Police abandon streets of Bangkok to anti-government protesters

Huge crowds of protesters appear to have complete impunity as they try to shut the Thai capital down and send the prime minister packing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 January, 2014, 11:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 January, 2014, 2:20pm

At an abandoned police post by a key intersection occupied by anti-government protesters in the Thai capital, rally guard Ton had no doubt who was in charge of security.

"We're in control of the city now," he said.

Police have almost deserted the streets during a new round of rallies aimed at toppling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and curbing the political dominance of her brother, self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

"We're providing the security for the protests, not the police," said 25-year-old volunteer Ton, a tattoo snaking out from under his collar. "The police have left. I have no idea where they are."

We’re trying not to get close to the mob. They may get angry if they see us

The demonstrators, led by firebrand opposition heavyweight Suthep Thaugsuban, want Yingluck to resign to make way for an unelected "people's council".

Thousands of the protesters marched on government buildings in the capital yesterday as part of their "shutdown" of Bangkok aimed at derailing elections and toppling the government. Demonstrators stopped officials from going to work at several key ministries.

Their two months of rallies have pushed the government to call snap February 2 polls, but the protesters have rejected the vote in the latest twist of a political crisis that has gripped Thailand since Yingluck's brother Thaksin was ousted in a military coup seven years ago.

The civilian guards, identifiable by their black T-shirts, armbands and walkie-talkies, have stepped into the apparent vacuum left by the police, taking on traffic and crowd control duties - some with a degree of swagger.

"There hasn't been any real police power for a long time now because they only serve Thaksin, not the people," said guard Noppadon Isaraphukdee, 48.

Throughout the weeks of mass rallies, Yingluck has adopted defensive tactics to prevent violence from spiralling out of control, fearing widespread clashes could precipitate a military coup and the end of her administration.

She has been applauded by the United States for showing "restraint", but even if Yingluck wanted to send out soldiers to restore order, it is uncertain whether they would obey her orders.

The military - traditionally a staunch supporter of the anti-Thaksin royalist establishment - has said it would not crack down on the rallies, and the army chief has refused to rule out a coup.

Meanwhile, in a near-daily dance, police have retreated to barracks or back streets, ceding ground to demonstrators and even allowing them to occupy police property.

When live ammunition has been used it has been by unidentified gunmen, whose victims include a policeman.

Authorities say they have used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets only as a final resort.

"It has been unexpected and surprising to both anti-and pro-Thaksin groups alike how non-violently the police have acted against the demonstrators," said Dr Paul Chambers, a Southeast Asian affairs analyst at Thailand's Chiang Mai University.

"I would even say that Suthep is disappointed, as he expected police repression to legitimise his campaign of pandemonium."

To protesters, the police remain bonded to the enemy - the reviled government and Thaksin, who was himself once a mid-ranking policeman.

Vast crowds swamped the streets of Bangkok on Monday as protesters took over the main business and shopping districts of the city of 12 million in a carnival of colour, but without a policeman in sight.

They erected stages at several sites, blocking arterial roads and setting up tents and kitchens to sustain their noisy rallies, dubbed the Bangkok Shutdown, which entered a second day yesterday.

The few cars and motorcycle taxis allowed through gleefully flouted one-way systems, but there were no obvious signs of wider chaos.

Authorities said 20,000 police and soldiers were deployed across the capital, but they were largely invisible.

In a secluded car park a few streets behind the main Asok intersection, a few dozen policeman ate and played cards.

"We're trying not to get close to the mob. They may get angry if they see us and that could spark clashes," said one officer, who wanted to remain anonymous.

But suggestions the protesters were in control of the city were given short shrift.

"If the protest guards think they are cool by directing traffic, it's up to them. We don't think like them - we're in charge of this situation."

In front of a protest stage a short walk away, demonstrators disagreed.

One protester said Yingluck and her brother were losing control of the country.

"Now the people will take it back," she said.

Watch: Thai opposition attempt Bangkok "shutdown"

How political contest has played out

October 31: Protests break out against an amnesty bill that critics say is aimed at allowing self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra - Yingluck's brother - to return without serving a jail term imposed for corruption.

November 1: The lower house of parliament, dominated by the ruling party, votes in favour of the bill.

November 11: Amid growing outrage on the streets, the upper house overwhelmingly rejects the legislation.

November 20: Constitutional Court blocks an attempt by Yingluck's party to make the upper house fully elected.

November 25: Opposition supporters march on state buildings, occupying the finance ministry. The government imposes a special security law handing police extra powers across the capital.

November 26: Protesters besiege several ministries, while police issue arrest warrant for rally leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

November 29: Demonstrators enter army headquarters and urge the military to support their cause, but the army chief says troops will not take sides.

November 30: Opposition demonstrators attack a bus carrying government supporters. Several people are killed and dozens wounded.

December 3: After several days of street clashes, the government instructs police to avoid further confrontation with demonstrators, calming tensions before the revered king's birthday.

December 5: King Bhumibol Adulyadej urges "stability" in a speech on his 86th birthday.

December 8: Opposition lawmakers resign en masse from parliament.

December 9: Yingluck calls early elections as demonstrators return to the streets.

December 21: Opposition announces election boycott.

December 22: Protesters stage massive anti-government rally in Bangkok. Police say 150,000 attended but organisers insist the number is much higher.

December 26: Government rejects call by the Election Commission to postpone the election after violent clashes between police and demonstrators seeking to prevent candidate registrations.

December 28: An unknown gunman shoots dead one opposition protester and wounds several others.

January 13: Tens of thousands of opposition protesters occupy major streets in the capital in an attempt to "shut down" Bangkok, vowing to stay put until Yingluck quits.

Agence France-Presse