Thailand’s firebrand opposition leader has vowed to escalate his campaign to topple the government, and ordered his followers to storm Bangkok’s police headquarters after they fought all day with riot police protecting heavily barricaded key buildings.
Earlier yesterday, prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra said she is willing to do anything it takes to end the violent protests, but made it clear she cannot accept the opposition’s demand to hand power to an unelected council. She was elected with an overwhelming majority in 2011.
“Right now we don’t see any way to resolve the problem under the constitution,” she said in a brief news conference.
The stand-off intensified as protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban gave a defiant speech to thousands of cheering supporters at a government complex they seized last week when the demonstrations started.
Even if Ms Yingluck calls elections, Mr Suthep said he will continue “because they can always come back to suck the blood of people, steal from people, disrespect the constitution and make us their slaves”.
Yesterday, protesters commandeered refuse lorries and bulldozers, and tried to ram barriers at Government House and other key offices. Police repelled them with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets; protesters shot explosives from home-made rocket launchers
At least three people have been killed and more than 200 injured in the past three days of violence, which capped a week of massive street rallies.
The protesters, who are mostly middle-class Bangkok supporters of the opposition Democrat Party, accuse Ms Yingluck of being a proxy for her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He was deposed in a 2006 military coup and lives in self-imposed exile, but remains central to Thailand’s political crisis, and is a focal point for the protesters’ hatred.
The protesters say their goal is to uproot the political machine of Mr Thaksin, who is accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power.
Mr Suthep said in his speech: “Come and join the people to get rid of the Thaksin regime and we can work together to change Thailand into a pure and democratic country.”
But despite having projected his fight as a non-violent campaign for democracy, he called on supporters to attack the Bangkok Metropolitan Police headquarters today, saying the police were a lackey of Mr Thaksin and Ms Yingluck. Mr Suthep said: “We’re going to gather all our forces and we’re going to take over the Metropolitan Police Bureau and make it the people’s.”
Yesterday’s violence took place around key institutions – Government House, the Parliament and the police bureau in the historic quarter of the capital. Most of Bangkok, a city of ten million, has been unaffected.
Political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said that while Mr Suthep’s demands may appear “bold and blatant”, they go down well with the people “who think that the electoral system can never be trusted and therefore they have to set up their own government”.
The protesters’ numbers have dwindled from a peak of 100,000-plus a week ago, but hardcore groups have remained at the frontline, fighting running battles with the police.
In her news conference, Ms Yingluck repeatedly asked for negotiations, and implied she was willing to hold fresh elections if that helped.
“I am not against either resignation or dissolution of parliament if this solution will stop the protests. The government is not trying to cling to power.
“If there’s anything I can do to bring peace back to the Thai people I am happy to do it … but I myself cannot see a way out of this problem that is within the law and in the constitution.”
She and Mr Suthep met briefly on Sunday in the presence of top military leaders. There have been suggestions that he may have the backing of the military, which has long had a powerful influence over Thai politics.
But this time, if the army does anything, “it will be with great hesitation” because it would have no support internationally and would find it tough to install a civilian government acceptable to all, said Mr Thitinan.