Thai protesters storm military headquarters
‘Prime minister must step down’
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
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.