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Published: Tuesday December 3, 2013 MYT 1:05:02 PM
Updated: Tuesday December 3, 2013 MYT 1:05:58 PM

Thai police hunker down as protests rage

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Teargas, water cannons, rubber bullets, stun grenades that detonate with a bone-rattling thud - Bangkok protests have become much gentler.

By Thailand's bloody standards, the latest round of protests aimed at overthrowing the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been marked, so far, by relative restraint from security forces.

The police, a force closely aligned with Yingluck and her brother, exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have eschewed open street battles with her opponents. In some cases, they were conspicuously absent as protesters raided government buildings and television stations. In others, they have fortified defensively behind barricades.

On the one hand, this is result of a police force that has examined mistakes made in previous chaotic clashes, analysts say.

On the other, it also appears to be a calculated move by Yingluck to avoid intervention by the military, which has so far sat out this crisis but deposed Thaksin in a 2006 coup and killed scores of pro-Thaksin red shirts when crushing 2010 protests.

"The police have learnt their lesson from past protests. Yingluck's government must avoid using force while going ahead with criminal proceedings against those who have broken the law," said Boonkayiat Karavekphan, a political analyst at Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University.

"If they can maintain the rule of law, this will be a success for the government. It is clear the police are better trained this time around - their tactics are smarter and their equipment is more up to date."

The result has been something akin to siege warfare. At showdowns near Yingluck's office and other government buildings on Tuesday, things moved in a noticeable pattern.

On one side, police waited behind interspersed layers of concrete and razor wire. Protesters moved in waves, inching forward before being driven back by alternate volleys of teargas and water cannons. In contrast to previous years, police speaker trucks constantly barked out orders to protesters, informing them in advance of incoming volleys.

But protesters have managed to gradually wear away at the defences. Wet Hessian sacks, hoses and fans have been used in places to douse and deflect teargas. Small advances by young men have succeeded in dismantling some layers of security.

COMMAND CHAIN

It is unclear if protests will move beyond a stalemate.

Police have been stationed at key areas for more than a month, since major protests bubbled up over a now-shelved amnesty bill, Wrapping Chewpecha, the police deputy commissioner general, told Reuters.

Police have in recent years received training from countries including Britain and the United States.

"Our preparation standards have improved enormously," Wrapping said.

"The most important thing is the command chain. Our orders are clearer and they are filtering down to police in the front lines," he said. "We believe things will calm down in a day or two."

The police have even earned the grudging respect of Monchai Vimuktananda, a 65-year-old retired navy officer protesting near government buildings on Tuesday, who labelled the police "outlaws" for defending Yingluck.

"It's very different. Before they used harmful tactics," he said.

That includes 2008, when police earned condemnation from rights groups for firing rubber bullets and explosive Chinese-made teargas canisters in straight lines and at short range into anti-Thaksin protesters. Two people were killed and hundreds were injured.

Protesters are having to shift their approach and focus on wearing down the police, Monchai said.

(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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