Protesters and police observed a temporary truce yesterday as Thailand prepared to mark the birthday of its revered king, after police had stepped back in a dramatic move to calm violent clashes.
In the day’s only significant demonstration, hundreds of protesters descended on the national police headquarters in Bangkok’s downtown shopping district, where police allowed them to cut barbed wire and pull away sections of a concrete barrier. The demonstrators withdrew shortly afterwards.
The prevailing mood was calm in the capital, as demonstrators joined Bangkok authorities to clean up the area around Democracy Monument, where tens of thousands have camped out in more than a month of rallies against the embattled government of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The area is a focus for the celebrations on Thursday for the 86th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej — a date normally observed in a spirit of calm and reverence.
Several days of street battles abruptly paused on Tuesday. Protesters instead handed police flowers after officers said they would no longer use force against demonstrators trying to storm Yingluck’s offices as well as the city police headquarters.
The unexpected about-turn followed two days of clashes between stone-throwing crowds and police firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.
Protest leaders say they have not abandoned their campaign to overthrow Yingluck’s administration and curb the political influence of her billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by royalist generals in a coup seven years ago.
They say he still controls the government from exile.
Authorities were not worried about the gathering at the police headquarters, said Paradorn Pattanatabut, head of Thailand’s National Security Council.
King Bhumibol, the world’s longest-serving monarch, is treated as a near-deity by many and any violence on his birthday would be viewed as a serious sign of disrespect.
At the main rally site yesterday, protesters began to sweep up rubbish in preparation for the royal festivities.
“We’re helping to clean up for the king as it is nearly his birthday,” said Palita Nutchoei, 37, wielding a broom at Democracy Monument.
However, “we will keep protesting because we feel that we haven’t won yet”, she added.
The 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-populist politician.
The demonstrations, aimed at toppling Yingluck’s government and replacing it with an unelected “people’s council,” are the biggest and most violent since dozens of people were killed in a crackdown on mass pro-Thaksin rallies in Bangkok three years ago.
Police yesterday raised the death toll in the clashes to five, confirming that the remains of a young man were found on a bus set ablaze in a Bangkok suburb over the weekend.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Thai deputy premier, said late on Tuesday the fight to unseat the government was not over.
An arrest warrant for insurrection was issued for Suthep on Monday and authorities yesterday called for him to hand himself in.