BANGKOK – Thai opposition protesters on Saturday refused to end their rallies in Bangkok despite a vow by police to clear more demonstration sites, following an operation to reclaim the besieged government headquarters.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government is attempting to seize back key state buildings after more than three months of mass protests seeking to curb the political domination of her billionaire family.
On Friday police with shields and riot helmets, some carrying rifles, met little resistance as they cleared areas around Government House, which Yingluck had been unable to use for about two months.
But there were no arrests or serious clashes, and demonstrators were later seen rebuilding their makeshift barricades.
The security operation is focused on government offices rather than major intersections in the commercial centre that have become the main focus of the rallies in recent weeks as part of what protesters have described as the “Bangkok shutdown”.
So far the authorities have not announced any plan to clear those intersections, where several thousand protesters gather each evening to hear free concerts and speeches.
“We will continue fighting. We will not be shaken by the police operation,” a spokesman for the anti-government movement, Akanat Promphan, said Saturday.
“No matter whether police succeed in reclaiming the rally sites or not, we will keep on protesting,” he added.
On Saturday about 1,200 police were mobilized to try to reclaim a government complex in Chaeng Wattana in the north of the capital, National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabut told AFP.
But they later appeared to have retreated, after the two sides agreed to hold talks about re-opening the complex, which has been occupied by demonstrators led by a saffron-robed monk who has emerged as a key figure in the anti-government movement.
An aide to the monk-turned-protest leader Luang Pu Buddha Issara — who faces an arrest warrant for his role in the rallies — said the protesters “will not give up”, but later confirmed that negotiations would take place on Sunday.
The government has so far appeared reluctant to use force against the protesters, despite declaring a state of emergency last month that gives authorities the power to ban public gatherings of more than five people.
Attendance at the rallies has fallen sharply compared with December and January, when at the peak of the demonstrations tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of people took to the streets.
Thailand has been periodically rocked by mass demonstrations by rival protest groups since a controversial military coup in 2006 that ousted then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra — Yingluck’s brother.
At least 10 people have been killed and hundreds injured in violence linked to the latest round of protests.
The deployment of security forces has 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.
Yingluck’s opponents say her government is controlled by Thaksin, who fled overseas in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction and now lives in Dubai.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election for more than a decade, most recently in 2011 under Yingluck, helped by strong support in the northern half of the kingdom.
The tycoon-turned-politician is hated by many southerners, middle class Thais and members of the Bangkok elite who accuse him of rampant corruption.
Anti-government protesters disrupted a general election held earlier this month that was boycotted by the main opposition Democrat Party.
Demonstrators prevented 10,000 polling stations from opening in the election, affecting several million people.
The protesters want Yingluck to stand down to make way for an unelected “People’s Council” to enact reforms to tackle corruption and alleged vote-buying before new polls are held.
The Election Commission has set a date of April 27 for election re-runs in constituencies where voting was obstructed by protesters.