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Thai leader's supporters chain anti-graft agency

By Grant Peck

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26 2014 7:44 a.m. MST

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, center, leaves the Thai Air Force headquarters after a cabinet meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Supporters of Thailand's embattled prime minister chained shut the headquarters of the National Anti-Corruption Commission on Wednesday, a day before it plans to charge her with mishandling a government rice subsidy program.

Wason Wanichakorn, Associated Press

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BANGKOK — Supporters of Thailand's embattled prime minister chained shut the headquarters of the National Anti-Corruption Commission on Wednesday, a day before it plans to charge her with mishandling a government rice subsidy program.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's supporters, called Red Shirts, are copying the tactics of her opponents, who have blocked roads and government agencies since December to pressure her to resign.

The Red Shirts believe the anti-graft agency is persecuting the prime minister. They have built a stage at their demonstration site and said they will bar the anti-corruption commissioners from their offices Thursday. Several also chained themselves to the office's gates.

The rice subsidy program — a flagship policy of Yingluck's administration that helped win the votes of millions of farmers — has accumulated losses of at least $4.4 billion and has been dogged by corruption allegations. Payments to farmers have been delayed by many months.

Yingluck's opponents want to replace her government with an appointed council that would introduce vaguely described anti-corruption reforms.

The Red Shirts have generally kept a low profile during the months of anti-government protests, but as Yingluck's government comes under greater threat of legal action that might force it from office, they have said they will respond in force, if necessary.

Yingluck could eventually face impeachment by the Senate or criminal charges if the commission delivers a final ruling against her. She is in northern Thailand and is planning to send a representative to hear the charges against her Thursday.

The aggressive street protests by anti-government demonstrators have already disrupted the ability of the government to function, with Yingluck also limited in her powers because she is now a caretaker prime minister after calling early elections.

The volatile situation has worsened with recently, with shootings and grenade attacks on anti-government protest sites. Along with earlier clashes involving battles with police, 22 people have died and hundreds have been hurt in the political violence.

The deaths of four children in attacks this past weekend caused widespread shock and sorrow, but seem to have only hardened the positions of both sides.

A grenade believed to have been fired from a M79 launcher exploded in the parking lot of public TV broadcaster TPBS on Wednesday night, damaging several cars but causing no casualties. Thai media reported that another two grenades were apparently fired at the nearby offices of the government's emergency peacekeeping task force but failed to explode.

Anti-government protesters dressed in black gathered earlier Wednesday outside National Police headquarters to demand justice for victims of the attacks. The protesters, who employ their own unofficial armed guards, generally bar police from their protest sites. They have successfully sued in sympathetic courts to prevent police from acting against them even when they are in flagrant breach of the law.

Although tension is high, with shootings at several protest sites over the past few nights, the situation is not yet as dire as it was in 2010, when Red Shirts were occupying Bangkok's streets and were backed by a mysterious armed militia. They were seeking to oust the government at that time, led by the now-opposition Democrat Party.

In response, the army garrisoned a large part of downtown Bangkok, and finally cleared the protesters out in a full-scale military operation. Violence during the two months of protests left more than 90 people dead and more than 1,500 injured.

The army, which is generally sympathetic to the current anti-government protesters, announced Wednesday it would set up checkpoints in Bangkok to help maintain safety.

Thailand has seen political conflict since 2006, when then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, was ousted by a military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin's supporters and opponents have since taken to the streets for extended periods in a power struggle.

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