BANGKOK, Thailand -- Hundreds of demonstrators forced their way into Thailand’s army headquarters Friday, the latest building targeted in anti-government protests aimed at unseating Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Shortly after noon, protesters breached the gate of the army compound in central Bangkok and remained inside for about two hours without entering any buildings before drifting off. Demonstrators gave speeches and were heard demanding that the army take a side in the showdown.
The army, which had already moved its command center to another area, has staged numerous coups or attempted coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
The move on the army headquarters follows the occupation since Monday of the finance ministry and sporadic demonstrations at the foreign, agriculture and interior ministries, part of an effort to grind the administration to a halt.
Elsewhere in the capital, one protest group marched to the ruling Pheu Thai party’s headquarters while another comprising several thousand gathered outside the U.S. Embassy, where a representative delivered an open letter decrying the Yingluck government. "Shinawatra Family Go To Hell," read one placard.
“We ask the American people to see with your own eyes the thousands of people gathered here,” said Korn Chatikavanij, a former finance minister and critic of the current government, “peacefully wanting what Americans have taken for granted, which is a legitimate government and a country where everyone has the same status under the law of the land.”
The crisis was sparked by a bill in parliament last month that would have granted amnesty for Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon and former premier. Thaksin remains in self-imposed exile following a 2008 conviction on corruption charges. Critics have accused Yingluck of being a puppet for her contentious brother.
The amnesty bill, which would have paved the way for Thaksin’s return, was blocked in the Senate on Nov. 11. But its introduction enraged critics of populist Thaksin, a polarizing figure who draws his support largely from the rural poor but is loathed by many prosperous urban Thais supportive of the military and monarchy.
“Thaksin only wants to make himself and his family richer,” said Sarapee Nilwichien, a protester who traveled from Ranong, near Thailand's border with Myanmar, to take part in demonstrations.
Thailand's police are seen as affiliated with Thaksin, a former policeman, while the army is viewed with suspicion by his supporters.
Yingluck, elected in 2011 by a wide margin, easily survived a no-confidence vote on Thursday and has pledged not to use force against demonstrators, hoping they lose steam. But her strategy could backfire if protesters disrupt government offices for an extended period, making her look weak and ineffective.
Her accommodating approach was on display in a brief televised statement shortly after the vote. “The government is ready to open a space for dialogue,” she said in the latest plea for protest leaders to sit down and talk, adding that her administration was willing to listen to all sides, “including those who are still occupying the governmental offices.”
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former lawmaker with the opposition Democratic party, has turned down repeated invitations to negotiate, vowing to continue protesting until Thaksin’s “political machine” is expunged.
Nor is it clear the Democratic party has the support or vision to take over a new government, analysts said, which could deepen the standoff. Among Suthep’s proposals is to replace the elected parliament with one partially appointed, prompting some to question his commitment to democracy.
Protesters have been peaceful over the last week. But the government has upped the stakes by issuing an arrest warrant for Suthep that some fear could spark violence. “The protest lacks righteousness,” Police Chief Adul Sangsingkeo told a press conference. “What they are doing is destroying the country.”
Analysts said the government is in a bit of a bind. "It is a tough challenge," said Puangthong R. Pawakapan, associate professor of international relations at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. "If [Yingluck] cracks down, there will be injuries, and the protest leaders will use that to draw more people. If she lets the protests continue, the government will look like it cannot keep law and order."
Thaksin became prime minister in 2001 by appealing to citizens who have not shared in Thailand’s prosperity. He became the first popularly elected leader to serve out his full term, in a country with a history of military meddling.
But a year into his second term in 2006, he was ousted by the military while on a trip to New York. Two years later, he fled overseas shortly before his conviction on graft and abuse-of-power charges he said were politically motivated. He’s lived since then in self-imposed exile in Dubai and London. In 2010, a court seized $1.4 billion in family assets, although he’s still believed to be quite wealthy.
A two-month protest by his supporters in 2010 saw over 90 people killed after the army ended it in a crackdown. The many protests and policy shifts in recent years have done little to address deep divisions in Thai society between have’s and have-not’s that’s at the root of the latest crisis, analysts said.
Special correspondent Roughneen reported from Bangkok and Magnier reported from Aurangabad, India.