About 1,500 anti-government protesters forced their way into the compound of Thailand’s army headquarters yesterday, the latest escalation in a citywide demonstration seeking to topple Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
“We want to know which side the army stands on,” one protester shouted, as others scrambled over the compound’s red iron gates in Bangkok’s historic quarter.
In another district, about 1,000 gathered outside Yingluck’s ruling party headquarters, shouting: “Get out, get out.” The protesters dispersed hours later from both places.
The invasion of the army headquarters deepens a conflict broadly pitting the urban middle class against the mostly rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and who remains central to Thailand’s eight years of on-off turmoil.
The demonstrators accuse Yingluck of abusing her party’s parliamentary majority to push through laws that strengthen the behind-the-scenes power of her self-exiled, billionaire brother. They have rejected her repeated calls for dialogue.
Although the army moved its main command center to a military camp in Bangkok’s northern suburbs three days ago, the siege of its grounds by protesters is deeply symbolic and highlights the military’s pivotal role in a country that has seen 18 successful or attempted coups in the past 80 years.
After forcing open the compound’s wrought-iron front gates, protesters swarmed inside, demanding that Thailand’s generals choose sides. About 100 soldiers stood guard. Hundreds watched from the balconies of the 19th-century cream-colored building.
“We want the head of Thailand’s armed forces to choose whether they stand by the government or with the people,” Uthai Yodmanee, a protest leader, said from the back of a truck.
Yingluck has publicly courted Thailand’s powerful military, which has remained neutral in this bout of protests.
“The army wishes all sides to solve the problem with the country’s best interests in mind,” deputy army spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree said.
Compare that with 2008, when the military sided with protesters who helped to topple two Thaksin-allied governments.
In October 2008, after bloody clashes between police and demonstrators rallying against then-prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, then-army chief Anupong Paochinda publicly urged Somchai to step down to take responsibility for the violence.
Memories of that help explain why Yingluck appears to have studiously avoided a confrontation during six days of protests against her government.
Police have remained restrained, separated by gates and razor wire from protesters who at times pelt them with water bottles and shout insults.
The protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, a deputy prime minister in the previous government, told thousands of supporters occupying a state office complex late on Thursday that “the end game will happen in the next day or two.”
Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, former prime minister of a military-backed government that Yingluck routed in a 2011 election, joined the protests yesterday, along with other senior Democrats, including former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij.
“When the government acts above the law, the people no longer need to respect the government,” Korn told a crowd of thousands in Bangkok’s Asoke commercial district.