BANGKOK: The political crisis that has shaken Thailand’s capital for more than a week suddenly eased Tuesday after the prime minister ordered police to stop battling anti-government protesters. The move was timed to coincide with celebrations of the king’s birthday later this week, a holiday that holds deep significance in the Southeast Asian nation. In a sharp reversal in strategy that followed two days of increasingly fierce street fighting, riot police lowered their shields and walked away from heavily fortified positions around Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s office at Government House.
Shortly afterward, thousands of jubilant demonstrators waving the red, white and blue Thai flag swarmed across the compound’s grassy lawn, snapping photos of themselves with cellphones and screaming “Victory belongs to the people!” Yingluck was not there at the time.
The government move was widely seen as offering demonstrators a face-saving way out, and the government expressed hope it would defuse a conflict that has killed four people and wounded more than 256 in the last three days alone. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, however, vowed to keep up what has become an audacious struggle to topple Yingluck and keep her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, from returning to power.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup, and Yingluck’s rivals have accused her of being his puppet.
“You can rest assured that this is a victory that is only partial ... because the tyrannical Thaksin government endures,” Suthep said. “We must continue fighting.”
The latest unrest in Thailand emanates from a deep societal schism that has plagued the country for nearly a decade. The conflict pits a poor rural majority that largely backs the Shinawatra family against an urban-based elite that opposes it. The latter camp draws support from the army and staunch royalists who see the Shinawatras as a corrupt threat to their business interests and the monarchy.
After seizing several government ministries last week and smashing barricades with bulldozers and commandeered police trucks in street fighting that erupted this weekend in isolated pockets of the city, the protesters refused all offers to negotiate.
Instead, they demanded that Yingluck’s government hand power to an unelected council that would appoint a new premier, a demand Yingluck flatly rejected.
Many political observers and Thai academics see the protesters’ demands as unreasonable, if not absurd. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party was elected with an overwhelming majority in 2011 and is currently unbeatable at the polls.
In a brief televised statement Thursday, Yingluck acknowledged that more needed to be done to resolve the political divide. She proposed inviting people from all walks of life to a forum to exchange views and “reform the political situation.”
“I myself want to see a solution that will bring peace to the people in the long term,” she said.
The crisis began last month after the ruling party tried to ram an amnesty bill through Parliament that critics said was designed to bring Thaksin back. Thaksin resides in Dubai to avoid serving a jail term for a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated.
The bill failed to pass both legislative houses and protesters, sensing weakness, staged mass rallies that eventually spiraled into serious violence.