Thai police abandoned their defense of the besieged government headquarters yesterday, allowing unruly protesters to cross barricades in a dramatic move that eased tensions ahead of the revered king’s birthday.
Several days of street battles between demonstrators and security forces suddenly gave way to hugs and smiles after police said they would no longer use force against protesters trying to storm Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s offices as well as police headquarters.
The sudden change in tactics came as the nation prepares to celebrate King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 86th birthday tomorrow, a day normally marked in a spirit of calm and reverence for the monarch.
“There’s a mutual understanding that everything must be calm and orderly on this auspicious day,” Thai National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabut said.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Thai deputy premier, said the fight to unseat the government was not over.
“It’s a partial victory, but it’s not final because the regime is still in place. You cannot go back home yet. We have to continue our struggle,” he told his supporters.
Thailand’s 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.
In the latest twist, demonstrators were unexpectedly allowed to approach, and later enter, the grounds of Government House with no resistance from security forces. They massed in the compound for about an hour before leaving.
Several thousand protesters, many still wearing face masks and protective goggles against the threat of tear gas, also streamed into the Metropolitan Police headquarters where they were seen shaking hands with officers. A bulldozer was used to remove the barricades.
The sudden turn of events caught even the demonstrators by surprise.
“I’m not sure but I think we have won now,” said Thanapatr Wiriyongatham, a 24-year-old politics student who was wearing a life jacket and clutching a dented cupboard door used as a makeshift shield against rubber bullets.
On Monday police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon to fend off rock-throwing demonstrators after weekend unrest that left several dead and scores wounded.
It is the kingdom’s worst political violence since a deadly military crackdown on pro-Thaksin Red Shirts in 2010, although the recent clashes have been largely confined to certain parts of the city, away from main tourist districts.
An arrest warrant has been issued for Suthep, the protest leader, for insurrection.
In her first televised address since the weeks-long protests descended into violence at the weekend, Yingluck said on Monday the protest leader’s demands were unconstitutional.
The prime minister said she would have considered resigning or calling an election if her opponents had not already ruled out these moves as insufficient. She insisted the government was open to “every option” to restore peace.