By Viparat Jantraprap
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Embattled Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called for reconciliation on Tuesday as the streets of the capital, Bangkok, emptied ahead of New Year celebrations, a rare period of calm after weeks of unrest.
Anti-government protesters have vowed to disrupt a February 2 election called by Yingluck in a bid to settle a crisis that has pitted her government against Bangkok's conservative elite and middle class.
The demonstrators have threatened to shut down Bangkok after the New Year, with plans to block roads in up to 20 places, although the scope of their protests has not always matched the promises made by their leader, Suthep Thaugsuban.
Yingluck has not been in Bangkok for more than a week, spending time among supporters in the north, but she used social media to send a message seeking peace and reconciliation.
"On the occasion of New Year 2014, may I ask all Thais to be united in mind, to seek a blessing for the Thai people to love and harmonize and for those who differ in views, be it their political ideology or belief, to reconcile for a peaceful resolution for our nation," she said in a Facebook post.
The demonstrators are determined to topple Yingluck, who they see as a puppet of her self-exiled brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Bangkok's normally gridlocked streets were mostly clear on Tuesday as people headed to the provinces for the holiday.
The latest protests have flared into violence at several protest sites over the past five days. At least eight people have been killed since they began in late November.
On Thursday, a policeman and a protester were killed when an unidentified gunman fired during chaotic clashes outside an election registration centre.
Another protester was killed by an unidentified gunman at another rally site in a pre-dawn attack on Saturday. The Erawan Emergency Centre in Bangkok said another protester had been taken to hospital suffering gunshot wounds to the chest and arm after a shooting at a third site late on Monday.
WORRY ABOUT MILITARY INTERVENTION
The violence is the latest in years of rivalry between Bangkok's middle class and royalist establishment and the mostly poor, rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin.
Even though her Puea Thai Party would most likely win the election, Yingluck's position has become more tenuous as the conflict drags on, with street violence opening the possibility of intervention by the politicized military or judiciary.
That became increasingly apparent last week, when the army chief declined to rule out a coup. Thailand's military has launched or attempted 18 coups in 81 years of fragile democracy, including Thaksin's 2006 overthrow.
The military has since sought to ease fears that yet another coup was imminent.
Most of the protests have been centered in Bangkok, although demonstrators have also blocked registration for the polls in seven provinces in the south. The protesters and the main opposition Democrat Party, which has declared it will boycott the poll, have many supporters in the south.
The protesters say the wealthy Shinawatra family has effectively manipulated Thailand's democracy by buying the support of the rural poor with populist policies such as cheap healthcare and subsidies for rice farmers.
Former telecoms tycoon Thaksin and his allies have won every election since 2001. He fled into exile in 2008 before being sentenced to jail on graft charges he said were politically motivated.
Yingluck's party miscalculated badly in November when it tried to force through an amnesty that would have allowed Thaksin to return a free man, sparking the latest round of protests.
(Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Robert Birsel)