About 1,500 anti-government protesters forced their way into the compound of Thailand's army headquarters on Friday, the latest escalation in a city-wide demonstration seeking to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
"We want to know which side the army stands on," shouted one protester, as others broke through padlocked red iron gates in Bangkok's historic quarter, waving Thai flags and blowing whistles.
In another district, about 1,000 people gathered outside the headquarters of Yingluck's ruling party, shouting "Get out, get out". Hours later, the protesters dispersed peacefully from both places.
The invasion of army headquarters deepens a conflict broadly pitting the urban middle class against the mostly rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and who remains central to Thailand's eight years of on-off turmoil.
The protesters accuse Yingluck of abusing her party's parliamentary majority to push through laws that strengthen the behind-the-scenes power of her self-exiled, billionaire brother. They have rejected her repeated calls for dialogue.
Although the army moved its main command centre to a military camp in Bangkok's northern suburbs three days ago, the siege of its grounds by protesters is deeply symbolic and highlights the military's pivotal role in a country that has seen 18 successful or attempted coups in the past 80 years.
After forcing open the compound's wrought-iron front gates, protesters swarmed inside, demanding that Thailand's generals choose sides. About 100 soldiers stood guard. Hundreds watched from the balconies of the 19th-century cream-colored building.
"We want the head of Thailand's armed forces to choose whether they stand by the government or with the people," Uthai Yodmanee, a protest leader, said from the back of a truck.
Yingluck has publicly courted Thailand's powerful military, which has remained neutral in this bout of protests.
"The army wishes all sides to solve the problem with the country's best interests in mind," said deputy army spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree.
Compare that to 2008, when the military sided with protesters who helped to topple two Thaksin-allied governments.
In October 2008, after bloody clashes between police and demonstrators rallying against then-Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, then-army chief Anupong Paochinda publicly urged Somchai to step down to take responsibility for the violence.
Memories of that help explain why Yingluck appears to have studiously avoided a confrontation during six days of protests against her government. Police have remained restrained, separated by gates and razor wire from protesters who at times pelt them with water bottles and shout insults.
Police, however, braced for violence.
"We have received intelligence reports that there could be violence tonight and tomorrow," they said in a statement. "We are increasing security around key government and royal buildings."
"ABOVE THE LAW"
The protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, a deputy prime minister in the previous government, told thousands of supporters occupying a state office complex late on Thursday that "the end game will happen in the next day or two".
Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, former prime minister of a military-backed government that Yingluck routed in a 2011 election, joined the protests on Friday along with other senior Democrats including former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij.
"When the government acts above the law, the people no longer need to respect the government," Korn told a crowd of thousands in Bangkok's Asoke commercial district.
Korn and other protesters marched to the U.S. embassy and delivered a letter which he said "explained our political situation" and emphasized Thailand "has a government that is acting above court laws".
Yingluck has ruled out resigning or dissolving parliament, and appears intent on riding out the storm. As tension mounts, her government has urged supporters and police to avoid confronting demonstrators, who 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 Yingluck's Puea Thai party.
"We will not be provoked."
Thaksin or his allies have won every election in the past decade. Yingluck had governed for two years without a major challenge until last month, when her party tried to ram through an amnesty bill that would have expunged Thaksin's 2008 graft conviction and cleared the way for his political comeback.
The Senate rejected it, and Yingluck then shelved it, but the protests escalated, switching from a campaign against the amnesty to a bid to bring down the government.
Yingluck's Puea Thai Party received a blow last week when Thailand's Constitutional Court rejected its proposals to make the Senate fully elected. That could have strengthened her government, given her wide support among voters in the heavily populated north and northeast.
Some party lawmakers say they will not accept the court's ruling adding that the judiciary had no right to intervene in the legislative branch. The courts have played a decisive role in Thailand's recent history and annulled an election won by Thaksin in 2006, eventually leading to a coup that year.
The ruling party's stance has infuriated anti-government protesters and opposition party lawmakers who accuse Yingluck of disobeying the court.
Thaksin's working-class support has ensured parties led by him, his brother-in-law and now, his sister, have won a decade of elections. But his opponents attempted to overthrow all those governments, saying he politicized and bought off the poor with cheap credit, healthcare and wasteful subsidies.
Among the key protagonists in Thailand's dysfunctional democracy are those who revile Thaksin's authoritarianism - conservative generals, aristocrats, big businessmen and royal advisers - whose accusations of graft and disloyalty to the monarchy have mobilized Bangkok's middle class.
Thaksin, who now lives mainly in Dubai, has refuted those accusations.
The demonstrators are gathered at five locations in Bangkok, three in its historic heart, one on its northern fringe and one at the Finance Ministry, which they have occupied since Monday.
(Additional reporting by Pairat Temphairojana. Writing by Jason Szep. Editing by Robert Birsel)
(Source : Reuters)
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