World

Thailand protests ease ahead of king's birthday

Anti-government protesters swarm into the Thai prime minister's office compound as police stood by and watched, allowing them to claim a symbolic victory after three days of bitter clashes.

4 people dead, more than 250 injured in clashes with police

The political crisis that has shaken Thailand's capital for more than a week eased suddenly Tuesday after the prime minister ordered police to stop battling anti-government protesters. The move was timed to coincide with celebrations of the king's birthday later this week, a holiday that holds deep significance in the Southeast Asian nation.

In a sharp reversal in strategy that followed two days of increasingly fierce street fighting, riot police lowered their shields and walked away from heavily fortified positions around Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's office at Government House.

Shortly afterward, thousands of jubilant demonstrators waving the red, white and blue Thai flag swarmed across the compound's grassy lawn, snapping photos of themselves with cellphones and screaming "Victory belongs to the people!" Yingluck was not there at the time.

The government move was widely seen as offering demonstrators a face-saving way out, and the government expressed hope it would defuse a conflict that has killed four people and wounded more than 256 in the last three days alone. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, however, vowed to keep up what has become an audacious struggle to topple Yingluck and keep her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, from returning to power.

"You can rest assured that this is a victory that is only partial and not a complete victory because the tyrannical Thaksin government endures," Suthep said. "We must continue fighting."

Thaksin accused of corruption

Thaksin remains central to Thailand's political crisis and is a focal point of the protesters' hatred. He is despised by many of the mostly middle-class Bangkok supporters of the opposition Democrat Party for alleged widespread corruption and abuse of political power for his family's benefit.

Anti-government protesters remove concrete barriers outside the Government House in Bangkok. Police stood by and watched, allowing protesters to claim a symbolic victory. (Wason Wanichakorn/Associated Press)

The protesters have demanded that Yingluck's government hand over power to an unelected council that would appoint a new prime minister — a demand she has rejected. She was elected with an overwhelming majority in 2011, and many observers see the protesters' demand as unreasonable if not outlandish.

Yingluck acknowledged Thursday that more needs to be done to resolve the political upheaval. She proposed inviting people from all walks of life to a forum to exchange views and "reform the political situation."

"I myself want to see a solution that will bring peace to the people in the long term," she said in a brief televised statement.

The street battles, which followed a month of peaceful demonstrations, have hurt Thailand's image and raised concerns that prolonged unrest could damage the tourism industry ahead of the peak holiday season.

Four people died and more than 256 were injured after clashes erupted Saturday between protesters and police.

Symbolic victory for protesters

On Sunday and Monday, masked demonstrators tried to break through concrete barriers surrounding Government House and other offices in a historic quarter of the capital that is home to some of Bangkok's main tourist attractions. They fired homemade rocket launchers and petrol bombs at police, who riposted with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.

Early Tuesday, the skirmishes began again. But after a few minutes, police stopped firing back, and disappeared.

A Thai policeman puts barbed wire outside a metropolitan police headquarters. Later Tuesday, Bangkok police began removing the barriers. (Manish Swarup/The Associated Press)

Bewildered protesters, who had been fighting just moments before, began climbing over rows of overturned concrete blast walls. They walked over shattered glass scattered in the road. They passed the burned and smashed remains of a dozen police trucks, several of them still smoldering after being set ablaze the night before.

Soon, they met thousands of other demonstrators streaming in from the opposite direction on foot. One man cut through a padlocked chain at a southern entrance to Government House, and the euphoric crowds swarmed inside.

About 20 soldiers and police guarded a door into Yingluck's offices, and protesters did not try to enter. After an hour of speeches and cheering, they all filed back out systematically, as their leaders had instructed. The organized exit fueled speculation that a deal — at least for now — had been struck behind closed doors between the two sides.

Although the protesters walked away, they were adamant they had achieved a symbolic victory. "We won't let Yingluck back. We won't let her work here again," Direk Worachaisawad, a 45-year-old high school computer science teacher, said as he stood on the compound's front lawn.

A unifying figure

Yingluck and her deputy said the government told police to avoid clashes so people could peacefully celebrate the birthday of ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turns 86 Thursday.

Bhumibol is a constitutional monarch with no formal political role, but he is considered the country's moral authority and a unifying figure. Violence on the day of his birth would be a major sign of disrespect.

Yingluck said the king's birthday "has a special meaning" for Thais.

"This day is sacred to the hearts of the Thai people," she said. "A day where we try to do good things and work together."

"I want to see Thais look to each other to find an answer to the country's problems," she said, "so things can be peaceful and we can move forward."

The three days of violence occurred mostly near Government House, Parliament and the Metropolitan Police Bureau in the historic quarter of the capital. The area has some of Bangkok's main tourist attractions such as the Grand Palace, Wat Pho temple and the backpacker area of Khao San Road. Most of Bangkok, a city of 10 million, was unaffected by the clashes.

Political instability has plagued Thailand since the military ousted Thaksin, who remains hugely popular among rural voters, in 2006. Two years later, protesters seeking to oust a Thaksin-backed government occupied Bangkok's two airports for a week after taking over the prime minister's office for three months, and in 2010 pro-Thaksin protesters occupied downtown Bangkok for weeks in a standoff that ended with parts of the city in flames and more than 90 dead.

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