Riot police cleared anti-government protesters from a major boulevard in the Thai capital in a small victory for authorities yesterday as they try to reclaim areas that have been closed during a three-month push to unseat Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Hundreds of helmeted police with riot shields met no resistance as they dismantled a sprawling protest camp in Bangkok’s historic quarter near the prime minister’s office compound, known as Government House. The office has been closed since December last year by protesters camped nearby.
Anxious to avoid violence, police retreated from another protest venue after hundreds of demonstrators refused to leave.
The operation, which came on a national holiday when offices were closed, marked the first time in three months that police have successfully entered and cleared a protest area. However, the significance of reclaiming one street was not immediately clear, given the protesters’ continued occupation of several areas in central Bangkok.
Police moved in as the total number of full-time protesters dwindled sharply to about 5,000 from more than 150,000 late last year, according to police estimates.
“The prime minister asked us to deal with the protesters gently,” said Chalerm Yubumrung, the head of the government’s special command center set up to oversee security.
He called yesterday’s operation “an example” of what authorities plan to do at other protest sites.
“We are telling the protesters to go home. If they do not listen, we will push more,” he told reporters at a news conference held inside Government House for the first time since December.
The protesters are demanding that Yingluck’s administration be replaced by a non-elected “people’s council,” which would implement reforms they say are needed to end corruption and money politics. They have battled police on several occasions and have been targeted in several attacks for which no one has been apprehended.
At least 10 people have been killed and scores injured during Thailand’s biggest anti-government street rallies in years.
The only injury yesterday morning was a local newspaper photographer whose leg was hurt by a small firecracker device. It was not known who threw the object, but the protesters have used so-called “ping-pong” bombs filled with explosives in previous confrontations.
As police entered the protest zone near Government House, they called for cooperation through a megaphone: “It is necessary for the police to clear this area. For your own safety please strictly follow police instructions.”
There was no resistance from protesters, who had abandoned the site and regrouped elsewhere before police arrived.
The riot squads tore down a sandbagged barrier that had closed a major boulevard to traffic. They dismantled tents where the protests had camped out overnight and searched for weapons. Authorities said they confiscated slingshots, firecrackers and a variety of materials they said could be used for explosives, including a small bag of urea, metal objects and other items.
A more tense encounter occurred in a northern suburb of Bangkok, where protesters have set up a stage that blocks the entrance to a complex of government buildings, which has forced many offices to relocate.
Hundreds of police faced off with protesters who refused to budge, and police then retreated.