Thailand unrest escalates as buildings are over-run

Anti-government protesters forced their way inside Thailand’s finance ministry and burst through the gates of the foreign ministry compound, as a bid to overthrow prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra escalates.
Antigovernment protesters link arms as they get ready to attack a police barricade in Bangkok. Picture: ReutersAntigovernment protesters link arms as they get ready to attack a police barricade in Bangkok. Picture: Reuters
Antigovernment protesters link arms as they get ready to attack a police barricade in Bangkok. Picture: Reuters

The seizing of government buildings yesterday by protesters, led by the opposition Democrat Party, plunges Thailand into its deepest political uncertainty since it was convulsed three years ago by the bloodiest political unrest in a generation.

The protesters’ actions “threaten the stability of the government,” Yingluck said in a brief televised address.

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The protesters accuse her of being a puppet for her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was forced from power in a 2006 military coup and convicted two years later of corruption – charges he denies. Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile, but exerts enormous influence over his sister’s government.

About 1,000 protesters swarmed into the finance ministry, filling its cavernous marble-floored halls. Occupying its grounds is symbolic, they said, of targeting the money at the heart of the “Thaksin regime”.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister under the previous Democrat-led government, told the crowd: “I invite protesters to stay here overnight at the finance ministry.”

He added: “Our only objective is to rid the country of the Thaksin regime.”

Yingluck said she would not step down. Her broad support in Thailand’s north and north-east – rural regions that are among the country’s poorest – helped her to a landslide victory in 2011, making her the country’s first woman prime minister.

That election was seen as a defeat for the traditional Bangkok elite of generals, royal advisers, middle-class bureaucrats and business leaders – a group that backs the Democrats and deeply mistrusts Thaksin and his sister.

After two years of relative calm, tension between those factions is now rising quickly, reviving memories of 2008 when anti-Thaksin “yellow shirt” protesters shut Bangkok’s airports and held crippling rallies against two Thaksin-backed governments, which were eventually disbanded by a court.

Although Thaksin or his allies have won every election in the past decade, the judiciary often undercuts him, illustrating how the billionaire former telecoms tycoon and populist hero remains a polarising figure.

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Since the 2006 coup, court rulings have removed two prime ministers, disbanded four political parties, jailed three election commissioners and banned 220 politicians.

The military will be watched closely. A major force in politics since Thailand became a democracy in 1932, the military has staged 18 coups – some successful, some not – and made several discreet interventions in forming coalition governments, almost all with the tacit backing of the royalist establishment that now reviles Thaksin.

Yingluck last night said an Internal Security Act would be extended in Bangkok and some surrounding areas. But she said the government would not use force on protesters occupying government buildings.

The act allows troops to impose curfews, operate checkpoints and restrict movements of protesters.