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Thai markets cheer possible delay in elections

But postponement may not placate protesters bent on PM quitting

Turmoil in Thailand: Thousands of anti-govt protesters in the streets of Bangkok yesterday, in a bid to 'shut down' the city. The fear among many is that the unrest could drag on indefinitely, hurting the economy. - PHOTO: AFP

[SINGAPORE] Thai stocks rallied from earlier losses yesterday and the baht strengthened slightly at the end of a day when tens of thousands of anti-government protesters began their so-called "Bangkok shutdown".

After dipping as much as 0.9 per cent in morning trading, the benchmark Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET) index jumped to end the day 2.2 per cent higher at 1,283.6 points - the highest close in more than two weeks.

Among the top gainers were Airports of Thailand and telecommunications provider Advanced Info Service, which bounced back from early declines to surge 5.2 per cent and 4.8 per cent, respectively.

The baht - one of the worst performing currencies in the region of late - appreciated 0.1 per cent to 32.97 per US dollar yesterday, having hovered just above the 33 mark for much of last week.

The rebounds came amid the surprise announcement by caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that her government was willing to discuss the possibility of delaying the upcoming general election, currently set for Feb 2.

She has invited protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, along with the leaders of the Election Commission (EC) and other political parties, to a meeting tomorrow to be chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Phongthep Thepkanjana.

The government had long insisted that the election had to go ahead after Ms Yingluck dissolved Parliament on Dec 9 last year. Thai law states that a poll must be held within 45-60 days after the House dissolution.

"(Ms Yingluck) thinks that there are still some unclear points in the EC's proposal. The best way is to meet and discuss it," said Suranand Vejjajiva, Ms Yingluck's secretary-general.

The EC - which has long called for the snap election to be delayed due to a lack of peace in the kingdom - has already proposed May 4 as a new date.

Even a delay may not be enough to placate the determined demonstrators, however, as they took to the streets of the Thai capital in droves even before sunrise yesterday in an all-out effort to oust Ms Yingluck from power.

The flag-waving, whistle-blowing protesters from the self-styled People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) blocked seven main intersections in the heart of Bangkok, with many camping on the streets in some of the city's busiest business and tourism districts.

The protesters say they will occupy Bangkok until the embattled Ms Yingluck - whom they regard as a puppet of her elder brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra - steps down and allows an unelected council to reform the political system.

Around 140 schools in the capital stayed shut and many will remain closed for several more days. The roads outside central Bangkok were reportedly less congested than usual as many workers opted to stay home.

The situation could escalate if the protesters live up to their earlier promise to besiege more key institutions in Bangkok, including the SET's premises, if Ms Yingluck does not resign.

Bourse president Charamporn Jotikasthira maintained that there were enough back-up measures in place and insisted that there would be no disruptions to the trading system.

More than 120 branches of Thailand's major banks in Bangkok were temporarily closed yesterday, with more than half belonging to TMB Bank.

The fear among many is that the political unrest could drag on for days, if not weeks - a scenario that would severely damage South-east Asia's second- largest economy.

Each day of the shutdown will result in estimated losses of between 700 million and one billion baht (S$26.7-38.1 million), according to a new study by the Centre of Economic and Business Forecast of Thai Chamber of Commerce University.

The latest round of protests began last November when the government tried to push through a political amnesty bill that would have allowed ex-premier Thaksin to return home without serving a prison sentence for corruption. The bill was eventually withdrawn but the protests have gathered steam ever since.

"Don't ask me how long this occupation will last," said Mr Suthep in a speech to his supporters yesterday, which was broadcast by the PDRC's BlueSky television channel.

"We will not stop until we win," he said.