(AP) Thai protests ease as police lift key barricades
By TODD PITMAN and JINDA WEDEL
Anti-government protesters swarmed into the Thai prime minister’s office compound Tuesday as police stood by and watched, allowing them to claim a symbolic victory after three days of bitter clashes. The unexpected reversal in the government’s strategy brings at least a lull in the violence before the revered king’s 86th birthday later this week.
Hundreds of protesters poured onto the lawn of Government House, waving Thai flags and blowing whistles. After speeches and shouts of “victory belongs to the people!” they left the compound an hour later, and the gates were locked again. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was not there at the time.
Declaring that the government would use “only gentleness and tenderness to solve problems,” Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said the step was taken to reduce tensions so that people could celebrate King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday on Thursday. The king is seen as the sole uniting figure in the country.
The move was widely seen as offering the protesters a face-saving way to end the demonstrations _ although it remains to be seen whether protests will resume in the future.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban vowed to keep up the struggle to topple Yingluck and keep her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, from returning to power. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup, and Yingluck’s rivals have repeatedly accused her of being Thaksin’s puppet.
The protesters have demanded that Yingluck’s government hand over power to an unelected council that would appoint a new prime minister.
Thaksin remains central to Thailand’s political crisis and is a focal point of the protesters’ hatred. He is despised by many of the mostly middle-class Bangkok supporters of the opposition Democrat Party for alleged widespread corruption and abuse of political power for his family’s benefit.
The street battles, which followed a month of peaceful demonstrations, have hurt Thailand’s image and raised concerns that prolonged unrest could damage the tourism industry ahead of the peak holiday season.
Three people died and more than 230 were injured after clashes erupted Saturday between protesters and police.
After resisting the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets since Saturday, police lounged on sidewalks Tuesday as protesters removed the barriers on a road leading to the prime minister’s office and walked through.
Earlier Tuesday, police used cranes to remove concrete slabs and barbed wire barricades on a nearby road leading to the police headquarters after agreeing to let the protesters into the building.
Monday marked some of the worst clashes since the daily protests began last week. Protesters commandeered garbage trucks and bulldozers, and tried to ram concrete barriers at Government House and other offices. Police repelled them by firing tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets, as protesters shot back explosives from homemade rocket launchers.
The three days of violence occurred mostly near Government House, Parliament and the Metropolitan Police Bureau in the historic quarter of the capital. The area has some of Bangkok’s main tourist attractions such as the Grand Palace, Wat Pho temple and the backpacker area of Khao San Road. Most of Bangkok, a city of 10 million, was unaffected by the clashes.
Yingluck told a news conference Monday that she was willing to do anything it takes to end the violent protests, but that the constitution did not allow her to accept Suthep’s demand that she hand power to an unelected council. She was elected with an overwhelming majority in 2011, and many observers see the protesters’ demand as unreasonable if not outlandish.
Political instability has plagued Thailand since the military ousted Thaksin, who remains hugely popular among rural voters, in 2006. Two years later, anti-Thaksin protesters occupied Bangkok’s two airports for a week after taking over the prime minister’s office for three months, and in 2010 pro-Thaksin protesters occupied downtown Bangkok for weeks in a standoff that ended with parts of the city in flames and more than 90 dead.