Asia-Pacific

Thursday 31 July 2014

Thai police down arms to join protesters on streets

David Eimer in Bangkok

Published 04/12/2013|01:00

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An anti-government protester hugs a riot policeman during a rally near in Bangkok. Inset: Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
An anti-government protester hugs a riot policeman during a rally near in Bangkok. Inset: Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The morning began as those before it: with the crack of homemade rocket launchers and the burst of petrol bombs thrown at police lines. As expected, riot police responded with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.

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But after a few minutes, they stopped returning fire and disappeared into their headquarters. When they emerged again at about 10am, they quietly began dismantling walls of concrete blocks and removing barbed wire.

It was a similar scene at the nearby Government House, the seat of embattled prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

After nine days of escalating tension and violence, which has claimed five lives and injured more than 100, riot police in Bangkok yesterday lowered their shields and left their heavily fortified positions, allowing demonstrators to claim victory.

RESIGN

Whether they had achieved more than a temporary ceasefire in the run-up to the Thai king's birthday tomorrow was far from clear. There was no sign last night that Ms Yingluck was about to bow to demands for her to resign, and if she called fresh elections she would almost certainly win again.

For a few hours, however, it seemed that the government had lost the will to resist. Bewildered protesters who had been fighting moments before, their faces covered by bandanas or anti-smog masks, began scaling overturned blast walls. They walked over shattered glass on the road, passing burned remains of a dozen police trucks.

Thousands waving the red, white and blue Thai flag swarmed across the lawn of Government House, taking photographs of themselves and shouting: "Victory belongs to the people!"

By lunchtime, the police were not in riot gear, but had Thai flags painted on their cheeks and were chatting with the protesters. Bottles of water were exchanged and food stands were set up as a battle zone turned into a picnic. "There are no problems now. It's all OK," smiled one officer.

Bee Wongchote, a marketing manager, expressed the widespread sense of relief. "We're pleased not to be fighting. Yesterday was very bad with all the violence," said the 32-year-old.

About 20 soldiers and police continued to guard the offices of the prime minister, whose whereabouts were unknown.

The abrupt ceasefire led to speculation that a deal had been struck behind closed doors, brokered by the army and the royal palace.

Were Ms Yingluck to step down or call fresh elections, it would mollify protesters in the short term. She is widely loathed as a proxy for her elder brother, the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was exiled after a military coup in 2006.

Her attempt to pass an amnesty law that could have let him back in the country led to the present turmoil. But her party still has overwhelming support among the poor.

If Ms Yingluck is still in power after the king's birthday, the streets could soon fill again.

"The government is still here and Yingluck is still a fake prime minister," said one protester. "I'll carry on protesting until she is gone." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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