Thai pro­test­ers storm mil­i­tary head­quar­ters

‘Prime min­is­ter must step down’

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - WORLD -

BANGKOK: Anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers briefly forced their way into the com­pound of Thai­land’s army head­quar­ters yes­ter­day in a dra­matic es­ca­la­tion of city-wide demon­stra­tions seek­ing to top­ple Prime Min­is­ter Yingluck Shi­nawa­tra.

Pro­test­ers burst into the army base in Bangkok, wav­ing flags and blow­ing whis­tles. About 1 000 massed out­side Yingluck’s rul­ing party head­quar­ters, shout­ing “get out”.

The invasion of army head­quar­ters deep­ened 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 brought down in a 2006 coup and who re­mains cen­tral to Thai­land’s eight years of on-off tur­moil.

The demon­stra­tors left the head­quar­ters peace­fully af­ter a few hours.

Late yes­ter­day, protest leader Suthep Thaug­suban urged sup­port­ers to in­crease the pres­sure and tar­get main state build­ings tomorrow, in­clud­ing the head­quar­ters of city and po­lice, four min­istries and Yingluck’s of­fices.

“Don’t wait for any­one. Ev­ery heart that loves this coun­try must stand up to­gether and ex­e­cute our mis­sion as one,” Suthep told a crowd of 7 000.

“On Sun­day, brothers and sis­ters, we will an­nounce our vic­tory and our de­feat of the Thaksin regime.”

The pro­test­ers ac­cuse Yingluck of abus­ing her party’s par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity to push through laws that strengthen the be­hind-the-scenes power of her pop­ulist self-ex­iled, bil­lion­aire brother. They have re­jected her calls for talks.

Al­though the army moved its main com­mand cen­tre to a 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 gates, pro­test­ers swarmed in­side, de­mand­ing the gen­er­als choose sides as hun­dreds of sol­diers watched.

“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.

Yingluck has courted the pow­er­ful army, which asked pro­test­ers not to pres­sure it to take sides and to con­sider revered King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej, who turns 87 on Thurs­day.

“We are ready to help the Thai peo­ple if there is vi­o­lence. We hope all sides will unite and not use the army as a tool,” army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said. “It might make his majesty feel un­easy if Thais fight among them­selves.”

In 2008, the mil­i­tary sided with pro­test­ers who helped to top­ple two Thaksin-al­lied gov­ern­ments. That Oc­to­ber, af­ter clashes be­tween po­lice and demon­stra­tors ral­ly­ing against prime min­is­ter Som­chai Wong­sawat, Thaksin’s brother- in­law, then-army chief Anupong Paochinda, pub­licly urged Som­chai to step down.

Mem­o­ries of that help ex­plain why Yingluck ap­pears to have avoided a con­fronta­tion dur­ing six days of protests against her gov­ern­ment. Po­lice have been re­strained, sep­a­rated by gates and ra­zor wire from pro­test­ers who, at times have pelted them with plas­tic bot­tles and shouted in­sults.

Po­lice, how­ever, are braced for clashes. “We have re­ceived in­tel­li­gence re­ports that there could be vi­o­lence,” they said.

Leader of the op­po­si­tion Demo­crat Party Ab­hisit Ve­jja- jiva, for­mer prime min­is­ter of a mil­i­tary-backed gov­ern­ment Yingluck routed in a 2011 poll, joined yes­ter­day’s protests 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 the crowd.

Thaksin’s ru­ral and work­ing-class sup­port has en­sured he or his al­lies have won ev­ery elec­tion in the past decade. His op­po­nents say he has politi- cised and bought off the poor with cheap credit, health care and waste­ful sub­si­dies.

Yingluck has ruled out re­sign­ing or dis­solv­ing par­lia­ment and ap­pears in­tent on rid­ing out the storm.

Suthep, a deputy prime min­is­ter in the pre­vi­ous Democra­tled gov­ern­ment, urged pro­test­ers to shut down a gov­ern­ment of­fice com­plex and sur­round the min­istries of in­te­rior, ed­u­ca­tion, labour and for­eign af­fairs, two state-run telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions firms and even the city’s zoo.

“We need to break the law a lit­tle bit to achieve our goals… and we will ac­cept the pun­ish­ment for it,” he said.

“This is a his­toric fight and the world must re­mem­ber it.”

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. – Reuters

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

DOWN TIME: Anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers take a break from demon­stra­tions in Bangkok yes­ter­day. Thou­sands took to the streets in the lat­est es­ca­la­tion in coun­try-wide demon­stra­tions seek­ing to top­ple Prime Min­is­ter Yingluck Shi­nawa­tra.

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