Thai opposition demonstrators besieged the seat of government on Monday in defiance of authorities who have vowed to reclaim the zone this week so Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra can return to work at her headquarters.
The government is attempting to seize back key official buildings after more than three months of mass rallies seeking to topple Yingluck’s administration and curb the political domination of her family.
Yingluck has been unable to use Government House for about two months and has instead held meetings in various locations across the capital.
Protesters have taunted her for overseeing a mobile government, which they are hoping to upend through a combination of street action and pressure through Thailand’s notoriously interventionist courts.
Thousands of demonstrators, among them a hardcore group known as the Student and People Network to Reform Thailand, rallied near Government House on Monday.
Protesters poured buckets of cement onto a sandbag wall in front of a gate to Government House, an AFP photographer said, while others manned tyre barricades nearby.
“We will not let them (the government) come back to work because we do not want them,” firebrand protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said from a stage.
“Yingluck will never have a chance to work at the Government House again.”
Change in tactics
On Friday riot police swept through barricades around Government House with little resistance, clearing tents and sandbags from the area.
That operation marked an unexpected shift in tactics after months during which the demonstrators have often appeared to be more in control of the city than the authorities.
But hours later protesters had returned and rebuilt their barricades unopposed.
As they try to clear the protests, authorities are also determined to avoid confrontation with the demonstrators, whose numbers on the street have dwindled from highs of at least tens of thousands following widely disrupted February 2 elections.
Labour Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, responsible for overseeing a state of emergency imposed in the capital, said police would take “soft measures” to reclaim five official sites this week - including Government House - vowing to negotiate with protesters rather than “crack down”.
A wave of grenade attacks and shootings in the capital linked to the protests has left 11 people dead and hundreds injured, raising fears over political violence.
The demonstrators want Yingluck to step down in favour of an unelected “People’s Council” to carry out reforms to tackle graft and alleged vote-buying before new elections are held.
Yingluck’s government held a general election earlier this month in an attempt to defuse tensions but the opposition boycotted the vote.
Demonstrators also prevented 10,000 polling stations from opening, affecting several million people.
Yingluck is also facing mounting anger from rice farmers who have not been paid for crops pledged into a controversial state subsidy scheme.
Critics say the populist policy has cost Thailand billions of dollars and its place as the world’s leading exporter of the grain.
Opponents say Yingluck’s government is in fact controlled by her brother Thaksin, who fled overseas in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction and now lives in Dubai.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election for more than a decade, propelled to power by strong support from the kingdom’s rural north and northeast.