Not budging: Anti-government demonstrators reacting as police officers clear a protest site near Government House in Bangkok. — AFP
BANGKOK: Thousands of riot police were deployed in the Thai capital to clear areas occupied for weeks by opposition protesters, tearing down makeshift barricades around the besieged government headquarters.
The operation in Bangkok marked an unexpected shift in tactics by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government after months during which the demonstrators have often appeared to be more in control of the city than the authorities.
Apparently emboldened by dwindling protester numbers and the failure of the opposition to have a recent election nullified by the courts, the government attempted to regain the upper hand by reclaiming key state buildings.
Police with shields and riot helmets, some carrying rifles, met little resistance as they re-took areas around Government House, which Yingluck had been unable to use for about two months.
Security forces removed protesters’ tents and ripped down their makeshift defences built from barbed wire, sandbags and piles of rubber tyres, according to reporters.
But it was unclear if the operation was a success as demonstrators were later seen rebuilding barricades. Police also pulled back from an occupied government complex in the north of the city before they could clear the area.
Thailand remains deeply divided more than seven years after a controversial military coup ousted then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra – Yingluck’s brother.
The kingdom has been periodically rocked by mass demonstrations by rival protest groups broadly allied or opposed to the tycoon-turned-politician, who wooed rural voters with policies such as affordable healthcare and micro-loans.
Thaksin is hated by many southerners, middle class Thais and members of the Bangkok elite who see him as authoritarian, corruption and a threat to the revered monarchy.
The deployment of security forces revived memories of a bloody crackdown on mass pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” rallies in 2010 under the previous government, using armed troops backed by armoured vehicles.
Unlike on that occasion, when scores were killed, there were no serious injuries in yesterday’s operation, which targeted an area of the government district where few demonstrators remained, rather than the main rally stages in the heart of the commercial district.
Labour Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, responsible for overseeing a state of emergency imposed in the capital, said officials would return to work at Government House on Monday.
He said sling-shots, illegal drugs and bomb-making materials were discovered at the rally site.
“Protesters – you should return home,” Chalerm said in a televised national address from the government headquarters.
“If you’re still stubborn we will gently enforce the law,” he added.
“The police are ready to disperse protesters but the prime minister told us not to use force to avoid loss of life.” — AFP