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Thai Protests Swell As "People's Coup" Forces Prime Minister Into Hiding

Thai Protests Swell As "People's Coup" Forces Prime Minister Into Hiding
Mon, 12/2/2013
This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera America

About 30,000 protesters launched a "people's coup" on Thailand's government on Sunday, swarming state agencies in violent clashes, taking control of a state broadcaster and forcing the prime minister to flee a police compound and go into hiding.

But after a day of skirmishes between protesters hurling stones and petrol bombs against riot police who fired back with teargas, the demonstrators failed to breach heavily barricaded Government House, where the office of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is located.

Protests in Bangkok have turned increasingly chaotic and violent in the past several days, leading to at least four deaths and 53 injuries, and prompting the Thai government to urge Bangkok residents to stay indoors from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

But the government's wish for calm has done little to quell protesters, who are demanding that Prime Minister Yingluck step down. The protesters feel she is a figurehead for her brother, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

In a surprise move, Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the anti-government protests said Sunday that he had met with the prime minister, telling her that he would accept nothing less than her government stepping down.

"If Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra listens to the people's voices and returns the power to the people, we will treat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra with politeness because we all are good citizens," he said.

Spokesmen for both the prime minister and the army said they were too junior to comment on any meeting.

On Sunday night, small fires burned from homemade gas bombs that landed near police trucks. Protesters pulled at barbed wire fences as others washed teargas from their eyes with bottled water.

Demonstrators have started to up the ante and briefly occupied the headquarters of the army on Friday, urging it to join them in a complex power struggle centered on the enduring political influence of Yingluck's billionaire brother, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

They have for the past week occupied or besieged government offices in what they describe as a civil disobedience campaign. They have vowed to seize the prime minister's offices on Sunday.

Thai protest leader: "Government has no more than three days left"

Prime Minister Yingluck has faced down several legal and institutional challenges in recent weeks from the opposition Democrat Party, many of whose members have taken to the streets with the anti-government protesters.

The protests escalated after her ruling Puea Thai party tried to introduce an amnesty that could have allowed Thaksin's return, and have continued despite the Senate's rejection of the bill.

Puea Thai came to power in 2011 elections on a wave of Thaksin support, after a bloody 2010 military crackdown on Red Shirt protests under the then Democrat-led government left some 90 people dead.

Thaksin is adored by many of the country's rural and urban working class but hated by many southerners, middle-class Thais and the Bangkok elite, who see him as corrupt and a threat to the monarchy.

The protesters have accused the government of acting unlawfully, after senior members of the ruling Puea Thai Party refused to accept a Nov. 20 Constitutional Court ruling that rejected their proposal for a fully elected Senate, which would have boosted the party's electoral clout. Puea Thai says the judiciary has no right to intervene in the legislative branch.

The ruling casts a spotlight on Thailand's politicized courts, which annulled an election won by Thaksin in 2006 on a technicality and later dissolved his Thai Rak Thai Party for electoral fraud. Its next incarnation, the People's Power Party, suffered the same fate. Nearly 150 executives of both parties were banned for five years.

Yellow Shirts

A mix of royalists, southerners and the urban middle class, the government's opponents are collectively called the Yellow Shirt movement and are united by their dislike for Thaksin.

Thaksin, a one-time telecom tycoon lives in self-imposed exile, but he is widely believed to be the real power behind the government of his younger sister Yingluck.

Protesters were demanding the removal of the "Thaksin regime" and the replacement of the government with an unelected "people's council."

Suthep Thaugsuban, the protest leader and a former Thai deputy prime minister, said the demonstrators remained "very upbeat."

"If we demolish the Thaksin regime ... we will set up a people's council, which will come from people from every sector," he said.

The tension heightens a nearly decade-long conflict that broadly pits Thailand's traditional establishment of top generals, royalists and the urban middle class against the mostly rural, northern supporters of Thaksin.

Reporting from the city's center, Al Jazeera's Scott Heidler said the government had made an effort to keep the Red Shirts away from the Yellow Shirts.

"They have kept the two sides separate, mainly because they are very concerned about these protests turning violent," he said.

Turnout was expected to surge in the coming days as organizers seek a final push before celebrations for Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej's birthday on Dec. 5, which is traditionally marked in an atmosphere of calm and respect.

The protest organizers have declared Sunday a "day of victory," with plans to gather near the heavily guarded Government House, besiege more important buildings — even Bangkok's zoo — and to tighten their blockade of government ministries.

Originally published by Al Jazeera America

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