BANGKOK: Thai police abandoned their defense of the besieged government headquarters on Tuesday, allowing protesters fighting to topple the prime minister to cross barricades in a dramatic move that eased tensions after violent clashes.
Several days of street battles between demonstrators and security forces suddenly gave way to hugs and smiles after police said they would no longer use force against protesters trying to storm Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s offices as well as their own headquarters.
The reason for the sudden change in tactics was unclear but the nation is preparing on Thursday to celebrate King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 86th birthday, a day normally marked in a spirit of calm and reverence for the monarch.
“There will be no use of tear gas today,” Metropolitan Police chief Lt. Gen. Kamronwit Thoopkrajang told Agence France-Presse. “If we resist there will be more injuries, and we are all Thais.”
The protests, aimed at unseating the elected government and replacing it with a “people’s council,” are the latest bout of unrest in the kingdom since royalist generals ousted Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup seven years ago.
Thailand’s long-running political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based elite backed by the military and the palace against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin, a billionaire businessman turned premier.
The latest battle played out on the streets of Bangkok has pitted a shrinking band of hardcore protesters against pro-Thaksin political forces who have won every election in more than a decade, most recently in 2011 under Yingluck.
In the latest twist, demonstrators were unexpectedly allowed to approach, and later enter, the grounds of Government House with no resistance from security forces. They massed in the compound for about an hour before leaving.
Several thousand protesters, many still wearing face masks and protective goggles, also streamed into the Metropolitan Police headquarters where they were seen shaking hands with officers. A bulldozer was used to remove the barricades.
The sudden turn of events caught even the demonstrators by surprise.
“I’m not sure but I think we have won now,” said Thanapatr Wiriyongatham, a 24-year-old politics student who was wearing a life jacket and clutching a dented cupboard door used as a makeshift shield against rubber bullets.
“We will stop for the king’s birthday. If Yingluck is still here we will fight again.”
Thailand’s worst political violence in years
On Monday police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon to fend off rock-throwing demonstrators for a second day, after weekend unrest that left several dead and scores wounded.
It is the kingdom’s worst political violence since a deadly military crackdown on pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts” rallies in 2010, although the recent clashes have been largely confined to certain parts of the city, away from main tourist districts.
An arrest warrant has been issued for current protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban for insurrection.
In her first televised address since the weeks-long protests descended into violence at the weekend, Yingluck said Monday the protest leader’s demands were unconstitutional.
The embattled premier said she would have considered resigning or calling an election if her opponents had not already ruled out these moves as insufficient. She insisted the government was open to “every option” to restore peace.
Yingluck flew to the seaside resort of Hua Hin on Tuesday to attend a dress rehearsal for the king’s birthday.