public has seen,” Tarit Pengdith, of the agency in charge of the security response to the crisis, said in a televised address Thursday.

“That’s not right,” he said, adding their work “has been stopped” by the court ruling.

Sixteen people have been killed, both protesters and policemen, and hundreds injured in gunfire and grenade blasts linked to demonstrations.

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New York-based Human Rights Watch accused both sides of using live ammunition in clashes on Tuesday in Bangkok’s historic district in which five people were killed and dozens wounded.

“Excessive force by the police and violence by groups on both sides of the political divide needs to stop to prevent this situation from escalating out of control,” HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement.

The government has said security forces used only rubber bullets and not live ammunition.

Protesters accuse Yingluck’s billionaire family of using taxpayers’ money to buy the loyalty of rural voters through populist policies such as the rice scheme.

Shinawatra business interests are the latest target of the demonstrators, with their firebrand protest leader calling for a boycott of several companies.

“All Shinawatra businesses must collapse,” Suthep Thaugsuban told a cheering crowd outside a building linked to the family.

The opposition demonstrators want Yingluck to step down and make way for a temporary unelected government that would oversee loosely defined reforms to tackle corruption and alleged vote buying.

The main opposition party boycotted a February 2 election which Yingluck called to try to defuse the protests. The results are not expected to be known until balloting is held in constituencies where voting was disrupted by protesters.

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