By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Pracha Hariraksapitak
BANGKOK (Reuters) - A state of emergency in Bangkok could be extended until anti-government protests end completely, Thailand's foreign minister said on Tuesday, adding that he feared more violence even though calm has returned to the capital in the past few days.
Protests aimed at overthrowing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra are in their fifth month but at the weekend the remaining activists closed down several big protest sites and moved to a central Bangkok park.
The protests are led by Suthep Thaugsuban, once a senior member of the main opposition Democrat Party, which boycotted a general election last month.
"If Suthep continues with his protest and there are more violent incidents, including grenades thrown, shootings and acts of violence by provocateurs, the emergency law will have to stay until the situation improves," Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told reporters.
"We will wait for security forces, the army and the cabinet to decide before the emergency expires on March 22," he said.
The government imposed the 60-day emergency in Bangkok on January 21 in a bid to contain the latest unrest in an eight-year conflict that broadly pits Bangkok's middle class, southern Thais and the royalist establishment against mostly rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
The protests began in November with attempts to occupy government buildings and spread in January when major roads in the capital were blocked. Those roads reopened on Monday after most of the protesters withdrew and regrouped in Lumpini Park.
The protesters have lost faith in elections, which parties of the populist Thaksin keep on winning, and want to change the political system to end the influence of the former telecoms tycoon whom they accuse of being a corrupt crony capitalist.
Thaksin has lived abroad since 2008 to avoid a jail term for a graft conviction he says was politically motivated.
Labour Minister Chalerm Yoobumrung, in charge of enforcing the state of emergency, said the protests were unlikely to end soon and the demonstrators were banking on intervention by courts widely seen as hostile to Yingluck to bring her down.
"The protests will go on for a while because Suthep has not reached his target ... but I don't believe he can reach his goal so demonstrators are waiting for some sort of intervention by independent organizations," Chalerm told reporters.
READY TO MOBILISE
Yingluck faces several legal challenges, the most immediate coming from charges of negligence relating to a disastrous rice subsidy scheme that has run out of funds, prompting unpaid farmers to demonstrate in Bangkok.
She has been given until March 14 by the National Anti-Corruption Commission to defend herself. It will then decide whether there is a case to pursue and, if it goes ahead, she may be forced to step down.
Her caretaker government has only limited spending powers but, providing some relief, the Election Commission approved the use of 20 billion baht ($614 million) from the central budget on Tuesday to help pay rice farmers.
As of February 27, the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, which manages the rice scheme, had paid farmers 67.5 billion baht for rice bought during the main 2013/14 crop from October, with 112 billion baht outstanding.
Some farmers are demanding that the scheme, which ended on February 28, be extended as they still have rice to sell.
The Commerce Ministry has said that could not be done until a new government is in office, which may be months away because the February 2 election was inconclusive because of disruption by protesters.
At least 23 people have been killed in the unrest since November 30, including four children in Bangkok and the eastern province of Trat. Hundreds of people have been injured.
The violence is the worst since 2010 when Suthep, at the time a deputy prime minister, sent in troops to end demonstrations by pro-Thaksin "red shirt" activists.
Suthep faces murder charges related to the crackdown. More than 90 people were killed during that period of unrest.
Thaksin's supporters, largely based in the north and northeast, have threatened to defend Yingluck if she is removed from power, adding to fears of civil strife.
Thanawut Wichaidit, a spokesman for the red shirts' United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, said the group had practised over the weekend how to mobilize people in the northeast to get down to Bangkok.
"We rehearsed how to move large groups from one city to another to warn anti-government forces not to do anything that destroys democracy. The elite have killed red shirts like pigs and dogs in the past and we'll make sure they never do that again," he told Reuters. ($1 = 32.5650 baht)
(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Pairat Temphairojana; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)