Thailand’s government pleaded with police yesterday to arrest opposition protest leaders who have threatened to take the prime minister captive and paralyzed parts of central Bangkok.
Officials said the demonstrators’ self-styled “shutdown” of Bangkok, aimed at forcing Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office, appeared to be losing momentum, with a dwindling number of protesters on the streets.
Leaders of the anti-government movement still travel freely around the city delivering fiery speeches and collecting money from supporters, despite warrants for their arrest for their roles in civil unrest that has left eight dead and hundreds injured.
Rally leader Suthep Thaugsuban faces an insurrection charge — in theory punishable by death — in connection with the protests, as well as a murder charge linked to a military crackdown on opposition protests that left dozens dead when he was deputy premier in 2010.
“It’s the duty of the police to arrest Suthep because he is wanted for insurrection, otherwise police will face malfeasance charges,” Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said after a meeting with the national police chief.
Surapong said Suthep, a former opposition member of parliament, was protected by about 40 personal bodyguards.
Some observers believe the veteran political power broker is unlikely to go to jail because he enjoys the support of the kingdom’s royalist establishment.
The protesters want Yingluck to resign to make way for an unelected “people’s council” that would oversee reforms to curb the political dominance of her billionaire family.
National Police Chief Adul Saengsingkaew said 7,000 protesters were estimated to remain on the streets yesterday morning, down from 23,000 the previous evening. Turnout tends to rise when people leave work.
“Many protesters have returned to the south,” Adul said.
There have been several drive-by shootings by unknown gunmen at the rally sites.
Seemingly running out of ideas for new targets, having already temporarily surrounded many key state buildings, demonstrators marched to the government’s revenue department yesterday.
Yingluck’s supporters say the rallies are a threat to the country’s fragile democracy and want the dispute to be settled at the ballot box, but the opposition is boycotting a Feb. 2 election.
The prime minister is also facing several legal threats, including a decision later yesterday by an anti-corruption panel on whether to take action in connection with graft allegations surrounding her government’s rice farming subsidy scheme.
The deadlock is the latest twist of a political crisis that has gripped Thailand since Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin, was ousted in a military coup seven years ago.
The rallies were triggered by a failed amnesty bill that could have allowed Thaksin to return without going to jail for a past corruption conviction.
The billionaire tycoon-turned-politician has strong electoral support in northern Thailand, but he is reviled by many southerners, Bangkok’s middle class and members of the royalist establishment.