Thai protesters storm army HQ in defiance of Yingluck's peace calls

Headquarters of ruling party, national police and army the latest targets by angry marchers, as ex-minister issues battle cry to continue push for overthrow

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 November, 2013, 2:31pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 November, 2013, 8:36pm

Around 1,000 Thai anti-government protesters forced their way into the compound of the Royal Thai Army headquarters in Bangkok on Friday, the latest escalation in a demonstration seeking to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

“We want to know which side the army stands on,” shouted one protester. Some climbed over the gates of the compound, according to a witness.

It was as yet unclear what the army response was, although Yingluck has ruled out using force against the people.

Hundreds of police were deployed, as defiant opposition protesters – a mix of royalists, southerners and the urban middle class sometimes numbering in their tens of thousands – sought to intensify their fight to bring down the government.

Elsewhere in the capital, hundreds of anti-government rallyists gathered outside the headquarters of Yingluck’s ruling party, Puea Thai, in open defiance of the prime minister’s call for a dialogue.

They cut off the electricity to the national police headquarters in Bangkok on Thursday, in an act of provocation against a key symbol of authority, just hours after Yingluck and her party easily won a parliamentary no-confidence vote.

Boisterous demonstrators have besieged key ministries in Bangkok in the biggest street protests since mass rallies three years ago against the previous government of Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, degenerated into the kingdom’s worst civil strife in decades.

Yingluck said the government can still govern. ... I want to say that they will only be able to work for a few more days, then we will not let them work anymore
Suthep Thaugsuban, ex-prime minister

The controversial former telecoms tycoon was ousted in a coup in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile, but he is widely believed to be the real power behind the embattled government of his younger sister.

Protesters are demanding the end of the “Thaksin regime” and want to replace the government with an unelected “people’s council”.

“We are deploying two companies of police [around 300 officers] at Puea Thai party headquarters after they asked for protection,” deputy national police chief Worapong Siewpreecha said.

In a televised address, Yingluck urged demonstrators to call off their protests and said the government did not want confrontation.

But a defiant rally leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, a deputy prime minister in the previous government, rejected any suggestion of talks in a tub-thumping late night speech that set a fresh deadline for the demonstrations to reach their climax.

“Yingluck said the government can still govern, can still work. I want to say that they will only be able to work for a few more days, then we will not let them work anymore,” he told several thousand supporters in Bangkok.

The protests snowballed after the ruling party tried to introduce an amnesty that could have allowed Thaksin’s return from self-imposed exile, and the rallies have continued despite a Senate move to reject the bill.

Watch: Rally leaders defy PM’s calls for end to protests

Rise and fall in numbers

With their spirits buoyed by free food and a party atmosphere, demonstrators have massed at several locations around the capital, including outside many major government buildings. Their numbers have fallen sharply since an estimated crowd of up to 180,000 people joined an opposition rally on Sunday.

But turnout is expected to spike again over the weekend as organisers seek a final push ahead of celebrations for revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday on December 5, which are traditionally marked in an atmosphere of calm and respect.

While the latest rallies have been largely peaceful, a minor clash broke out on Thursday between pro- and anti-government supporters in the province of Pathum Thani on the northern outskirts of Bangkok, police said.

“Two anti-government supporters suffered minor injuries. They might have been hit with a wooden stick,” said provincial police commander Major General Smithi Mukdasanit.

A minor confrontation between the two sides was also reported in the northeastern province of Mahasarakam, although nobody was injured.

The demonstrators have a presence at five locations in Bangkok, three in its historic heart, one in the city’s northern fringe and another at the Finance Ministry they have occupied since Monday.

The Civil Movement for Democracy, as the demonstrators are known, has garnered support from white-collar workers and 45 unions with a combined 200,000 members.

The end game

As the rallies drag on, questions are being raised about what lies ahead in a conflict that broadly pits urban middle classes against the mostly rural supporters of Thaksin, a divisive tycoon ousted in a 2006 military coup and central to Thailand’s eight years of on-off turmoil. Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election for more than a decade.

Yingluck has ruled out resigning or dissolving parliament.

Before thousands of supporters occupying a state office complex in a Bangkok suburb, protest leader Suthep vowed firm action, but was unwilling to say what that would be.

“The end game will happen in the next day or two. All will be revealed tomorrow night,” he said last night.

His rhetoric may not rattle a government asserting its legitimacy and intent on riding out the storm. As tensions mount, it has urged police and its supporters to avoid confronting demonstrators it says are running out of steam.

“The government will not instigate a violent situation because that is exactly what Suthep wants,” said Udomdet Rattanasatein, a lawmaker from Puea Thai. “We will not be provoked.”